A few years ago, as I was contemplating a step from provost to president, I asked a college president how he managed the demands of the job with young children who were just then entering high school. He replied that he had never found a satisfactory answer to the question but that ensuring daily conversations with his children, no matter where he was in the world, and building time into the schedule, were key.
As a single parent, with children ages three and eight who spend 2/3 of the time four hundred miles away, I have tried to take that advice to heart. Daily phone conversations and Skype are of course not nearly enough, though they do help to collapse the distance.
But I'm trying to do what I can to be a part of their lives in ways that the job might not traditionally have allowed, thanks to a board and campus that have been incredibly supportive.
Last week, I took a few days away from the college -- one is never quite 'off' in this role and the inexorable march of e-mail continued -- and spent the time on a bus with my son and forty of his grade school mates.
Suffice it to say that our travel experience contrasted sharply with the familiar habits and haunts of the presidential road warrior. Our first night on the road, for instance, we slept in a glass tunnel below the Mall of America aquarium. I am not sure which was worse: the near-constant peals of giggling at the same eight-year-old jokes I heard in grade school eons ago, or the alligator gar and green saw sharks swimming overhead (I can confirm that neither is an effective sleeping aid). No doubt there are lessons to be learned here, but I am not sure what they are. Next time, Motel 6?
We spent the weekend driving to Concordia College's Language Villages, where we were immersed in French with kids of similar ages from across the Midwest.
Since my year of collegiate French--my somewhat better preparation in Latin seems unlikely to lead to immersion camps--is now reduced to a specialized vocabulary sufficient to allow me to read Tour de France stage reports in L'Monde, I was little help with immersion. The kids looking for the shallow end came to me ('Je ne parle pas Français' was, alas, my most common reply.).
Three days of immersion in French was no doubt a great learning experience for my son and for me. But immersion in parenting was even better: we'll both long remember the days spent together (mostly) unconstrained by the constant demands of the job.
I'll be a better father for the opportunity and, I expect, a better president.