While I’m folding laundry, I’m having a conference call with an editor about a story I’m writing. I put her on mute for a moment and put down my son’s Paw Patrol T-shirt to answer a text from another editor about another story in progress. As I head upstairs with a tall stack of shirts and superhero themed undies — back on the phone with the first editor — I also grab a couple of boxes of penne from the basement pantry, for dinner.
Depositing the clothes in my son’s room and continuing to chat, I begin planning the side dishes to go with the pasta. I make a mental note to get the checks for the electricity and lawn care in the mail before tomorrow. And there’s a birthday party for one of my son’s school friends this weekend, so I better order a Lego set. Finally, I finish my phone call, go back to my office and start writing another story.
This is an average Friday morning. I’ve been working as a freelance writer from home, which requires continuously juggling house chores and professional obligations. Given the way mothers talk about fathers, though, you’d think I was doing the impossible. There’s a long-standing belief that women multitask better than men, and my wife never misses an opportunity to remind me of this.
Sadly, dads, there’s plenty of scientific research that backs up this assertion. If you’re interested, you can read some of it here and here. (Or you can just talk to my wife, who would happily provide anecdotal evidence.).
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I believe multitasking is a mind-set and a modus operandi, something you can train yourself to do. Before I was a dad, I was more of a one-job-at-a-time kind of a guy. Once our little dude arrived, though, there was more to do and less time to do it in. In the four years I’ve been a dad, I have learned to simultaneously balance an array of competing, ever-shifting priorities. And though women may be genetically disposed to working this way, it doesn’t mean they should have sole ownership of this approach. Multitasking is really a survival tool for parenthood. Adapt, or perish.
American fathers are doing more caregiving than any generation before us. That’s because dual-earner couples are now the norm, which requires parents to divide duties related to children and the home. I’m not going to pretend it’s 50-50 for many parenting units. I strive for that evenhanded approach with my wife now that we’re beyond the stage where there were things I simply couldn’t do — such as being pregnant or breast-feeding — but I don’t always succeed.
To achieve that balance and get my work done while I’m at home has required creativity and a newfound nimbleness. Now as I’m doing one task, I am constantly asking myself, ‘What else can I do at the same time that won’t be to the detriment of either outcome I’m seeking?’
I’ve found that household chores that aren’t too loud — watering the garden, preparing dinner, cleaning up my son’s room — don’t distract me much, so I can take business calls while doing them. I set up tasks to get done while I’m working by filling the dishwasher or washer and dryer, or putting something in the oven or the crockpot to cook for dinner that evening. I break my work into smaller, more manageable chunks, so I can make progress on writing stories in shorter periods of time — shoehorned around other obligations or while completing other tasks — rather than in one big slice of the calendar. And I have come to embrace the pre-dawn hours, when I can get a flurry of tasks done without interruption, including scheduling social media posts (so it looks like I’m more engaged online throughout the day) and sending the bulk of my emails.
I’ve approached multitasking as a time management technique, and that has allowed me to slowly evolve into being someone who is more productive when I’m doing many things rather than just one. I usually accomplish more — though trust me, sometimes I fail spectacularly — and I find I am constantly excited by what I am doing, because I am continually tackling new challenges. This keeps me energized when approaching otherwise mundane household chores, and it keeps me inspired when I sit down to brainstorm ideas or write.
Despite all that I’ve been able to accomplish taking this approach, though, I believe there are times when parents need to resist multitasking. Constantly working on a variety of tasks at once can wear you down and leave you feeling like you’re not giving enough attention to any one goal. Most importantly, it can be unhealthy for your relationship with your child.
When I have some rare down time with my son, whether it’s in the car between school and home, at night while I’m reading to him in bed, or playing Legos on a quiet Sunday morning, he becomes my sole focus. I don’t look at my phone or take calls. I don’t draw up to-do lists in my head. I don’t try to complete household chores with one hand while doing something for him with the other.
I want him to know that he is the only thing in the world that matters to me. I multitask for the rest of my day so I can have those times when it’s just him and me. Those moments make all the juggling and struggling worth it.
Martell is the author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” He tweets @nevinmartell.
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