An Open Letter to My Children

The life of the millionaire entrepreneur and father of five, Joseph Felfoldi, does not contain any idle days or hours. The need to be constantly alert and shrewd in both business and family matters means there is rarely a pause for reflection.

It is not really common to consider the family in the background of a powerful businessman: The focus is on the man as the figurehead of the company and its achievements rather than as a father tasked with providing for his family materially and emotionally.

We routinely celebrate business leaders for their genius and drive but how often do we wonder at how difficult it might be to manage a complex business enterprise in the public eye while maintaining a harmonious and balanced private life at home?

Joseph Felfoldi, entrepreneur, music producer and inspirational writer, recently opened up about his struggles and joys as a father, with the hope of raising further awareness of a topic that has recently gained more attention: What it means to be a successful father, how to weigh compromises, and when to admit your mistakes. Here is his open letter to his children:

“I often say that being a CEO with kids is the riskiest extreme sport ever. Like a lot of men, I rather make jokes like that than really open up my feelings. I generally avoid talking about my private life altogether, unless it is through jokes or an abstract philosophical lens. Recently, however, with my children now fully grown – I’m also blessed to be a grandfather – I’ve started thinking more about my own childhood and my role as a father.

I’m well aware that I am far from the only parent who struggles with exactly how to balance priorities. You feel you are constantly sacrificing either the security of the family income or the precious time you have with your children. I too have seen the endless stream of online articles that elaborate the dilemmas, heartaches, hardships and injustices facing modern mothers and fathers.

I can only speak as a father and I only have to consider my experience with my own father to see how much change there has been in the last forty years, for both better and worse, in the way the father’s role is understood and performed.

My father was taught that a man was, first and foremost, a protector and provider. Consequently, he taught these same traditional values to me. The nuts and bolts of this can seem quaint now – and often sexist – but it was based on the logic and hard realities of the time. Soon after my first children were born in the 1970s, my father happened to catch me washing diapers and he flew into a rage, even threatening to disinherit me and force me to change my name if I were ever to repeat that transgression. He told me: Hire a maid to do the laundry instead of you wasting your time and missing precious opportunities to be with your loved ones, my son!
Yes, my father’s generation considered doing the laundry and other household tasks to be ‘unmanly’. I don’t necessarily agree – I believe, like most people today, that chores should be shared between husband and wife …but, my father’s main point here was based on the idea that a man should be working hard to provide for his family – and that he should make the most of every minute of his short, precious time at home with his family by spending time with them.

In other words: First, provide for your family’s security and then enjoy spending time with them. I followed the immediate part of my father’s advice and hired a housekeeper, which helped but I wish that I had taken his deeper meaning more to heart: Sadly, due to the insatiable demands of my career, I missed out on millions of heart-warming moments with my girls and boys, which is so sad I can’t even put it into words. As I think about it now, I realise the sadness has always been there but like everything else, it got buried beneath the weight of so many daily urgent matters to address and bills to pay and people to call and problems to fix, as the days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years.

But back to my father. He always emphasised the importance of hard work and I, in turn, passed this value on to my own children. I always encouraged them to identify and work towards goals and targets and what it takes to get there and how to make the crucial decisions and sacrifices. For instance, my twin daughters had the chance to earn some money if they helped with the housework and they could not have been more proud of themselves and of the dolls and toys that they were able to buy.

It’s incredibly important to instil strong values into children and I’m glad my father did this for me. But it’s also important to be kind and comforting and attentive and I tried to be good at this, too, even if I had no template to base it on. I still know by heart every word of each tale I read before bedtime. I would wake up instinctively a few seconds before one of the kids fell off the bed. I made braids for the girls and bought them pretty dresses. I played the clown.

And then to suddenly snap out of this role, especially after they have hugged me so tightly, and resume the mantle of authority, the hard-headed businessman, while still feeling affected and emotional. The eighties and nineties were aggressive times for doing business, too, when you had to have your wits about you, and physical violence was a real possibility.

Even now my children are adults, I am still anxious about them: I still have pangs of concern that can assail me at any time of the day. I worry and sometimes I want to hold them tight to physically feel they are safe. I can admit this now but when I was a younger man? Probably not. Probably every parent feels something in a similar way but for guys, it can feel like being ‘soft’. For guys who are also leading a company and making tough decisions, about hiring and firing people, for example, or defending the company against hostility, it can be even more of a taboo to appear ‘soft’: Showing any kind of weakness can even seem like a matter of company survival.

And of course, parenting is not all about ‘me’ the parent: It is also a challenge to reconcile the differences we have with our children, to accept that we do not think and we will not act the same way. Our mindsets, our targets, our needs are often very different, or perhaps subtly different, in ways that take time to understand.

When I established the company, I thought, rather romantically, that one day my children and I would manage it together as a family. I now realise that not only was this dream romantic and simplistic but that it was also rather self-centred – but how could it not be? How could it not be, when your whole reason for being is to be protector and provider?

The hardest part of parenting is letting go – knowing that your children will not share the exact same sense of direction as you. It’s extremely hard to take a step back. And it’s hard not to sometimes feel left behind and let down, even when you know it’s not about you and it’s not about anybody being against you.

Currently, the greatest challenge for me is acting always calmly and disciplined. Moreover, communicating without roughness. I’m a country guy with a gritty background. I don’t have airs and graces to fall back on so I have to constantly work at softening my rough edges, in the hope I can be a kind and patient father to my adult children. With this kindness and patience I hope I will be more able to fully appreciate the various natures of all five of my children, who are independent, strong-headed, but most of all, wonderful.

It’s not always easy! At times, I feel… like no one is listening. That’s hard for a father and hard for a CEO. I wonder at the role I played in this. I admit, I was often far from my children when they were younger. I focused on the business and even enjoyed focusing on the business when I might have spent more time with them. Though I have tried to compensate, there are things that can never be replaced such as presence and loving attention. I think once again: Maybe I haven’t given them enough time and care. I was absent when they were doing their projects and homework and I can tell, they were probably missing me. I did not join them, I missed so many events in their lives. Despite all my efforts and achievements, I also caused my children much sadness and many disappointments, for which I feel so much sadness and regret.

I hope by opening up a little, I can help people to remember that business leaders are mothers and fathers, too and that ‘success’ is not black and white. Success can’t be captured in an Instagram photo or a bank balance: It’s the little choices you make every day about how you spend your time and energy, knowing that you will never be able to succeed 100% in everything.

Raising kids as a business leader involves lots of these tricky daily choices and I don’t have any profound words of wisdom beyond the advice my father gave: Provide for your family and value your time with them. Exactly how you do that is different for every business and for every family.

Certainly, it only works if you take your family seriously and respect each member equally. As your children become adults, you also have to realise that you cannot and should not continue to provide everything for them: They need their own experiences and experiments; you have to let them see everything for themselves. It is useless and selfish to project your former dreams and visions onto them instead of letting them hunt on their own to satisfy their own appetites.

I am no longer the one who defines what my children should do and where they should be going. I thank God for having sensible and self-sufficient children and I am certain that I will be extremely proud of them for as long as I live.”

This post was previously published on Joseph Felfoldi and is republished here with a Creative Commons license.

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Photo credit: iStock