Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

Of course, not every mistake ends in a broken marriage or estranged children, but we all know men who have slowly starved their families for the sake of their work. Sweat and toil may have been the ugly claws of Adam’s curse, but the unexpected sting in its tail is how effectively the need to sweat and toil can draw Adam away from Eve.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the temptation is how slowly it metastasizes. There is no crisis, no climactic split, no moment of decision. (If there was, how much easier it would be to resist!) Instead there is the slow accumulation of time which was not spent together, conversations which were not had, dates that were put off, advice which wasn’t given, games that weren’t played and books that weren’t read, meals that weren’t eaten together, and one day Dad realizes his family has needed him for so long that they don’t need him any more. And he would do anything to fix it, but he is who he is and they are who they are, and how do you make friends with someone you’ve been living with for a decade or two?

Because the crisis comes so gradually, across ten thousand daily decisions, the answer is more a matter of prayer, effort, and faithfulness than any specific silver-bullet advice. (If there is some profound, game-changing counsel to be offered, this husband of four years and father of two weeks is probably not yet the one to ask.) But there is one observation which I have found very helpful: We men have to realize that family time is at a competitive disadvantage when it struggles with our work for our attention.

There is something inherently satisfying about accomplishing a goal. It’s a fact which video-game makers consciously take advantage of to make their games addictive by breaking them up into many small tasks. Complete the objective and you get the little thrill and endorphin rush of accomplishment, and then it’s on to the next little challenge and the next little victory.

But it’s not just about the gut-level satisfaction of accomplishment. Clearly defined needs simply make more compelling demands on our time, while long-term maintenance or investment are much easier to put off. It’s easy to decide to change the oil or wash the car next week. A flat tire makes a rather more clamorous appeal for immediate attention. I can weed the garden tomorrow, but if I’m grilling tonight and I’m out of charcoal, I’d better be off to the store.

The trouble is that work-related responsibilities generally consist of specific, defined tasks, while investing in our families is a much more amorphous thing. In the last couple days, I’ve had to teach two classes, grade a bunch of essays, and write an article. Each of those responsibilities had defined parameters and a set deadline which promised the satisfaction of accomplishment when I met it. Meanwhile, I also had the chance to hold my newborn little girl and spend time with my wife. There was no clear indication of when I’d done “enough” baby-holding or time-spending. I knew that if I missed my chance one day, nothing very serious would happen. And wouldn’t it be nice to knock off a few more essays today, rather than have them pile up later in the week…?

Over a month or a year or a decade, it is dangerously, frighteningly easy for the well-defined concreteness of vocational tasks to crowd out the softer and vaguer demands of family time, like rocks dropped into a pail of water until it overflows and all that is left is a pile of damp stones. Yet, of course, we can’t fix the problem by simply ignoring the responsibilities of our work. Worthwhile labor is a divinely given gift and responsibility. We should feel satisfaction when we glorify God and provide for our families with a job well done. But we need to find the right balance, and that is harder because it’s so easy to pile a bit more onto the work side of the scale at the expense of the family side.

In the end, finding the right balance is a matter of prayer, of finding good examples and good mentors, of continual attention and effort, and ultimately of trusting our Father’s grace to bring forth better fruit than we deserve. But “know thyself” is always a wise principle, and it’s helpful to bear in mind the built-in factors which make it harder to strike the right balance between two very different kinds of demands.

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