One day a few years ago, I arrived home from work to discover my oldest son, then in eighth grade, barricaded in his room doing homework. At the time his conversations with me had morphed to monosyllabic grunts as he sequestered himself ever more deeply. Between his highly competitive high school and my travel schedule, I was about to miss out on an important relationship.
In a flash, I realized that this is where it happens -- where men turn into the husbands and fathers they swore never to be. By following their ambitions, careers and often deluded definitions of success, they neglect the important relationships that feed them. If busy executives don’t invest in those relationships, eventually the wheels come off the family bus.
I feared that if I didn’t do something about it, the time to be the father I wanted to be would pass, never to return. Children would have grown and much water disappeared under the bridge of my marriage.
At the time, I was craving success like an addict and driving my career hard. I had recently organized and led a turnaround of a public company. And just at the very moment when I had achieved my goals for the company and was at the top of my game, I engaged in a radical act of fatherhood. I walked away from a lucrative and engaging job and all but burned my bridges. Together with my wife and four children, I pulled up stakes and decamped to Bali for the better part of a year.
I learned many things while we were away. After years of intense stimulation in the business world, I learned to be still, attentive and available to my children. I learned to be mindful, present and creative. I learned to appreciate beauty, joy and love. And I learned all of that so that one day my children could inherit a legacy of values rather than possessions. Today, years later, as I watch my children, now growing into young adulthood, interact with and enjoy each other, I smile knowing that the investment is paying big dividends. And I have returned to my career, just as dedicated and passionate, but with a more grounded and compassionate tone.
I know a sabbatical is not in everyone’s reach. Still, there are simple, less radical and risky ways to give children the present of presence. Here are some ideas to consider:
Share joyful experiences. In Bali, I took up drawing, mostly as an experiment but also as a way to enter into a state of “flow,” complete immersion in an activity where the mind is quiet and free of distractions. Ego falls away, and in its place, a feeling of oneness with the activity takes hold. I have kept up with it since returning from Bali, and to my delight, a son and daughter have been taken by the art as well, and flow is an experience we share.
Do less and be more. I once met a woman from Poland who had recently moved to New York. She thought the polite answer to “How are you?” was “Really busy.” Slow down, don’t get everything done before being available to your kids. The urgencies of work can be overwhelming, but consider taking a moment to just be wholeheartedly with your kids.
Bring the power of intention to parenting. Being at your kid’s ballgame but having your nose in your phone is akin to sleepwalking though your children’s best years. Instead, wake up and give your kid the magic of your attention. Engage in real conversation. Look them in the eye and take a beat before responding, in order to send the message that you are truly listening. Your ears eyes, and touch are your best tools for showing your children you are present and grateful for them. For a kid -- for anyone -- being heard is a prerequisite for being understood, and who doesn’t want to be understood, especially by their parents?
Stay positive. Evolution has taught us to give greater attention to possible danger than to present pleasures. Although most of us now live in a modern world free of tigers, snakes and marauding tribes, our brains still churn out primeval anxiety. Most us must work at overcoming nature's innate negative bias so we can teach our kids a positive attitude that makes for happy family life and may even help inoculate children from depression later in life.
Recognize the power of now. See if you can focus on the infinitesimal moment of now. Right here, right now, how do you want to spend your time? Here’s a mental exercise: Imagine that this Father’s Day is last day of your life. How would you spend it? If you’re like me, you’d spend it with the people you love most.
This Father’s Day consider a radical idea: Instead of receiving a gift, give one. Offer your kids the present of presence. After our sabbatical, I felt my family and I had been reborn. But you don’t need anything as drastic as that to rejuvenate and reconnect. All you need to do is to make a deliberate choice to be intentional and present. That will be a gift for both you and your kids.
Ben Feder is author of Take Off Your Shoes: One Man’s Journey from the Boardroom to Bali and Back.
Photo by Derek Thomson/Unsplash
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