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It’s hard for dads to ‘do it all’ – but we can try, no matter how imperfect it looks

Lester Davis’s children at a community meeting. (Courtesy of Lester Davis)
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On a recent weekday night,  the realities of parenting – not the make-believe, social-media-curated version, but the ugly, truthful kind – were on full display as I raced my minivan, like a stunt driver, through the streets of Baltimore.

Everything, it seemed, was conspiring against me.

I lurched between stop lights, my hands gripping the steering wheel, and muttered obscenities under my breath.

This behavior, shocking enough on its face, was compounded by the fact that my three elementary-age children were oblivious to my Evel Knievel routine.

I wasn’t racing to a hospital or attempting to save a life. My pedal to the metal was the result of my being late for a work-related event.

In other words, watch out, fellow drivers, you’re dealing with a papa who’s pressed for time.

I didn’t think dads were important because I didn’t have one. I was wrong.

The situation had been set in motion hours earlier.

My twin sons, on the eve of their last day of second grade, were expecting my wife and me to attend a program at their school, in the middle of the day. An event I wasn’t prepared to miss.

While I sat with second-graders and soaked up the atmosphere, emails trickled into my inbox and several voicemails awaited my attention.

As the afternoon of celebration came to a close, my mind bounced between feeling fulfilled that I was able to be present for my boys’ big day, and worrying about the myriad tasks that piled up back at the office.

I hugged and kissed my boys goodbye, and carried an armful of end-of-the-year stuff – papers, cardboard diagrams and folders – to my van for the drive back to my office.

With my one free hand, I dialed the children’s caretaker, who idled in the school’s carpool lane minutes before dismissal. With the cellphone pressed to my ear, I spat out rapid-fire instructions.

I told her I was headed back to work but would be home in a few hours  to relieve her and pick up the children and take them with me to an evening meeting. I asked her to please make sure that when I arrived they were wearing shoes, had empty bladders, and had a snack or two in hand.

I pulled up right on schedule, not even putting the van in park. The children, who were waiting for me on the front porch, jumped in and waved their sitter goodbye. I barely allowed the sliding van door to close before my foot was off the brake and pressed to the accelerator.

My heart rate may have been a bit elevated, but my plan was unfolding as I’d imagined.

I’d accounted for everything, it seemed, except rush-hour traffic and stop lights at seemingly every intersection that mercilessly taunted me.

There was no way, I soon realized, I’d make it across town on time to help my boss, an elected official, at a community event that was being attended by more than 1,000 of his constituents.

In my quest to do it all – attend a school event and balance work responsibilities – I’d instead endangered my children by driving like a madman to a meeting that I ended up being late to in spite of my best efforts.

Guess what, Anne-Marie Slaughter, fathers can’t have it all either!

That night, after the children were in bed and as I sat with a whiskey on the rocks, I thought about my failures from earlier in the day.

Maybe, I thought to myself, I was missing a hidden bright spot.

Unlike the 63 percent of fathers who, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, lament not spending enough time with their children, I am fortunate to have a level of flexibility and autonomy at my job that allows me to, more often than not, be present for school- and sports-related events. It’s a luxury that many parents could only dream of.

So, while I might break a sweat juggling the responsibilities of balancing work with raising a young family, I understand that I enjoy a privilege not common among most fathers, let alone mothers.

My own wife, who recently shifted from a career in the nonprofit sector to one in corporate America, would likely be frog-marched out of her building if our three children ran around her office like they did at my workspace on a recent weekday afternoon.

I chuckle at a scene from that day where my boss, the president of the Baltimore City Council, demanded the children hold hands as we crossed a busy intersection on our way to a nearby studio where he was scheduled to record a promotional video for an upcoming public hearing.

More than just being tolerated, my children were drafted as honorary workers, and my boss even encouraged them to demand an allowance. (I guess there’s at least one downside to having my children in the workplace.)

Raising children is hard work, and most parents spend more time than they should second-guessing their decisions and worrying that they’re missing out on experiencing their children’s development.

With three children between 6 and 8 years old, I have the good fortune to often be able to do it all, however imperfect that might look in practice.

During a weekly address over Father’s Day weekend in 2011, President Barack Obama succinctly captured what’s at the heart of every parent’s struggle to balance the demands of work and raising a family.

“Our kids are pretty smart,” Obama said. “They understand that life won’t always be perfect, that sometimes, the road gets rough, that even great parents don’t get everything right. But more than anything, they just want us to be a part of their lives.”

Several weeks ago, as I stood in the back of a packed church, monitoring my boss from afar and wondering if he’d noticed I hadn’t been there to greet him when he arrived, I watched my three children barely suppress giggles and struggle to stay seated. In between stern glances that sought to convey what I couldn’t say to them aloud, I was thankful for my own version of having it all.

It may not have been pretty, but in that moment, I was living out a dream that for too many parents proves painfully elusive.

Lester Davis is deputy chief of staff and director, communications and policy, for the president of the Baltimore City Council.

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