Guest post from my friend, fellow journalist, author and entrepreneur, Damon Brown. Damon coaches solopreneurs and side hustlers. He is author of The Ultimate Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, the latest in the best-selling series. Get a special rate for his new self-guided creative business income boot camp as well as free videos, guides, and coaching at JoinDamon.me.
A colleague recently joked that my wife, whom is a pediatrician, is my 401k. My partner’s relatively stable profession definitely brings security, and that, truly, is a privilege for everyone in our young family of four. The comment also insults everyone involved: my partner, who is downgraded to a net worth land grab, and myself, whose career is downgraded to dilettante status. The assumption is two-fold: that between the traditional career and the creative career, the old-school partner will come out ahead financially, and that our respective worth will never change over time, success, or circumstance.
The dynamics become even more fascinating because I am a stay-at-home dad. The decision to be an author and, more recently, an entrepreneur and coach aiming for a solid six-figure career, is coupled with marrying a female partner in a stereotypically high-paying profession. Not all doctors are paid well, particularly with the amount of time they have to invest (a decade of very expensive schooling, long hours, etc.), and not all “artists” are starving. Add in the gender norms, and you’ve got a great opportunity to really see, beyond the dad groups and Lean In rhetoric, how America is still tied into the expectations of previous generations.
The biggest discoveries, however, have been my own biases.
Dads hold themselves back professionally for the sake of time with their kids, too
I interviewed Emma for my Inc. Magazine column, and we chatted a bit about the book that I, until I read it, didn’t think had much to do with me. Reading about income caps mothers tend to put on their careers, as well as the residual guilt towards primary care expectations, helped me realize the barriers I put on my own abilities. You have to understand: I actually coach people on their unconscious limitations, making it all the more ironic for me to realize my unconscious bias as a primary caregiver dad!
My career is actually tied to our children, though; until I began to untangle the roots recently, I didn’t realize how deep it went. I spent years as a full-time freelance journalist, wrote some books, and, after spending time in Silicon Valley, proposed to my wife. We moved to Southern California, got married, and got pregnant shortly after. At the same time, I started working on a small app, called So Quotable, with some technical help. Our son was born, my wife went back to work, and I became the primary caregiver. Within a week of maternity leave ending, my tech support disappeared, and, suddenly, I was tasked with programming, designing, and launching this app myself. In the interim, I wrote a book with the popular TED Conference, Our Virtual Shadow, which hyped up the app. Queue panic here.
Being a stay-at-home dad had been my vision for years before I met my wife. My mom and dad separated when I was entering toddlerhood, and, later, my stepfather and I had a loving, if challenging, father-son relationship, before he and my mom divorced as I entered adulthood. My parents found out I was coming when they were in their late teens and early 20’s. My dad later told me he felt like he was unprepared for fatherhood, as if there was some unspoken qualifications or criteria that he needed to pass to stay in my life. These conversations, of course, didn’t come until much later, when I reached adulthood myself, so the impact of my parents’ splitting had an effect on me well before I could articulate my needs and ask hard questions — much less give my parents the time they needed to express their actions. My early call to be at home with my kids was a reaction to my dad not being at home with me. Perhaps a way of righting the past. Perhaps a way to show, as a creative in his footsteps, that it could be done. That desire has been with me for as long as I could remember.
Balancing career and family is hard for fathers
I always prioritized the freedom to spend focused, quality time with any children I would have in the future, from the flexibility of being an independent contractor to choosing a partner who would respect my needs to do so. This was my dream, albeit in a package that was much trickier in real life than I imagined. I needed to complete this work task, and I needed to continue writing to put food on the table, but neither goal was going to supersede my child since I, at that time, represented his whole world. I was not going to deny him, or myself, that rare opportunity to have our experience together.
I opted to have it all. My son would wake up at 6 a.m. like clockwork and would be in bed by 6 p.m. Those hours would be ours. I began waking up at 5 a.m., then at 4 a.m., then, finally, at 3:15 a.m., giving me just under three hours to get shit done: the articles, the programming, and the developing. It became an intense discipline of presence, being fully invested in those 15 hours per week, knowing that my day shift would end with Alec screaming awake, and being front and center for my son, who entertained me throughout the day until my wife came home at dinnertime. The app did launch, just in time for TED to ask me to talk, and that success led to a second app, Cuddlr, which became the number one app in several countries. I had two co-founders the second time around, and we had enough success to sell the company 11 months after we launched. Alec had just turned two.
What happened smacked of the impossible to me. All through Silicon Valley, the story goes that startup success requires forgoing the personal for the professional. No girlfriend, no boyfriend, and definitely no family. You eat, breath, and live your big idea. Sleep is a luxury. That’s how you crush it. Sacrifice now, make a bunch of money selling your company and retire to your own island. For many people I knew, though, tomorrow would never come, and that sacrifice became a habit to the point where even those that did “make it” had nothing to come home to.
No matter your worldly success, you always have to come home
In other words, if you haven’t created any personal connections, what are you fighting for? In The Ultimate Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, I say that no matter how big your worldly success, you always have to come home. On the day my company sold, I was already comfortable at home. I never left. And now I’ve dedicated an Inc. Magazine column, a best-selling book series, online teaching, and talking and coaching to help others create their ultimate career path within the context of their adult lives. Forget just supporting the 20-something straight white male Ivy League dropouts in hoodies. I want to fuel everyone else who has a great idea to share.
But somewhere along the way, my own adult life went retrograde.
I realized there was no virtue in trying to do it all, all the time. Now with two kids under age 4, I was still trying to be that illustrious stay-at-home parent AND build an incredible business. Until late last year. Two things happened. First, my second son, Abhi, started to show signs that he didn’t want to just be with Daddy anymore. He needed more, as kids do and should. Second, my 15-hour-a-week career was taking off, with The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur hitting the bestseller list and being asked to speak all around the world to aspiring business owners and side hustlers.
I found myself holding even tighter to my son. Why? Fear.
Shortly after my interview with Emma, I told my wife that it was time for our 18-month-old to start daycare. I also started a dialogue about expectations, limitations, and long-term strategies. I laid out the unspoken sacrifices I had been making, and I realized, as one often does, that many were unnecessary or overburdensome. It was also a proactive step, as I didn’t want built-up resentment to erupt as it had in some of our past relationships.
It was terrifying. My role was akin to the superwoman idea: Running bootstrapped companies while changing diapers and kissing boo-boos – and doing it with pride, at that! Too much pride. In those five years, I did two TED talks, launched two businesses, got on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and spoke all over the world, while having a proverbial hand tied behind my back. What if I didn’t have those barriers of time, energy, and resources? My current accomplishments felt even greater in the scope of these limitations. Now, as I looked at actually having several hours per workday, much of those boundaries were going away. I silently expected myself to achieve more, and I was scared of the pressure.
This ties directly to finances, as going back to a semi-full-time work schedule meant my wife and I would finally be professional and financial peers – neither one of us would be at home taking care of the kids. That 401k comment? Cut like a knife, but at least I had the daddy-at-home element as a salve. Now, as I sent our last son to daycare, I didn’t have that stay-at-home dad badge anymore. I felt naked.
Other people not recognizing your true value isn’t the problem. The real danger is when we don’t recognize our own value. Since sitting with my hidden fear, my wife and I have had some of the most honest conversations we’ve had since we were dating years ago.
I now have a clearer, more energetic view of my year. For the first time in five years, I actually have the solitude at home to do what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, or monotasking on one particular idea or project for minutes, if not hours. This is the hidden sacrifice – the uncompensated contribution – that we primary caregivers make, and I recently realized that I regained the deep work opportunities for my books, coaching, and public speaking in return for sleep, rest, or personal time.
Today, I can have both a happy home life and career. And today, I deserve both. In fact, I always deserved both, as we all do.
The beauty is that I feel gratitude and happiness towards the last five years. I know I am fortunate, particularly as a father, to have this experience spending every single day getting to know these two wonderful people. I am now working on being just as grateful and happy to respect that this chapter has come to a close – and that my own hero’s journey is starting over again, this time shifting from baby boom to career bloom. It’s about recognizing my own power: If I can take the lead raising two headstrong boys, then imagine what I can do focusing on bringing my true value to my income, my service, and my career intentions
What sacrifices do you identify with? There will be a time when you won’t need to make those sacrifices anymore. Make sure you create a path for yourself, too — financially, emotionally, and mentally —on your own terms. Knowledge of self, not unacknowledged sacrifice, is the best example any child can have.