For many career-loving parents, the holidays come as a welcome reprieve: a chance to enjoy a few slow weeks at work, unwind with the kiddos, and stuff their faces full of seasonal treats. Many parents look forward to the holidays.
But not me. And it’s not because I don’t love my family. It’s because—and there’s really no nice way to say this—I suck at the holidays. My weaknesses as a parent and a professional woman seem to become more pronounced when combined with the smell of a newly cut Christmas tree or a freshly baked pie. I over-plan, over-commit, and shop at the last minute. I worry about work when I’m at home and worry about home when I’m at work. I essentially spend the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years looking (and feeling) like a tightly wound ball of tinsel.
This year, though, I’m determined to handle things differently. My son will turn two just a few weeks before Christmas, and, unlike the past two years, he’ll actually understand what all those presents under the tree mean. I want to enjoy the holiday, not plow through it.
I’ve also come to realize that the stress I—and many other working moms—feel over the holidays is essentially just a concentrated version of the work-life balance challenges we struggle with all year. It’s as if the holidays are a final exam, an end-of-the-year evaluation of your ability to be both a mom and productive employee.
My go-to move for guidance is to poll my extensive network of like-minded career-loving moms. But, after spending a few minutes studying my husband’s placid expression as he perused our crowded—unmanageable!—list of holiday commitments, I decided that I needed to speak to some working dads. What are they doing that I’m not?
Here’s what I learned.
1. They’re “Turning Off” Their Parent Brain (and Not Feeling Bad About It)
I started with Matt Sweetwood, father of five adult children he raised completely on his own after their emotionally unstable mother left them. When his wife left, his youngest child was 18 months old. To say that it was a stressful time is a clearly an understatement, and yet he managed to continue to build his business (now one of the largest privately owned photographic supply distributors in the world), manage his staff of over 100 employees, and simultaneously help his children manage the difficult emotions that accompanied the painful divorce.
When I asked him how he did it, he contributed much of his success, in both business and parenting, to his ability to “compartmentalize” his life. “When I got to work, I turned my parent brain off. And when I was at home, I turned my work brain off. That ability is one of my biggest strengths,” says Sweetwood.
I was particularly struck by this statement because I have ambivalent feelings about “turning it off” at the office. Shouldn’t my son be in the forefront of my mind 24/7? Perhaps my problem isn’t an inability to be present in the moment and only focus on the task at hand, but rather a reluctance to do so. If this strategy could help Sweetwood navigate a life-altering crisis, surely it could help me enjoy a few stressful weeks of the year.
2. When They Can’t Turn Their Parent Brain Off, They’re Using it as a Strength
I began my conversation with Brent Almond, award-winning graphic designer and founder of Designer Daddy, a creative blog chronicling his journey as a gay, part-time-work-at-home dad and graphic artist, with Sweetwood’s compartmentalization method in mind, and wondered if he would share a similar strategy. Brent told me that when he and his husband adopted their son, he immediately felt its effect on his work as a graphic designer. “I felt less organized, and, in some ways, less driven,” he said.
But instead of feeling defeated by his change in passions, he leveraged it. “My design always had a playful, colorful style to it, which transitioned easily into Designer Daddy.” Brent has transformed Designer Daddy into a revenue producing, part-time career (in addition to his graphic design and daddy duties) in blogging, now contributing to Huffington Post and The Good Men Project.
As a working mom, I spend a lot of energy segmenting my identities as a professional woman and a mother. During the holidays, this requires greater effort, as I find myself misty-eyed at the office reminiscing about my son’s first Christmas—those pajamas with the reindeer!—and less focused at home as I mentally run through the slide decks of my endless line-up of year-end presentations. While I don’t always succeed at turning one part of my brain off, as Sweetwood does, I do my best to make sure it appears as if I am. Brent, on the other hand, found a way to integrate those identities and doesn’t shy away from letting one set of passions inform the other.
3. They’re Running Their Family Like They Run Their Business
A number of fathers I spoke to—from CEOs to graduate students—seemed to simply apply the strategies they use during the workday to organizing and managing their family life, especially during the holidays: shared Outlook calendars, Sunday night meetings with their partner about the plan for the week, strictly kept budgets, and mandated “unplugged time,” when work-related technology is silenced.
Are you noticing a pattern here? It seems like these laid-back dads have one thing in common: a meaningful decision to either segment or integrate parenthood and professional life, with no guilt involved. When blending boundaries works—do it. When it doesn’t—don’t.
Of course, it’s important to point out that that many successful working parents of both genders adapt this same philosophy every day. In fact, a March 2014 study by Harvard Business Review, which analyzed interviews with 4,000 high-achieving executives, found that mixing personal and professional identities was frequently on the mind of leaders of both genders. Executives who favored “integration of professional and personal networks,” for example, found it a relief to be “the same person” in both spheres. Those who separate their work lives from their private lives appreciate “a counterbalance to work.”
But many more women than men keep their personal and professional lives separate because they don’t want to harm their professional reputation. The Harvard researchers found that “some never mention their families at work because they don’t want to appear unprofessional. A few female executives won’t discuss their careers—or even mention that they have jobs—in conversations outside work.”
Perhaps the bottom line is that men don’t see a conflict between working and parenting, as it’s what they always expected they would do, and, more importantly, what our culture has always expected them to do. Even those in “nontraditional roles”—like single dad Sweetwood and same-sex parent Almond—didn’t question that running their own businesses while being a father was a given. Women, on the other hand, are constantly being told that being a working mother is a “choice” they make. This tension becomes heightened during the holidays, when many working moms (this one included) find themselves forced to “prove” that they can juggle family and professional commitments.
So, this year, with the guidance I gleaned from these working dads, I have a new plan. First, I’m running the holiday season like I would run any major marketing campaign, with a spreadsheeted budget, delegated tasks (shopping, cooking, cleaning), and tight timeline. Second, from December 23 at 5 PM until January 2 at 9 AM, I am turning off my working brain. No work email, no work calls—just holiday cheer with my family. And finally, when I inevitably break that rule and check my email on Christmas, I am going to forgive myself, because I am one whole, flawed person—a mom, a marketer, a writer, and a worrier.