I Just See Green: My interview with Rizwan Shah

This interview is episode 8 of my REworking Parents podcast series. 

Rizwan Shah spent over twenty years in the military, is currently a senior advisor to a government,  and a single father of three teenage kids. Riz met his former wife while they were both military officers. Since they had their first child 15 years ago, Riz has prided himself on being a highly involved dad. If he wasn't deployed overseas or in the air (he was in aviation), he made every soccer game, every tooth extraction, every school play. He was given a lot of latitude by his superiors, and his ex faced a lot of resistance. While he was admired as an involved dad, she was told "if the army had wanted you to have a kid, they would have issued you one." He and his ex split up several years ago, he now has full custody of his children. 

One of five siblings, Riz is the son of Pakistani immigrants. His father was a decorated military official. His parents had gated house and a household staff.  Several years after his older sister was born with Down Syndrome, his parents sold everything they had and moved to Fairfax County, Virginia. In the late 1970s, that was the only place they could find to get adequate care for his sister. As accommodating as their new home was for her, it wasn't so welcoming to middle eastern immigrants. His father's first job in the US was as a mechanic in a Volvo dealership. They struggled for many years. 

Now Riz is making his own sacrifices. After gaining full custody of his kids, he left a long military career. He wanted to avoid the inevitable deployments and time away. Riz found a senior position in a government agency as an advisor on organizational development. Before taking the position, he made his needs clear: he would not compromise parenthood for his job. telework would be a necessity and he was not to be contacted after hours while he was home with his kids. Riz's standards for his work, his role as a dad, and for his kids, are high.

Rachael:   What your take is on how we get dads more involved in a conversation about working parenthood. How do we make this relevant?

Riz:   First of all, I I haven't met any other single dads so far, who have custody of their children. I've made friends with three other single parents within my department hoping to set up some kind of support network. They're single moms. Two ladies have one child, one has two. In our discussions flexibility does come up: Are their supervisors willing to offer them accommodations? I know your question is on how we get dads involved, and I think there is some archaic thinking out there we need to address. 

I left the military because my children needed my focus after my divorce. I loved my job, I was really good at it, and successful. But my parents gave me a very strong sense of family, and a huge sense of responsibility when it comes to having children. They come first. My father and mother both showed it in the sacrifices they made to provide for us as immigrant parents.

My older sister had Downs Syndrome. In the 70's, four out of the five siblings were born in Pakistan. My parents recognized that in the 70's there was really no kind of opportunity that my older sister would have in Pakistan. It was definitely an under-developed nation back then. My dad took a month off from work and literally traveled the Middle East and Europe and the United States. You know, back in those days, you could drive through the Middle East, it was safe.

They looked for the place which would offer the most opportunities, and it was Fairfax, Virginia in the 70's. World-renowned, world leader for having programs for people with challenges, from the time they were born to the time they're passed. That is the reason my parents have never left Fairfax County, Virginia. If you're a resident, all programs are included. My father and mother sold everything, and they moved to Fairfax County, Virginia specifically, back in 1977, so that my older sister would have the best chance at life to be successful.

In a conversation with my father recently, he said: "You children were not born with a disability. I knew that no matter where we went, you would be fine, but I had to take her somewhere which she would have the best chance." We didn't come for money, or the glory of a better job. My father was a very accomplished person in Pakistan.

What did your father do?

My father was a Senior Officer in the Pakistan military. He was a pilot. He was poised to be a General Officer. He was what they considered a boyscout, one of a handful of non-corruptible officers. A lot of people were sad to see him go. He had a huge career ahead of him, and then a political career, too. People wanted to see him in politics, because he was an honest man. 

He left everything to give my sister a shot. He went from that life, to where we lived in a 5,000 square foot house, and had drivers and servants and people who guarded the front gate. His first job was an auto mechanic working at a Volvo dealership. In the 70's, in the DC area, minorities didn't have it too well. We were the first minorities ever to move into our neighborhood... of any kind.

That's my sense of responsibility. I see what my dad did for my sister, and it benefited us in some way. I knew he was right. My brothers and my younger sister, we would have been just fine being just as successful in Pakistan. But there's no way my sister would have had that shot. She's had a job ever since I can remember. I grew up in Fairfax County, Department of Therapeutic Recreation for the Disabled. That was the job that I had before I went into the military. I made recreation programs for the disabled for four years. I loved it.

That's where my sense of family comes from. I understand the plight of the minorities, and that's why I've always had zero tolerance for people who do not take care of family number one.

Even while I was in the military, when I first met my first wife, she was a soldier as well. We had children, and we took turns. Half the time I picked up the kids from school or after work, or half the time she did. I did a lot of the cooking because I love to cook. She would go out and she would mow the yard, or dig this. I did things in the house because of my technical competence, not necessarily my gender. She did the same. She handled the bills and all of that, because she was a logistician.

But talk about archaic thinking, if I was hard at work on people, I was considered to be stubborn, or I was considered to be really tough on people, but for their own good. If she did the same thing, and she did, she was tough, too... She was labeled as being bossy, and if I may say so, being a bitch.

She and I used to have these conversations. It was very frustrating for her to be treated separately. If I had to leave work because a child was sick, and it was my day to do it, oh, that's great, Riz, you're a great dad, you're taking off from work to go take care of your kids. When she did it, it was like are you kidding me? Again? People make these jokes, but they're not really jokes. Like, if the Army wanted you to have a kid, they would have issued you one.

Now I'm here, in my current employment, and talking to my friends who are single moms. One of the boundaries I set as I was being hired, I said, I'm a single dad, and tele-working is extremely important to me, and having flexibility in my day. During the interview, they said, what do you mean? I said, if I have a child home that's sick, and I'm perfectly capable of doing my job at the house, that's what I'm going to do. I do not want to use up my sick days, and vacation days to take care of health-related reasons, because those vacation days are supposed to be used for fun. I told them, I have three kids. Somebody's going to be sick. I would never have a vacation day if I have to use a vacation day.

The new Federal policy allows you to telework. You cannot use telework to provide alternate daycare for a child, but you're allowed to use telework for doctor's appointment, and if someone's sick or a car is broken down, or what-not. Okay, done deal. I haven't gotten any pushback, but here I am being probably the only single male in the department, that I know of, in my offices, and I'm considered some kind of hero. People say, “I don't know how you do it, you're an amazing man, blah-blah-blah.” I talk to my friends who are the single moms, and their children are looked at as some kind of burden on the organization. Like, “oh, she's got to take off again.” All the time. Of course, I'm very outspoken when it comes to gender equality.

I'm raising two daughters, and I want them to have no fear of the job and family, and I want to show them this balance. When I left the military, it was not because I couldn't handle work and my kids. I left the military because military deploys. It's part of the job. You can't get out of that. I loved being in the military, but, you know, I love my kids more. So I left the military, found a job and I had very specific things. I'll give you background on myself. I was an extremely involved parent. I'm not saying father-mother. When I'm not at work, I don't check my emails, I don't take calls from work unless they're life-threatening emergencies. That's not going to happen at my current job.

Did you and your ex-wife formally designate turns around childcare?

We did. We didn't do days, it was “this week you drop them off, I'll pick them up. Next week you pick them up and I'll drop them off.”

When I say I was an involved parent, if I wasn't deployed, I made every tooth extraction, every brace appointment, eye appointment. I coached one child's team every single season since they could play sports. I'm not exaggerating when I say that. If I was not deployed, or out on a field exercise or something, I went above and beyond my ex-wife. I went to the chorus recitals, tap, you name it. 

When you were out looking for a job, you knew you had to leave the army. Obviously you made it clear that tele-work was a priority for you. But did you know that that family value piece was part of this organizational culture, when you demanded flexibility?

No. During my interviews, I expressed how important family was to me. It's an expectation. I've been around long enough where I can have expectations of the people hiring me. I said, this is what I expect, and they said, oh, of course, yes. It's not in a policy letter or something. I completely understand, you'll get full support, yada-yada-yada... and it's been true. It's been true so far, and I'm very pleased about that.

I was making a point about the single mother who's a really good friend of mine. She gets pushback sometimes. Do you really have to? Are you sure you can't come in for this meeting? I know your child's sick. But it could just be that one person. Overall, there is a dedication to family, but I can tell there's a gender difference.

I know they want her to take care of her family. I know they want to take care of her. I know that both of us, as perceived in parent roles, is different. How can I explain it? It's like, if my ex-wife had custody of my children, and I was not super-involved in their lives, it would not look too negatively upon me, because they're with their mother. Right?

I have custody and she's not involved... just simply the fact that she doesn't have custody, people automatically make assumptions about her. Now that she's not involved, I would say... 75% of the single parents that I know, the other parent is not involved. And the 25% that are, they're involved really well. You know what I mean? They're full-in.

The other people who aren't, they're just not. There's not a lot of middle ground that I see. Me, being a single parent, the way I feel it's perceived as, like, oh, I've done this great thing for my children. As a man, I've taken custody of my kids. I see these moms, and I'm going, they're just as impressive as I am. You know?

They're doing the role of a single parent, and they should get just as much recognition as I should. 

So you attribute your commitment to your family to the kind of experience you had.

Yeah, and the kids to say I'm the fun dad, but I'm the most strictest dad they know. They attribute that to me being a military officer. Some things I'm strict about, and some things I'm not at all. If they make a mess, it never upsets me, because I just say, hey, kids make messes. We just clean it up.

When they're disrespectful to people, to me that's a big deal. If you were to ask my kids right now, “what is the number one thing your father teaches you?” They’d say: respect. We don't judge people on race, gender, sexual preference, religion, skin color, nothing. I don't ever say anything negative about anybody in front of them.

When I talk about gender equality,  I mean it. They all do the same chores. We all went to my sister's this weekend to build some cabinets, and Devon helped me for half a day, Jenna helped me for half a day. There's no role separation in the house. I taught my girls how to straighten and curl their hair. That's a skill I had to learn to make sure my girls knew.

I'm not shy with my children at all. I guess what I'm trying to say is, because I'm a single dad, and my ex-wife is not involved at all, there are things that girls need to know. Like, it's for that time of the month, right?

That would be my first guess. Yes.

I went out and researched, looked up how to pick a pad, you know? I had that conversation with my girls, because that is a skill that they have to have, and I can't be shy about it because a guy doesn't talk about that stuff. So I stopped saying father and mother, and I say parent. I don't shirk that responsibility off on anybody. When we moved to the Maryland area, it was to be close to family. My youngest says now, is it okay if I talk to Aunty Miriam about this? I'm like, absolutely, you can talk to her.

But understand this, it remains my responsibility, so I will be the first person that talks to you about sex and everything else. And if you want to talk to your aunts and uncles that's fine. I tell all my kids that. Being a man or a woman has nothing to do with it. I'm your parent. They get it.  I love it, Raquel, because they will come talk to me about anything now.

 It sounds like you're quite proud of your job as a parent, and what you're doing.

 I love it.

What do you love most about parenting? What do you value most about the job? What's most rewarding? 

This is a little self-conceited answer. When one of them repeats something I've said to them, in advice to a friend of theirs. Inside my little voice will be like, yes. They are listening, and it's that little triumph, you know, like, oh my gosh, that's amazing, you know?

To me, that's the most rewarding, is to watch them growing and making a decision on their own. That, to me, is cool. It's 50 hours of work to get 10 minutes of gratification or even more. Probably 50 days of work to get 10 minutes of gratification as a parent.

I just practice being available. I'm not the best parent all of the time. There are days I blow my lid.

I think what makes me successful is consistency. No matter what's going on, I'm there as a parent. It doesn't mean I have to be perfect, and it doesn't mean I have to catch every boo-boo, or every emotion, or every look, and find out what's happening in their life. It is just being consistent. I gave up being a perfect parent a long time ago. That's too much work. It's tough enough being me.

Exactly. You have to build on your core strengths, right? What's your competitive advantage as a working parent? What do you do uniquely well? 

 It’s funny. I find the same gratification with my children that I find in my job in organizations. I've always found my most enjoyment in watching others succeed. And a little joy because it's something I taught them, you know?

It's the same thing with kids. We have our ups and downs. They have a lot of abandonment issues because their mom's not involved. I think what made me successful was that one day I stopped making excuses for her. I said, you know, I need to just focus on me and them and now. I noticed it was making a rift between us with me constantly trying to justify her, so I stopped doing that.

It's the consistency. I think the kids know that, no matter what, I'm going to be there. Here's another saying I taught the kids, is, when does daddy love you the most? And they'll answer, when we're being bad. Devon is my middle teenager, who's going to be 15 this year. He says, “I don't feel that's possible, dad.” I'm like, what do you mean it's not possible? He's like, well how can it be you love us most when we're being bad? I said, well if a parent doesn't love their child, they don't do anything about it. I said, and a parent shows love by being involved. So, even when you're being bad, if a parent's being involved, that's a loving parent.

It sounds like, over the course of your whole career, for the past 15 years, when you had a demand on you outside the office, from your family, you made it clear that was your priority. You never let that interfere with your work performance. 

When I talk to some of the managers about teleworking and flexibility.  I've said, talk about trust, the tele-working, the challenges of it. I said, you send one of your employees across the country to California to attend a work group or conference for a week, right? They're like, yeah. Why do you have such an issue sending them home 20 minutes away for 30 minutes to a couple of hours... and thinking they're not going to get the work done? Then they get it. They're like, oh, I never thought of it that way.

You can send somebody for a week away, out of your supervision, trusting they're going to do the work, but why do we have such a block on sending people home for half a day trusting that they're still going to get the job done? I like to think I'm a logical person, and sometimes that gets into my head. I can't help but wonder "how the hell can you not see it for what it is?"

Managers will hide behind policies.  They'll say, I have to look at the policy and see if you're allowed to leave. Or you're not really working because you're at a doctor's appointment. I'm sitting here like, really? Why bother to micromanager when you just sent this person off for a week? Think about it. Sending someone off for a tele-conference, you have no control. They could party for a week and come back, and no one will even question what they did while they were gone.

But when it comes to women... it's, I got custody, so she must have been really, really bad, and he's doing society a favor, as a father, taking his kids. Whereas, when a woman takes her kids, and it's like, it's her duty as a mom to do it, so she shouldn't get any special consideration.

 As a father, I'm going above and beyond. I've had conversations like these with them. Of course, I can't make a blanket statement for all of humanity, but I know that people have said, well duh, she's going to get the kids, she a woman. You got them because you're super-dad. That's why you got them. I'm like, you don't even know the history. There's no way any sane judge would have given custody to my ex-wife at that time in her life. You know?

I'm not saying I'm a bad father, I'm just saying, you get custody for certain reasons, but I really don't like the way, in society, we make that separation.

 I carried that into my military service, when it came to male and female soldiers. Just being human. I don't care what your religion is, blah-blah-blah. Now, in my new job, it's the same way. Treat each other as human beings. Quit focusing on gender and all this other... crap, I call it. Can you do the job? Great. Be a family at work, let's get it done. But that's too simple.

Especially in this culture, and it's frustrating, but you're right. It isn’t about parenting, and it isn't about mothers or fathers. It's just who's going to get the results, and who's going to do the job.

My friend, she's phenomenal. She's a super trooper. She works far harder than I do, but the fact that she gets a hard time every time she needs to leave the office, it doesn't make sense to me. Where with me it's almost encouraged. As soon as I say, one of the kids, I don't even have to say what it is... oh, yeah-yeah-yeah. Sure, Riz, go right ahead. That could also be my boss. He's very sensitive to taking care of his folks, knowing that they will take care of him. Her boss is a little younger, and has no children. Maybe that has a factor in it.

The biggest challenge in terms of implementing flexibility is managerial buy in, and managerial skills around implementing flexibility.  I think that creating a more level playing field, and a more open conversation between parents of both genders, is going to help move things along.

Resources, too, I will tell you... Even in the short year that I've been here, other positions have been offered to me. It makes me feel good, but I've turned them down because I know that I'm not willing to put the time into the job, because I know I would have to, at this point, take it away from the kids. They're at a point in their life when they really need me more than my job needs me. This job is good. I get to set my own time, my own schedule and what not. It allows me flexibility, but if I was to take this other position, it would bind me to certain hours and things because I would have people working for me... and I choose not to.

There is a limit to which you can do as a single parent. Absolutely. Part of my job requires me to travel, and I hadn't planned on taking a traveling job, but when it was offered, I was discussing it with my family who lives in the area, and they're like, excited, yeah, we'll cover for you... and they've been great. I'm gone for two weeks in March, my parents are coming and staying at the house with the kids.I have a support structure that I didn't have before I moved here. It was just me, and that was one of the deciding factors to leave the military. I'm like, there's no way I could put my children in someone else's hands and deploy for a year. Even my own family. It's not that I wouldn't trust my family.

You want to be there. 

I want to be there when things happen. I want to have those memories. I'm not willing to trade them for the world. I think gender should not play a role when it comes to good parenting. I really don't think so. I think some of these managers who are not informed, fail to realize that taking care of your people is translated into more than just giving them time off for vacations. 

Exactly, let people take care of their priorities. How much your kids need you is going to change over the course of your career, but different things will require your time and attention. As long as you're meeting your priorities in other parts of your life, you're going to come in and bring 100% to work... when you are there. I think this is exactly the conversation that we need to be having.

 I've had some of these conversations with people that have said, you're asking me to change my values, and I've said no. I'm not asking you to change your values, I'm asking you to change your ideas. By shifting on how you take care of family and employees, and not changing your values, it's just shading... changing how you do business.