“Dada, The Monkey King is tied up!”
My son was updating me on the latest going-ons in the lives of his toys, and catastrophe was afoot. His beloved Monkey King had been captured and there was, he assured me, no escape. Even when I suggested that the other toys might come to the rescue, he shook his head. There was no way.
“They can’t save him,” he told me. “They’re too busy. They have to go to work.”
After work, he explained, his toys would have to clean the house and go shopping for groceries. They simply didn’t have the time in their busy schedules to rescue a suffering friend – and so they had no choice but to leave the Monkey King to die.
It was one of those moments in the life of a parent that are equal parts cute and soul-crushing. My son had been watching us and forming his idea of how the world worked – and he had accepted that people who work are so busy that they have to abandon their loved ones.
When I work, I think I’m helping my family. In my mind, I’m doing what I have to do to scavenge together the pennies my family needs to survive. I’m putting food on their plates, a roof over their heads, and paying for the education that’s going to give my son a better life.
In my son’s mind, though, I’m betraying him. I’m supposed to be his father, who loves him and plays with him, and I’m leaving him alone because there’s something else out there that is more important to me than he is.
This is how I was raised. When I was a child, my father worked all the time – and he taught me that a man should work hard to take care of his family. He would travel around the world for weeks at a time working. For one year he even spent his weekdays living in a separate town, working at a higher-paying job away from home and scrounging up the money his family needed.
Today, I’m the same way. When my colleagues call me “hard-working" they say it with a note of concern instead of admiration. My mind is constantly filled with worries about our debt and about the costs of our future, and I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like I’m wasting time when I squeeze in a full eight hours of sleep at night.
When my son abandoned his favorite toy, I was forced to look for the first time at how this was affecting him. Huge parts of his day are spent with his grandparents while my wife and I work, and slowly he’s starting to spend more time with them than he does with us. He’s growing more attached to them and he’s learning from them – and not from me.
When I explained to him that Dada needs to work so that we can eat, I saw the cogs of understanding slowly turning in his mind – and it worried me. I could see him putting a price on all of his possessions and the idea of money being more valuable than all other things hit him like an epiphany. I scared myself, wondering, What am I doing to him? Am I turning him in to somebody just like me?
There are things my child needs more than money. He needs to be held more than he needs new clothes. He needs his father to teach him more than he needs new books. And he needs to know that his parents love him more than anything in the world more than he needs things.
I can’t stop working. My family needs to live, and my child needs to be able to afford his future. Still, I can make the time I have with him count.
I need to let him know that he’s the most important thing in my life. When I go to work, I need to let him know that I miss him. When I’m at home, I need to play with and teach him – and let him see that this means more to me than money. I need to make sure that he’s getting everything that he needs, and that he’s getting it from me.
I haven’t perfected it yet. There are times in our lives when we struggle more and I have to work harder – and my son gets more distant. Still, there’s one thing we always keep sacred. Every night, no matter how much I have to do, I take him to his room, help him get dressed, and read with him.
And every night I kiss him on the head, wish him a goodnight, and remind him:
“I love you more than anything in the world.”