Dad, are you chasing a mirage?

Is it time to take another hard look at what’s down the road ahead of you?

Larry was sprinting toward what he thought was a bright future. He was devoted to his job, working long hours and traveling a lot and moving up in his company. He believed it was worth it to save for retirement and his kids’ education, and reasoned that, if he worked hard now, he could retire early, then relax and spend more time with his family.

So he buried himself at work and gradually lost ground at home. He missed games, concerts and school conferences, leaving most parenting roles for his wife to manage. Then one day, Larry’s wife told him what his son had told her earlier: “I don’t really know Dad at all. He’s never around.”

After hearing that, Larry finally made some adjustments.

Larry is a real dad whose story was told years ago by Sue Shellenbarger, the long-time “Work & Family” columnist for The Wall Street Journal. And there are millions more dads who take a similar path.

Shellenbarger called this tendency the “tomorrow trap.” It’s sacrificing today for tomorrow—a trade-off that can be admirable in many areas of life, such as delaying gratification now for something better in the future.

But for too many dads this trap has tragic results. It’s like running toward an oasis in the desert, but finding that it’s only a mirage. Dads work hard to provide for their families into the future, but as they move closer to that future, the patterns they’re creating along the way allow the relationships with family members to wither away. It backfires so often.

First, dads miss out on some of the most rewarding experiences a man will ever have: being there every day to watch their children grow up, see new developments, hear about the daily struggles and victories, and bond with them emotionally.

And second, when dads are eventually ready to redirect their priorities more to their family, it’s very, very difficult to do. It took many years to establish the pattern of focusing on work as a lifestyle, and a dad can’t simply turn off the desire to ascend in the business world once he has reached a certain age or saved a certain amount of money. Twenty or thirty years of habits don’t go away easily.

It’s much better to start the priority shift right now, while you still have kids at home and opportunities to spend time together and invest in their lives.

Any re-evaluation of priorities could lead you to discuss some of these issues with your family members, answering questions like:

  • What do we stand for?
  • What are our expectations regarding work hours and family time?

None of us want to end up like the man in the famous Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” where we keep repeating, “We’re gonna have a good time then.”

Dad, have a good time NOW (with your kids).

Invest in your children today, and don’t get caught in the tomorrow trap.

Do you ever feel as though you’re missing out on time with your kids because of other commitments you’ve made? Are there changes you can make? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.

Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • Do you know anyone like Larry? Have you seen older men get to retirement age and have regrets about how they invested their lives?
  • Do you attend all your kids’ games and events? Do you wish you could be at more of them?
  • Talk with your kids’ mom about the balance of parenting responsibilities at home. Are there ways you could step up and handle more of the load?
  • What’s most rewarding for you about being a dad? Find ways to put yourself in those situations more often.
  • Talk with your family and establish expectations about how much you and others will work each week, events and commitments that are more important than work, and what should happen if things get out of balance.

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