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Daniel B. Peters, Ph.D. Headshot

Dad Guilt

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I am at the airport, again. I have traveled more this month than usual due to speaking engagements, professional conferences and book promotions. We took two cars to our relative's house recently so I could leave a few days early for my trip. Regardless of how I prep the kids for my upcoming travel, my departure tends to catch them off-guard.

First, I say goodbye to my 12-year-old son, who says, "Why are you leaving... that sucks." Then comes my almost-14-year-old daughter, who says "bye" as we hug in a way to let me know she is not happy about me leaving again. My 10-year-old daughter lets me off easy and says, "Goodbye, daddy," with a smile -- only because she is engrossed in her new fashion iPad app. Later, she will ask my wife, "Where is Dad?"

I have hours in the car alone to think:

I feel bad.

I feel guilty.

I should be with them.

I work too much.

They are young and will only want me around for so long.

These thoughts keep coming and coming. Am I prioritizing my career over my kids? Why do I feel so guilty? What am I doing wrong? Am I doing enough?

I think back to my dad and what he was like with me growing up. He worked regular hours and didn't travel. However, he only came to games on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and maybe caught the end of a few during the week. I remember being excited when he would come. It felt like a privilege when he would take time out of his busy week to see me play sports. He was never my coach. In fact, he stood in for my soccer coach and ran ONE practice when I was in second grade. I thought it was so cool. And I never forgot it.

Fast-forward to today. Dads are expected to attend every game. Even more, dads are expected to coach or assistant coach. How do so many dads get off work at 3:00 to run practices several times a week? If you miss a game, can't coach or can't make every practice if you are a coach, you feel bad, as if you aren't pulling your weight and letting your children down. Not only do I feel this, but so do many of the dads I know, and certainly many of my clients who are fathers. Furthermore, I hear my child clients tell their dads they never do anything for them, and are never around, while their fathers are saying they have coached them every year, rarely missing a game or practice.

How did this happen? When our family would watch Little House on the Prairie, we would talk about how Pa had to leave for the winter to find food and supplies -- the ENTIRE winter -- and they wouldn't know if they would ever see him again. We would talk about how farmers worked all day from sunrise to sunset in order to provide for their families. We would then talk about how not long ago, most dads worked and many moms stayed home and took care of the kids and home. Each had work to do -- dads made money and moms did the rest. Then came equal rights and then...

And then came a dad's right to feel guilty about not doing enough for their kids just as moms have felt for decades. Dads have arrived!

As I drove in silence with only my thoughts, I became aware of an important truth. My kids actually care that I am away. I am a part of their lives in a way that leaves an absence when I am gone. I know each generation has its own challenges, but I feel the current generation of fatherhood is extremely challenging. Today's dads must balance making a living and spending the necessary time improving and perfecting their craft, being an engaged spouse, being a present father and finding time for himself (rarely).

I also became aware of the deep respect I have for my wife who is also working, married to me, raising our kids, going to school and trying to find time for herself. This is also true for the many women I know and respect. Guess what, guys? We have arrived. We finally have equality. The answer? Who knows, but I think it is important to do our best in all areas of our life, while being kind to ourselves and knowing we can only do so much. When you feel guilty for leaving your kids again or working too much, be grateful they care.

I pack my bags and walk out the door to head for the airport. Our two dogs look up at me as if to say, "You are leaving again?!"