The twin challenges of fatherhood and work
By Jake Rusznyak, father of twins and creative at The Monkeys.
Gif by Jesse Birthisel.
The last time I was asked to contribute to Gabberish, I was sending a video message to my kids who were almost asleep, reading the email in the back of a cab at some ungodly hour on the way back from a shoot. My immediate response: “Yadda, yadda, yadda, regretfully, too busy”. Probably with a few harried typos. Also, I’m an art director, not a writer. Why ask me to write something?
So, when this issue’s request arrived and I was again in a cab on the way back from a shoot at another ungodly hour I couldn’t help but chuckle at the universe’s sick sense of timing. My family were waking up throughout the night from jetlag, I was in the midst of a 4-day pitch, had multiple other projects ramping up around me, life admin issues coming out of nowhere, I was limping towards Christmas burdened under a tsunami of shit. It was the worst possible time to ask.
But this time the brief was “work-life balance”, and I got to thinking: in the eye of a perfect storm, could I see clearly?
Mixed meteorological metaphors aside, could the worst of times actually be the best of times?
It's pretty hard to write about work-life balance in a balanced way. It's an emotional topic. If there was an easy solve, it wouldn’t be an issue we’d all still be grappling with. It’s always been endemic in advertising (with its high burnout rates, divorce stats and unhealthy levels of addiction). It’s also a balancing act that gets harder to juggle the more senior you get, instead of getting easier with more experience. I feel it more acutely than ever now that I have two young boys of my own lives to balance too. Twin boys.
My first CD used to reschedule his kid’s birthdays around pitches or shoots when they were still toddlers (as they didn't know the difference). Not their birthday parties. Their actual birthdays would be pantomimed out on more convenient days.
I remember at 2am in the maternity ward being left alone for 40 mins clutching two tiny human beings screaming in stereo, thinking, “How the fuck is this going to actually work? How am I going to not mess up my career, but more importantly, how am I not going to mess up the upbringing of these two completely vulnerable individuals? How’s my wife’s career going to pan out?” Her job as a CMO is hectic and involves frequent travel abroad and locally. We’re immigrants. We have no support system other than friends.
So, 7 years later how have we coped? We’ve always had an egalitarian relationship. My wife gets up early and goes to work. I go to work on feeding and dressing them, helping with the homework and getting the little fellas to school. The trade-off is I don’t have to race back and collect them before the 6pm cut-off. She does that and then supports them in the evening. Somehow it works out.
I don't always get it right. I once looked down on the bus on the way to childcare to see my 2-year-old boy wearing a skirt.
I had dressed him in such a rush, I’d put both his legs through one short’s hole. Another morning at drop-off, twin 2 tugged my arm and whispered: “Daddy, I'm still in my pyjamas.” He’d slept in a singlet and shorts the night before and I hadn't noticed and neglected to dress him. I’ve cried outside their school because I’ve failed to remember it was Easter hat parade day. As an expat, I didn't even know what an Easter hat parade was. But on the most part it somehow works, due to teamwork.
My wife’s an admirably strong woman, mentally, physically, emotionally, energetically. She’s a working mother. A “working mother”.
That term jars. Fathers who work double-duty are not referred to as “working fathers”. Mums who return to the workplace are often able to negotiate flexible working weeks,, or negotiate leaving at civilised hours to look after the kids. I’ve yet to meet a male in a creative department (or any department in advertising really) who has managed to negotiate a 4-day week.
I appreciate any initiatives to help redress male-heavy departments, and the next step will be to give men the kind of flexibility we are thankfully seeing granted more and more to women.
We’re in this very predicament because women have been typecast by outmoded gender roles—no more should we be typecasting men than we do women. My dad (as well as running his own design agency back in the 80s) did the school runs. Made my school lunch every day, helped me with my homework. It was possible then, and it should be possible now.
Because the reality is: agencies need parents in creative departments and brands need us working on their business. We’re an asset, not a burden—we require flexibility, and in turn we are flexible, too.
To not fail as a parent and not fail as a creative, I’ve learned to work anywhere. I work in the loo. I work on the bus. I work in cabs. I work in the bath. I work while my kids are in the bath. I’ve written most of this article in a pub.
And behind the scenes at home as we’re dressing, feeding, wiping, bathing and reading to our children, the calls and emails are pinging. As budgets, margins, timelines have compressed, so have our lives.
We refer to women who manage to pull off work and parenting as supermums, but men who are parents at work as, just, well, men. But what if we expected the same level of parenting from men that we do of women? Could we create a new breed of superman for the 21st century?
Becoming a parent is a crash course in time management and figuring out what you truly value in life. You work sharp. An hour snatched with my kids at night is the most rewarding and recharging of my day. Why would anyone squander that kind of time for an unnecessary hour physically sitting at the office? If you value spending time with your children, you quickly learn how to be smarter about how you use your time. Decisions happen faster. You’ll sit around and gossip and moan less. My biggest daily anxiety is getting home in time to tuck them in by 8pm. In 2018, for an agency to discriminate against someone because who’s not physically present in the evenings is archaic.
At the agency I work at, the founders and management are proud parents who bring their kids, dogs, family into the workplace. They try to lead by example, and that creates a culture that signals to other working parents that we don’t need to be ashamed of being parents in an increasingly ageist industry. Having that empathy in management means they understand parents in their department, and know how to still get the best work out of them.
They don’t care how we get our work done—as long as we get it done. They acknowledge that being a creative parent doesn’t make you a second-class citizen. When my kids have been unwell, and there’s no plan B, my boys have accompanied me to the office, shoots, edits, sound sessions. I am blessed in that regard to work in an agency culture like that.
This is the kind of flexibility needed if we want to attract the next generation of uni leavers into creative agencies, considering the hours we work. We need the kind of flexible working/remote working that’s encouraged in other industries and not often found in advertising. We work in tech and communications, yet tend to be deskbound and communicate face to face most days. We need to adjust working patterns so all of us, regardless of age, or gender, or living situation, can find a rhythm that allows us to easily combine work with other responsibilities. Other (far more conservative and traditional) industries do it, and most find their staff more productive. I personally get a lot more done away from my desk, when people can’t walk up every few minutes and break my flow.
As agency models keep changing, our shelf lives as creatives are becoming short. Very short. Gone are the days of 4,5,6 year stints in agencies. And with that, the notion of loyalty, an agency family culture, and the rallying cry of "whatever it takes" and “once more into the pitch” will eventually begin to ring hollow for anything other than a true work emergency. And whilst our leaders and management can attempt to control our workloads as much as possible, the pressure is ultimately being passed down onto them by clients, holding companies, margins, new competition, the devaluing of craft.
I’ve had a client refuse to shoot one weekend as they didn’t want their staff working after hours. It would be a healthy start if clients began to apply the same expectations of work hours to their agency partners.
I’ve heard of multinationals that are starting to audit the labour practices of their agencies and are refusing to work with suppliers whose staff work more than 60-hour weeks. Much in the same way, they won’t source physical material from sweatshops, they apply the same corporate responsibility to people’s intellectual head hours. That would also help put the brakes on. And the breaks.
I recently read of a UK PR firm that has grown since dropping the entire firm down to a 4-day work week. Staff are far more motivated and productive on those four days and the firm is actually doing better. At her work, my wife gets the odd reminder email from HR saying that she has put in too many hours that week. French legislation now bans emails sent after hours in the workplace. An agency in Amsterdam physically has all the desks on pulleys and at 6 pm every day, every desk in the agency is hoisted up and people physically can’t work anymore.
These are the crash-diet approaches to work-life balance. In fact, work-life balance shouldn't be thought of in terms of a literal tightrope balance, but more like a balanced diet. You’re going to have some cheat days (pitches etc.), some periods of the year will ramp up (just like putting on weight over Christmas). You’ll have some healthy days. But on the whole, you need to endeavour to have a balanced, wholesome, nutritious diet of things that feed your wallet, mind, and soul. Your 5 greens a day may be work, exercise, family, culture, hobbies: whatever it takes to keep you healthy. Flexible working should be the future for us all.
As creatives, we’re hardwired to seek approval, over-deliver, say “yes” to solving problems. But lately, I've come to the conclusion there is no answer to work-life balance. By that I mean the answer is “no”. Learning to say “no”.
Because as much as I enjoy advertising, no job competes with the greatest job of all: parenting. In fact, being a parent and being a successful creative need not be mutually exclusive. You just need to enjoy the chaos. There’s an energy to it. You learn to ride it. The whole process of parenting is solutions-focussed. You become flexible. You have to. Multitasking, while maintaining intense focus, is the hallmark of being a good parent. And also the hallmark of being a successful creative.
Before I had kids, friends told me that having a child rewires your brain—and it’s true, on an instinctive level, but also on a creative level. That kind of rewiring was well overdue for me, having spent 15 years in an industry seeing the world through the mono-focal lens of a singleton. Kids help you get over yourself in a big hurry. It’s a bit like taking psilocin (magic mushies): you begin to re-appreciate the world. Everything becomes new and fascinating. Your kids force you to stop and stare at ants for 15 minutes. Examine flowers and leaves. You begin to string together stories and manufacture fantasies, develop a renewed appreciation for animation and the power of storytelling. Dance like nobody is watching. Hold hands and skip around Christmas trees. The kind of things you wouldn’t dare do at production parties.
Your child ego emerges again. And that’s the most powerful creative state to create in.
Kids are wise and challenging. When my kid was 5 he asked me what my goals were. I’m in my early 40s and had never really contemplated nor articulated them (still haven’t BTW). My other son aged 5 caught me mindlessly scrolling through Instagram one day as he sat next to me as I unthinkingly ignored him. “What are you searching for Daddy?” he asked. The wisdom of 5 year olds, hey?
Of all the studying I’ve done, all the work I’ve put in, of all the countries I’ve visited, and all the talented people I’ve crossed paths with before kids, nothing has taught me nearly as much as fatherhood. Because ultimately there’s nothing more creative than creating another human being.