Dear Workaholic Parent: I see you.
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
I'll never forget a conversation that my father and I had recently after healing from a sizeable rift that happened in our relationship. To honor our current state of healing, it's important that I clarify that although the memories I'm about to share are on the painful side, they don't overshadow the reality that I had a pretty awesome childhood. While I experienced anger pretty frequently, I never doubted whether my parents loved me.
During our recent visit, my now-retired father talked about his career in corporate sales. We talked about how the corporate world was so crushing: "You could never show signs that you were tired or sick. You could never show signs that there was something going on at home because that would be perceived as weakness." Everyone in our family would likely agree that my dad was the quintessential workaholic.
As I thought about his (very reasonable) fear of vulnerability, I posed the rhetorical question: "how did you learn how to take that hat off when you came home to your children?" He was recounting to me all of the personal sacrifices that he made during his time in the corporate world: only taking one week of vacation in an entire year, working long nights, working weekends, having to partake in after-hours socializing with other corporate folks and missing out on family life. And as he was saying this I found myself repeatedly saying "I know…I know…." At one point I started to lose my patience and I said "I know man, I WAS THERE!".
Hearing my father speak his truth over two decades later made me wonder what would've happened if, during my adolescence, my father and I had gotten the support that we needed to understand what was going on with his corporate career? How much pain could we have been spared if my then-therapist was able to zoom out and facilitate a conversation about how hard it was to tolerate my father's demanding work schedule?
Some families are lucky and they're able to heal on the other side of it like my father and I. Now that he's retired and has clarity on what was happening for him, and I have clarity on what was happening for me, we're both able to come to a mutual understanding that neither one of us actually meant to hurt the other. Quite the contrary. He worked his ass off to provide for me, and I was often furious at his absence because all I wanted was his time.
At my core, I didn't want a camcorder (I'm dating myself here…). I didn't want a laptop. I didn't want a fancy car. Okay…that's only partially true. I literally wanted those things, and they were really fun for me to enjoy. But what I most wanted was to not be waiting around for my dad to come home at the end of the day. What I most wanted was to know that my dad wasn't going to go on yet another business trip across the world.
As an angsty teen, I sometimes had the most unloving way of showing my desire for attention. And he had the most unloving way of showing that he was doing all of this for me and my siblings. But at the end of the day, we were just a couple of emotional beings trying to build a complicated relationship with limited tools. Because of this, I try to make space for parents with really demanding careers and their kids who have occasionally unloving ways of asking for more of their time.
What I'm about to say might sting a little, but consider this my personal invitation for you to take off your "perfect parent" mask: The hard reality is that by the time they make it to adolescence, many families with demanding careers already often have a long history of using material goods to enhance their relationships. And this taboo is often a source of shame. Where there is a child of a high-achieving parent, there is likely a series of tangible gifts that were given, or a series of lavish vacations that were taken. Most purely for the sake of experiencing shared joy; an act of love. Others, serving as well-intentioned emotional band-aids. There is likely a beautiful display of a demanding career that has afforded that lifestyle…and a very frustrated parent who feels like they haven't been appreciated.
So often, parenting blogs and books emphasize the need for quality time. I don't disagree with them. In fact I'm usually echoing that message. I do however wonder what it's like for parents who are working themselves to the bone to read those statements and feel helpless. I wonder what it's like to be so successful in your career and to be perceived as such a failure at home…or worse, at a school meeting.
As if this weren't enough, high-achieving parents are often working in environments where everybody brags about how well their kid is doing. My father was no stranger to this. He loved walking me around his office and telling everybody that I got a scholarship for college. And that was the norm, to display what an amazing parent you are. This sense of "look at me I can bust my ass in this office AND raise an amazing human being." I'm sure he never told anybody that I was in therapy, or that I was taking prozac at 15. And that's okay. Twenty-something years later, I've made peace with that.
To watch the battles that often ensue between a parent who feels that their efforts are thankless, and their child who feels that they are unimportant can be a disheartening experience. Too often, neither one of them has the tools to be able to come to a mutual understanding. That's where I come in. To the hard-working (or low-key workaholic) parents who are ready to move beyond shame and build an authentic relationship with their child, let's get started.
I can't wait to meet you.