The Religious Parent Paradox: Six Ways Kids and Church Make Me More Productive

If you’ve ever felt like kids, church, and a productive work life can’t live in harmony, I want to squash that idea right here and now. Life can actually be far more productive when you combine all three.

At a family gathering a while back, I recall my wife and I darting frantically (as we usually are) between kids—one kid needed help getting food, another had spilled something, one was screaming about who-knows-what, and one had pooped. Then a family member, who doesn’t have kids but who is at the onset of a burgeoning career, approached me: “Do you ever have any free time?”

I laughed but she wasn’t kidding. I believe the prospect of having kids had weighed on her mind a time or two and she was observing me—perhaps in part to determine if childrearing was worth it; perhaps, at the very least, to see if she could keep her sanity while still keeping her job. “Free time” is a curious term to me and I don’t think I satisfied her with whatever improvised response I gave her.

(It’s probably good she didn’t observe me last night, when my 18-month-old squirted glitter glue all over the kitchen floor while my three-year-old came to tell me she had stuck one of those craft googly eyes up her left nostril and we ended up in Urgent Care.)

I’ve had similar reactions from people at work when they find out I have a small legion of rugrats dwelling in my home. “Wow,” they often mutter, followed by a blank stare and an awkward pause. Frequently, I get a sympathetic, “huh, that must be exhausting,” or “I don’t know how you do it” or, my favorite, “you must drink a lot of coffee.”  (Believe it not, I’ve never had a sip.) Several colleagues over the years have even elaborated, unprovoked, as to why they have chosen not to have kids, as if they feel the need to justify to me their very personal life decision.

What gets me, though, is that the bewilderment often intensifies when professionals find out that I spend much of my time outside of work and family doing “churchy” things as well. Serving in a leadership role in my local congregation, I spend a good part of Sundays at the church, two nights per week in meetings or assisting with youth groups, and each month participating in humanitarian or service projects, baptism services, funerals, or similar events.

As normal of a life as it seems to me, it has become increasingly and overtly evident that the life I live is different than many working professionals: apparently being a religious college professor with four kids makes me quite an oddball. I’m certainly not unique, of course—there are many college graduates and professionals who go to church and have more than three kids—but it’s safe to say that there are fewer and fewer people like me. And, based on the reactions I get at family gatherings and workplace conversations, there are fewer and fewer people that actually believe having multiple kids and being active in a religion can—or should—be done.

After all, Pew Research has shown that over half of all full-time working men not only feel that they spend too little time with the kids they have, but they also feel like they have too little time with their spouse and for themselves. If time’s such a squeeze with just a full-time job (among, of course, all of life’s other minutiae), how could there be time for more kids? And church?!

The Pew Research Center’s research on religion and public life in America also notes that only 27% of people my age (deemed “older Millennials”) attend church regularly. Pew’s social and demographic trends further stipulate that only 14% of moms have four or more children, and only 8% of women with post-graduate degrees (my wife has a master’s degree and I have a doctorate) have four or more children.

I suspect that those who like the idea of having children or those who wish they were a little more engaged in religious or humanitarian service—but have felt they would be losing an important part of their self, their life, and their career because they don’t have the time to devote to family and consistent charitable work or spirituality—often ask these questions: Is it possible, is it ethical, and is it…enjoyable to have kids, keep an active religious life, and pursue professional ambitions?

I say absolutely. And I call it the religious working parent paradox: when you fill your “free time” with kids, church, and service, you’re amazingly able to do even more. And it is, believe it or not, enjoyable.

It doesn’t seem possible, though, I know. On an average day, I’m at work for nine or so hours. Most people are awake for around 17 hours per day, myself included, so the question is—how are those other eight hours spent each day? Well I can tell you that at least four of them (from 5 p.m. until 9:00p.m.) aren’t spent doing anything remotely work-related. If you have kids, this will sound familiar to you.

I pull into the garage at 5:30, usually greeted by at least one (sometimes three) little ones, tugging my pants, talking at once, and asking who gets to get the mail. I take over kid patrol while Mom does the bookkeeping work she does from home. Then, the race is on. Load the kids in the van; drop one off at piano or soccer or ballet; drop another off at music or gymnastics or basketball; rush home to make a home-cooked meal; back in the van to pick up kids; eat together around the table (this is important!); wash dishes and scrub the hardening noodles off the kitchen floor; start homework with the older two; play a game (or function as a horse) with the younger two; keep encouraging and helping with the homework; play referee when one kid pokes another with a booger or a cucumber; get all four to bathe, brush teeth, and put on pajamas; read stories; pray together (also important!); and get them in bed. Throw into the mix on Tuesdays I’m in church meetings and Wednesdays I’m with Boy Scout troops, service projects, or field trips and you can see how that “free time” disappears in a hurry.

On the most successful days, all this is accomplished in four hours flat—and no one peed on the floor or ended up in InstaCare. On less successful days, it may take an extra hour as we work through injuries (usually minor of course), tantrums, slow-motion mannerisms, additional bedtime stories, or extra-crusty dinners stuck to the floor.

That personal anecdote is one that just about any parent with small children could relate to. And it is, I suspect, such anecdotes that professionals considering having kids (or who have one or two kids and feel exhausted all the time) fear hearing. There’s no hiding it—having a houseful of kids is busy. And it can be rather tiring and oftentimes difficult. Yet the great irony is this: I’ve discovered that when I’m most focused on my family and church responsibilities, I get a whole lot more done at work and during those few remaining hours of “personal” time each day (which, for me, tends to be between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m. and between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m.)

This great paradox works because of six somewhat remarkable phenomena:

  1. When I’m busy, I manage my time better.
  2. When life slows Down, I itch to do more to fill my time.
  3. When there’s little personal time, I savor the moments that I get—and I feel rewarded by the rest.
  4. When I’m busy at home, work stays at work.
  5. Weekends with family become a truly refreshing reward.
  6. When I use Sunday to disconnect from the world, Monday is much easier to face.

Phenomenon #1: When I’m Busy, I Manage My Time Better
If you’ve ever had a day where you had to write out everything you needed to accomplish so that you didn’t forget something important, I think you’ll relate with me here. Days that require lists are busy and tiring, no doubt, but those days are good days because they are the days I feel like I accomplished something awesome. When I’ve got two dozen things on my list and I know I only have 17 hours to knock them out, I have to plan, prioritize, and parse my day. While it seems like a no-brainer, when I have a lot to do, I get more done.

As a working parent with church responsibilities, my days have to be sliced up into an array of pre-planned segments. I know that, if I want to be a good husband and father, I need to be malleable during those four hours between work and the kids’ bedtime. I plan in my mind each day what will likely, what must, and what should happen during that time. Obviously, that includes things like dinner, transporting kids to their activities, and helping with their homework. On days that I have church and youth group responsibilities, that’s wedged in there as I plan for baptisms, talks and presentations, funeral services, weekly Boy Scout lessons, Sunday school lessons, and service projects. But during those four hours, there are also less definitive components that I know I must also do: read a book to my three-year-old, play balls with my 18-month-old, jam out to the new Trolls soundtrack with my six-year-old, and develop the most creative solution to a school Valentine’s Day box with my nine-year-old.

Because I have to methodically plan each day for all that must happen at home, it’s become a natural habit of mine to segment the rest of my “personal” time. I know I’ve got roughly two hours every morning before the kids wake up and I arrive at work, so I plan what I would like to do in that time—exercise, eat, shower, and listen to an audiobook on my 30-minute drive to work. In my two hours after the kids go to bed, I segment that with things like creative projects or hobbies, down time watching TV (that has been DVR’d, of course, so that I don’t waste time watching commercials), and hanging out with my wife.

When things go well, my day feels pretty good. I’m tired, but I’ve done a lot. And I can quantify it and it makes me feel good. Which leads me to phenomenon #2.

Phenomenon #2: If I’m Busy A Lot, When Things Slow Down I Itch to Do More
As my life has become increasingly busier, I’ve noticed a strange thing: in those rare moments each week when things slow down—when maybe there is a reprieve at work or the kids are off at friends’ houses or a church event gets cancelled—I find myself wanting to fill the time. Oh, sure, I sometimes use that time to nap, but more often than not, particularly if it’s not night time, I find myself wanting to “fill” that time with something fulfilling. Behavioral psychologists who study habits would call this a “craving”; I get so used to being busy that, when things slow down, I crave something to do—otherwise I feel bored rather quickly.

In what I would deem a fortuitous complement to phenomenon #1, when I plan my time well, I frequently have more time to do more things. As life has gotten busier and busier, I’ve somehow innately learned how to fulfill my cravings during “slow times” with more things.

In addition to my full-time job, church stuff, and family responsibilities, for example, I run this crazy website and design educational infographics (my weird creative outlet); I do consulting and graphic design work for businesses and organizations (for professional development and extra cash); I’m writing a book (my life dream); I tinker on the piano (so my kids don’t think I make them do something I wouldn’t do); I train for half-marathons (because I’m nuts); I read books about the brain and communication (my intellectual escape); I write weekly in my journal (for genealogical records?); I closely follow my college sports (my other escape); and I’m always, always planning for the next experience my family can enjoy together—trips, concerts, movies, campouts, hikes, golf outings; whater.

Logically, I think, to many people who observe me at those family gatherings or rushing home from work to be with my kids, it must seem like there isn’t time for personal ambition or hobbies. But the busier I get, the more I seem to be able to do. Which leads me to phenomenon #3.

When There’s Little Personal Time, I Take Advantage When I Get It
I compare this phenomenon to my favorite holiday treat, Dark Chocolate Raspberry Sticks. I don’t typically buy these on my own (people gift them to me) and I usually only get them at holidays like Easter, Father’s Day, or Christmas. But when I do get them, oh, I eat them. And I’m not real good about sharing. I eat and savor every one until they’re completely gone.

When time is consistently filled with work, church, and kids, those moments where time breaks open (which I actually often just have to plan for and wedge out) are as intensely enjoyable as downing an entire box of raspberry sticks in one sitting.

Being busy has done two things for me in terms of gratitude: I’m generally immensely grateful for the time I do have to be with family, to have rewarding religious and spiritual experiences, and to develop professionally. Any time in any of these areas is worth celebrating and being grateful for. But I’ve also learned that when I do have time to myself, I don’t want to waste it. I want to fill it with raspberry sticks, not rice cakes.

There are a lot of things can distract us these days—reality TV, SnapChat, Angry Birds, email (oh, the curse of our day), you name it—but most of them, most of the time, aren’t all that fulfilling. While I certainly do spend some of my time on social media or in front of the tube, I’ve found that, when I’m really busy, I crave more productive, more savory ways to spend my time. I’m not perfect, by any means, but when I’m really busy I do tend to be better at making the most out of each of life’s moments.

Phenomenon #4: When I’m Busy at Home, Work Stays at Work
Perhaps one of the greatest phenomena of being busy with kids and church is that, when I leave work, I completely leave work. I can’t tell you how many colleagues I’ve heard over the years complain about how email never leaves them, how they’re constantly working from home or on their cell phones, and that there is no escape.

Now, I would be lying if I said I never check my email at home or on my cell phone, but I will say that I don’t feel like work follows me. I rarely answer emails when I’m at home. There just isn’t time when I’m driving, cooking, cleaning, brushing, and bed-timing. If a work emergency arises, people find a way to notify me, but for most intents and purposes, I check out of work the moment I leave my office. Hardcore working professionals may point fingers or assume I’m not as committed as they are to their 70-hour workweeks, but they’re perspectives on this don’t bother me. I’ve learned that I’m actually much more productive (and happy to be) at work when I haven’t thought a lick about it for an entire evening the day before. After all, I imagine it’s much harder to not think about work when you don’t have kids or church to think about.

Phenomenon #5: Weekends with Family Are a Refreshing Reward
Something miraculous I’ve noticed about having kids is that their desire to reach the weekend is as palpable as mine—and it totally refreshes me to enjoy it with them. As a family, weekends are our time when we all, collectively, leave the grind of the week and we do something different together. During the week, we’re full of routines—work, school, activities, meetings, homework, and so forth. But on the weekend, it’s different. Few workplace or school environments require anything on Friday nights and Saturdays are wide-open free-for-alls. Sunday is a day of rest and we soak that in.

While every family experiences time together in different ways, in my family, we know that Friday night we’re doing something fun—eating out or going to a movie or bowling or going on a hike. Regardless of how busy the week gets, regardless of how little sleep we’ve gotten or how many stresses we’ve encountered, on Friday and Saturday we’re hanging out together doing something beyond the routine.

I’ve learned that making the weekends count is a critical component to living a busy life.

I recall a day while I was in graduate school, working on my PhD, when this became ever evident to me. I had two kids at the time and I was in a cohort of four other doctoral candidates. Each of us was working on our comprehensive exams and the stress had started to mount. Two years prior, when I started the program, I committed to myself and to my wife that, no matter how crazy school got during the week, I would never do homework on Friday nights, Saturday after 2:00p.m., or at all on Sunday. I would push through the week, staying up all hours of the night if I had to, but the weekend was for the family.

One of the girls in my cohort grumbled on a Monday morning, complaining about how much we had to do and how stressed she was. Then she asked me how my weekend went. When I told her I went hiking up Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Falls with my kids on Saturday, and spent Sunday at church and with some friends for an afternoon dinner, she was bewildered. While I don’t remember her response in words precisely, I vividly recall the judgment she expressed towards me. How could I have the time for such luxuries? Didn’t I take my work and degree seriously? How dare I go out and enjoy myself?

While I don’t pretend to think that I worked harder during the week than any of my colleagues, I knew through other conversations with her and others that their weeks and weekends were very different than mine. Without taking the time to disconnect, to be with family or church or kids, they found themselves letting school bleed into every hour and day of each week. There was no true disconnect. They did other things, of course—they would drink with friends and with each other, they would engage in online consortiums through interactive games like World of Warcraft, and they would get together for pool or bowling. But they seemed to rarely have a weekend or an evening fully disengaged from school—it always bled into their personal lives and it seemed to wear them completely out.

I found then, and I continue to realize, that, when I know my weekend will be filled entirely with my family and my home, I have a reward waiting for me at the end of every single week—a time when work falls off the radar. And it’s a reward that is filled with experiences that change my entire perspective on life for the better because it’s time spent being with people I love.

Phenomenon #6: When I Use Sunday to Disconnect, Monday Is Much Easier to Face
Finally, the last phenomenon is the Sunday Effect. Because I was raised in a religious home, using Sunday as a true day of rest has never really been all that difficult to get used to. For many of my colleagues and friends over the years who don’t have a real proclivity towards church or religion, “losing” half of your weekend doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But to them, I would simply say, “try it.”

While I can’t say I’m able to rest all day on Sunday (I mean, I do have four kids!), Sunday is a day where I completely disengage. I watch very little TV. I rarely play games or poke around social media on my phone or computer. I don’t ever go out to movies or stores or restaurants. We’re committed, as a family, to being with each other doing things in our home (or at Grandma’s house.) We go to church. We read books. We play board games. We take naps. We go on walks. And we hang out.

The older I get, the more I realize just how glorious this kind of a day truly is. Again, in a paradoxical way, removing an entire day of the week from what we would typically call “constructive” activities has actually made me far more productive. I find that, after a Friday and Saturday of fun and working around the house, and a Sunday filled entirely with church, family, and rest, Monday is so much easier to jump into. I never really dread Mondays because I’m more energized and ready to start them up again. Sundays are like the power boost headed into another lap. And, when used as a day of reflection, quietude, and family, I’m convinced they’re the final critical key to being productive.

Now, in all of this, I never did say having kids and being religious is easy. But I will emphatically say, over and over again, that it is indeed possible to accomplish all that you may hope to while maintaining an active family life with multiple kids and religious. And while it can be busy and tiring, it’s a very happy, productive, and fulfilling way of life.

One thought on “The Religious Parent Paradox: Six Ways Kids and Church Make Me More Productive

  • February 3, 2017 at 9:03 am

    You are a remarkable man. Thank you for working with my daughter to teach her the things you have learned about time management and finding time for what is important to her.

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