Writer David Ebenbach shows how the struggle to balance work and family is as old as mankind
If you believe the old stories, the experience of fatherhood boils down to a battle with your children: either the father ends up on top, or the kids do. In Greek legend, you’ve got Oedipus, who has to kill his father (accidentally, but still) to end up sitting on his father’s throne; and there’s Cronus, who eats his kids in order to avoid being overthrown by them. In the Bible, God starts out as the unhappy father watching his kids rebel in the Garden of Eden—and then you have Abraham, whose calling (roaming around spreading the new religion) leads him to strap his son Isaac to a rock, ready to engage in human sacrifice. He doesn’t go through with it—more than we can say for Cronus—but he gets pretty close. In doing so, Abraham becomes an extreme example of a father trying to balance career and family. These are some of Western culture’s most foundational fatherhood stories, and, as a writer, I take stories pretty seriously. As a writer who is also a father, these particular stories scare the hell out of me.
Like most old stories, there’s definitely a primal truth here, a truth that was apparent to me from my very first days of fatherhood. First of all, parenthood means prioritizing and making choices—there isn’t time or enough energy for everything, so that career/family balance is a tricky one just in terms of logistics. But it’s deeper than that, too.
In some sense, by the time my son came into the world, I was already a Dad. I had recently published my first book of short stories, Between Camelots, whose creation had felt like a nurturing into life, and I had my next book underway, which meant I was still trying to develop it, to raise it well enough that it could go out safely into the world. And then, too, there was that other child, the cliché and somewhat embarrassing inner child of mine. For my whole life I’d been building and securing a life in which there was space for that kid, a space created and maintained and filled with my writing. And now there was a new child—a real, outer boy—full of his own absolutely urgent need. The question was whether there would be room enough for all these kids under one roof.
The old stories tell us no; you have to choose between the needs of the father and the needs of the children. And as I say, time and energy are indeed finite, and so you do need to make choices. Sometimes those choices are awfully hard.
Yet of course it’s not as simple as that. First of all, necessity has fathered some pretty good inventing in my life: waking up extra early each morning to do some writing, taking intensive writing retreats when I get the chance, doing some of my writing work side-by-side with my son while he’s doing his own homework, even reading to him from whatever I wanted to be reading while I was pushing him on the swing, back in his younger years. In other words, I’ve gotten resourceful.
I’ve also learned that, when you’re raising more than one “child,” it turns out that they feed each other. For one thing, I’ve discovered that there’s real value in showing my son that I’m passionate about my work, in modeling for him a life that’s devoted to art and meaning. He’s proud that his father is a writer—and he’s happy, too, that I’ve written a few things just for him. It also works in the other direction; being a father has opened my world up enormously, and the joys and power of that not only affect my life—they also affect my writing. The obvious example of that is my new short story collection, Into the Wilderness, which is a book entirely about parenthood. I had written about parents before becoming one, but never with this level of passion and engagement and, I have to say, never with this level of authority, either. These days parenthood is showing up all over the place. But it’s not just about having more material; I think the experience also has made me more generous, more open—and it’s done the same for my work. I think my stories are kinder than they used to be, and I think I fight harder for my characters’ well-being than I used to. My flesh-and-blood child has made me a better father to my paper-and-print ones.
These revelations don’t make everything perfect, of course. Even with all these good things, there’s a way in which I still relate to our mythical forefathers who were caught between the demands of their own callings and the needs of their children. Honestly, I’m glad for those old stories. They teach us to honor that sense of conflicting needs we sometimes feel, and to work hard to resolve them; and they also serve as warnings: we have choices to make, yes—and we need the wisdom to make the right ones. I picture Abraham, raising his knife to make an unfathomable sacrifice—and I picture him putting it down again, releasing his son, so that the two of them might live.
—Photo by dalbera/Flickr