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Having a Family While Facing the Realities of Crunch

The beginnings of my thoughts on being a Father of 5, or a parent in general, in the Game Industry. As my first blog post I discuss how to maintain a healthy family relationship during the inevitable crunches that occur in our industry.

This morning I called my wife as I headed out to work. The ringing stopped and the garbled, muffled static that I recognized as one of my youngest children answering the phone filled the speaker.

"DAAAAD! I playing!"

It was Ivy, my two-year-old. She had a habit of finding my wife's phone wherever it was hidden and finding games to play. I asked what she was playing, to which she responded, "I watching Spongebob Squarepants." To the untrained ear it sounded much different, I can assure you that between the shrill squeeking it was what she said. It took quite a bit of coaxing, after asking her how her morning was and what she was going to do today, to be passed on to my four-year-old son, Tré. Around the room it went to the other kids until I was talking to my wife, Jennifer.

A month ago my wife started on a summer trip up to Seattle, where she was from. We had taken some time before she left to do as many things as we could before they left. We were approaching a milestone at work and I wanted to pitch in as much as I could to help, so off they went on a five-week trip. It takes a special relationship for these sorts of plans to take place with any sort of hard feelings. When my wife and I first met it quickly became apparent that we wanted to be together. Two things were made clear, we would want kids one day and that Game Industry schedules can be hell. That simple, upfront acknowledgment laid the foundation to the great relationship I have with my wife and kids today.

In an industry that is known for its long hours it takes a lot of communication to have a successful relationship and even more to have a big family. What I've found from experience are several ground rules that have helped me and might help those that already have families and are struggling or those that want to start one.

1. Setup a "Crunch Plan"

Crunches are ineviatable. This post is not to get into year long, seven-days a week, 20 hour day crunches, I don't condone that sort of thing. Regardless of the type or duration of the crunch you and your significant other should have a "Crunch Plan". This plan is different for everyone but my wife and I have had several different versions that worked for us.

First, make family dinner important. It may not have to be 5-7 seven days a week, but plan to either go home for dinner or have your family come to you. Find a place either in the office that won't disturb others or go outside and find a nice spot but take that time to eat dinner with your family and discuss their day. Play with your kids, listen to your significant other, make plans for your next time off, read your kids a book, help your kids with homework and if you're at home help get your kids ready for bed. It's important to not just spend time with your kids but to help your significant other. As developers with a family one has to remember that crunch is no long just difficult for you. Crunch is just as difficult for the other parent who has their own stresses of taking care of the kids while you're not at home.

Second, make, discuss, plan and finally, see through things to do with off-time. Getting a rare day off during crunch? Plan a hike, a picnic, a trip to the zoo, a drive to the mountains, a trip to the movies and then talk about it. "Hey, kids! Only two more days and we're going to go sleep in a tent and roast marshmellows!" Involve the kids in planning and use their input, even if its not exactly the most efficient or useful. Kids just want to learn and do things with their parents, plus if you haven't slept in a tent surrounded by stuffed animals you're missing out.

Third, at a relatively young age kids already understand that you're working hard along with everyone else at work with you. I've yet to meet a kid that didn't want to make cookies or some other baked goods that they can both have a share of and also give to the people their parent's work with. This is the perfect activity to plan for the night before going back to work from a day off. It's a wonderful time to bond and do something productive that teaches your kids a skill and simultaneously fun.

There are so many other things you can plan, either that I haven't thought of or that don't work in my particular situation. I look forward to hearing your ideas as well. The important thing is that you have a "Crunch Plan" and you follow it through.

2. Discuss Can't Miss Events

There are things that will come up during a crunch or even just during a regular work day: birthdays, holidays, surgeries, accidents, sicknesses, etc. These events should be discussed to whatever granularity they need to make it clear what will constitute time off. Surgeries are assuredly a time to stay home but what about a cold? Are the Chicken Pox a reason? What about your oldest child's birthday?

One shouldn't assume that they are on the exact same page as their significant other when it comes to these events. Any ambiguity should be removed to reduce tensions that may rise during times where stress can already be high. Even then, you should be willing to make changes to the plan if the need arises. If you have five kids, or even just more than one, maybe your plan called for you to stay at work when someone gets sick. Perhaps your plan didn't account for one or two more of them to catch the same illness the next day. Sick kids can quickly be too much for one parent to handle and you should be willing to jump in and help.

A certain guideline my wife and I go by in regards to events that are not injury or sickness related are that there will always be another day. My wife and I have only celebrated our Wedding Anniversary on the actual day once in seven years of marriage. This hasn't always been because of work but ultimately we consider having to do it on the exact day trivial. The important thing is that we do celebrate it; it just might not happen until the weekend or even a few days early. I've seen people get very angry with their significant others because they wanted to celebrate an occasion on a different day than it actually falls. I personally think the way our family hands these particular circumstances removes a lot of potential arguments. See my second point in the "Crunch Plan" section above for how to handle this.

3. Take Advantage of the Slow Times

Crunches come and crunches go and when crunches go so should you. Unless you're working in a country with non-existant labor laws, you have personal and vacation days. I've often heard the excuse, "Well, of course we have days off, but we can't use them." This is usually a self-made construct but in the case that people aren't allowed to take time off for long periods, that particular workplace is not conducive to having a family anyways and bigger choices should be made in that regard.

When you have a large family it's no longer about grinding a character to level 85 on your off-time or beating a game in one sitting. It's about making your family a priority and giving your significant other and kids the love and attention they deserve. Another crunch is always on the horizon and taking advantage of the slow times is critical to growing and maintaining your relationships with your family.

I find that this last point is the easiest to explain but the one that takes the most maturity to see through. If the time during a crunch is where we test our family's stamina, the time after it is where we replenish and strengthen it. As it often happens this might have to be experienced before it is taken seriously but for those who do take it to heart I firmly believe you and your family will be all the better for it.

In Conclusion

Working in the Game Industry does not relegate you to being an absentee parent and having a horrible relationship with your significant other. Choosing to not take the responsibility and time to invest in your family is what does. My family has a great relationship that we cherish day in and day out. It did not come easy to us and we worked very hard to get where we are today. This is why I wanted to share because I hope that any one of these things might help any one of you.

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