I was sitting in the living room looking at my phone when my wife, Mel, asked me a question. When I looked up, she was obviously irritated. Turns out she’d asked me the same question twice already and I’d responded “sure” to a non-yes-or-no question.
She was asking me about a weekend trip we were planning, and yet there I was, only half listening, trying to answer a text from one of my employees. Before that, I’d been scheduling posts on my professional Facebook page. None of it needed to be done right then and there, but at the same time, I was feeling the itch so many working parents feel to get to finish up a few things while at home, so you can get to bed a little earlier.
I looked up at Mel. Her lips were drawn to a tight line, right hand on her hip. Naturally, I felt guilty, so I put my phone down.
“Sorry,” I said.
I tried to play it off, like I always do. I said, “Yeah, I heard you.” I said it with sincerity and conviction.
I do this all the time, and each time Mel hits me with a pop quiz. She asks me to repeat what she said, or something along those lines, and I never can.
My interactions with my children aren’t all that much better. It’s getting to the point where the refrain in our home is “Put your phone down, Dad!” And I always respond with an affirmative grunt that no one in the house believes.
She didn’t quiz me this time, however. Instead she sat next to me at the table, looked me in the eyes and said, “When you don’t listen to me, it feels like you are saying I don’t matter.”
It got quiet then.
I let out a breath, and thought about the tug-of-war I always find myself in between home and work. I work for the academics side of a Division I athletics program. I have tutoring and study tables that run well into the evening. My schedule is a little wacky, and it isn’t all that unusual for me to get a text or a call from one of my student employees that must be handled immediately. But there are also a lot of messages that could wait until morning, and I often have a really difficult time taking my hand off the wheel and letting that stuff wait.
Now I will admit, were it not for my cellphone, I would need to be at work much more than I am. But the understanding that I am always on duty in case of an emergency causes me to always have that phone nearby, and the reality that I cannot seem to fully pull myself away from answering every little question regardless of its importance, is creating a real problem in my house.
I think I’m good at multitasking while being a working father, but I’m obviously not. I seem to always be half at work and half at home, my face in my phone while trying to care for my kids, and ultimately I’m turning into a half-assed father and husband.
I have no doubt that I am not the only parent living this struggle.
There are times when I’m not a good listener, but like so many working parents I have a difficult time admitting to that. Until that moment when my wife called me out, I didn’t ever think about what I was actually saying to my wife by not listening to her speak.
One of the most beneficial things a spouse can do is listen, regardless of what your partner has to say. Listening is one of the highest forms of validation. And yet, although I know all of this, I still struggle to put down the distractions and really listen to my wife.
But honestly, if I am to take a step back, and look at this whole situation from the sky level, I was ignoring my wife of 14 years, the mother of my children, and the person I love most in the world, and that is pretty rude, don’t you think?
So I stood up, put my phone on the other side of the room, and turned on the ringer, so I could hear if someone needed me, but not keep getting sucked into every little thing. Then I sat down next to her and said, “I’m sorry. That’s not what I’m trying to say.”
I’m not going to say that she 100% forgave me, and I’m not going to say that I won’t fall into this balance trap again, but what I will say is that when we sat across from each other and I gave her my full attention. Because she deserved it.