Dads in International Development Weigh In on Work-Life Balance (Part 1 of 2)

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Long working hours, extensive international travel, and late night (or early morning) conference calls are often expected of international development professionals. And for those who are raising kids, it can be challenging to balance these demands with the needs of family. To celebrate Father’s Day, I asked dads who work in aid & international development to share tips or advice on work-life balance.

As happened when I asked working moms in international development to share their thoughts on their challenges, I heard a wealth of feedback and information. Rather than overwhelm you with it all (who has time to read a long blog post, anyway?) I’ve split it into two blog posts: Part 1 today and Part 2 to follow.

Habits

International development & aid work can be unpredictable – dealing with the latest crisis, unexpected work travel, or late-night conference calls planned at the last minute. Yet children typically benefit from some semblance of routine. Some dads strive to build habits into their regular work weeks that keep them connected to their families.

“I make a point of taking my small children to school in the morning so that we at least have some regular time together before the work schedule takes over my day,” shares an expat manager at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines, and father of an eight-year-old and a six-year-old. “It immediately puts me in a good mood to see them off to class.”

Ian Thorpe

“I try to keep fixed and reasonable office hours – so that I can have breakfast with my children before I go to work, and am home in time to put them to bed when I get home,” says Ian Thorpe, who works at the UN knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation; blogs at KM on a Dollar a Day, and is dad of three kids ages 10, 8 and 8 (twins). “If I need to work extra hours, I do it from home, before they get up or after they have gone to bed.”

Boundaries

Yet sticking to those good habits, such as leaving work each evening in time to see the kids before their bedtime, requires setting boundaries. Ian finds that “this sometimes requires being firm with colleagues who want to stay late or work on something, or with a boss who calls you into a long discussion at 5:45 – but I do my best to stick with it and to let people know when they can and cannot expect me to be physically present in the office. I think as long as people know your schedule and know you are pulling your weight, it’s possible to avoid a lot of the late nights in the office and not seeing the family.”

Leaving the office at a family-friendly time has another benefit: it sets a good example. “Often, international development professionals are in supervisory roles to several national staff,” points out MW, an international development professional based in Southeast Asia, and father of a 10-month-old. “Leaving the office on time on a regular basis also models good work-life balance priorities to national staff. I think in most cultures, many people feel uncomfortable being seen leaving the office before the boss does. So international development professionals who regularly leave the office on time give freedom to their staff to do the same.”

Flexibility

Taking advantage of – or creating – the flexibility to work from home can make a big difference.

Aaron Ausland

“One of the things I’ve done is push hard to make extensive use of my home office,” says Aaron Ausland, Director, Independent Research and Evaluation, World Vision International; blogger at Staying for Tea; and dad of two kids, ages 6 and 2. “Last year I traveled to 13 different countries and was gone for about a third of the year. What helped offset this was the ability to be home when I wasn’t out of the country. This enabled me to make those small daily trade-offs that balanced my work and family demands. The ability to ‘commute’ home quickly (walk downstairs) for something as simple as changing a diaper or sharing a cup of tea is invaluable.”

Working from home has also allowed Aaron to keep his own office hours, which he explains “is helpful with global work anyway, when meetings can start at 5:00 am or 11:00 pm depending on where the person on the other end of the line is located. This means that I can take time off in the middle of the ‘work day’ to run errands with my wife, and then pick up the work later after everyone’s in bed or by heading to my home office in my pajamas before dawn.”

Having the proper IT infrastructure at home can facilitate this level of flexibility. It can also help if Dad is on the road, because spouse and kids can use Skype and webcam to keep in touch. “The kids love to be able to see me over Skype,” says Ian Thorpe.

It’s Not Easy

And yet, even with the flexibility to work from home, plus the aid of technology to keep in touch with family, I think most dads would agree that it’s not easy. “The hardest parts for me really come down to issues of balance – balancing the needs of one’s family against the demands of one’s job, and recognizing that you’ll always get it wrong,” reflects J., a 20+ year veteran of aid work, father, blogger at Tales from the Hood, and founder of AidSource, the social network for humanitarian aid & development professionals. “Of course, a similar tension exists in other lines of work, but I suspect that in service-to-the-greater-good professions (like aid) one very frequently feels (and at times is intentionally made to feel) forced to choose between one’s family and that ‘greater good.’ This is not just a decision that’s hard to get right some of the time: it’s a decision that is all but impossible to get right any of the time!”

He goes on, “This is one of the things that no one tells you. This is one of the things which – and I don’t care that this sounds patronizing – my childless colleagues cannot possibly comprehend (and don’t bring up your niece or nephew – it’s not at all the same). This is one of the things that employers and spouses alike ignore and exploit at their convenience.”

“It’s not all bad. But I find it ironic that, at least in North American culture, parenthood, much like aid work, is one of those areas where there’s a lot of pressure to rhapsodize on about how ‘wonderful’ it all is, and where there are often real-world repercussions for those who express an alternate view. I get by, I get through. But it’s hard. A lot harder than can really be explained.” (Read more of J.’s views on the challenges of parenthood here – if you’ve parented small children, you will simultaneously cringe and laugh in recognition.)

Zero-Sum Proposition?

Chris Herink

Is “work-life balance” the right term to use, anyway? “This way of thinking assumes that the two are mutually exclusive or a kind of ‘zero sum’ proposition – in other words, the more work you do, the less life you have; or, conversely, the more life you have the less work you do,” reflects Chris Herink, National Director, World Vision Myanmar, and father of two sons, ages 7 and 4. “For many of us drawn into development, our work is a big part of our life – not in the number of hours sense, but in the fact that work is a vocation or an expression of our values. There should, or course, be boundaries, but the distinction between “work” and “life” is not so clear cut.”

For Chris, one of the things that has made a difference “is for ‘work’ and ‘life’ to better understand each other.” For example, having his kids visit him at work. “The mood of the office changes considerably with two boys running around with staplers in hand!” Chris chuckles. “My colleagues get to see me in different way, with different responsibilities, and there is sympathy for why every email is not answered instantaneously. We have also successfully organized “bring your kids to work” days, when we show videos of our activities in the field, give tours of different departments, and have the kids conduct water quality tests. Through this, they better understand what mommy and daddy are doing every day, and the late nights and time away have some greater meaning.”

Many thanks to the dads who shared their perspective, and thanks also to those dads who were too busy hanging out with their kids (or jumping on a late-night conference call) to respond. Hats off to all dads working in development for all you do, and a very Happy Father’s Day!

Are you a dad (or mom) working in development? What additional thoughts on work-life balance would you add? Please share in the comments!

Stay tuned for the next blog post, where working dads in development weigh in on: drawing the line on travel, career trade-offs, and work/life balance challenges unique to expat life. Sign up below for the Development Crossroads email newsletter so you’ll be sure not to miss it.

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