Debbie was little then. But she already had the radiant smile that would inspire her high school classmates to dub her: “Girl most likely to get her picture on a Wheaties box.”
It was after church, on a clear California day, and Debbie was charming anyone who came in range. I was acting the role of a proud parent. One well-dressed older woman bent down to ask Debbie, “What does your daddy do?”
I prepared to swell with pride at whatever my little girl said. Debbie frowned as she pondered the question. Then she brightened and piped up in her little-girl voice.
“He goes away.”
It was like a kick in the stomach. I knew I was busy and working hard. There were speeches to give and clients to help and books to write and flights to catch.
After I got done feeling ambushed, I figured out what was going on. I saw every trip or meeting as an exception. I knew I loved my kids and I thought I was making time for them. But I wasn’t.
I was kidding myself. The exceptions had become the rule. And my family had become enablers. They loved me. So, when I said that I needed to skip a game or recital, or play, they forgave me.
But I couldn’t let them do that forever. If I did, I would wind up as “the dad who goes away” or “the dad who doesn’t come.” Eventually, I would be “the dad who doesn’t care.”
I did not want to be that dad. I started making my kids’ events on my calendar as sacred as other events. That meant rescheduling client meetings. It meant turning down some work. It meant working extra hard sometimes so I could keep my commitments to my kids.
My biggest test came when I lost one of my most important clients over my priorities. The CEO asked me to attend a staff meeting on a Saturday morning. I politely declined, telling him that I had a prior commitment.
“What could be more important?” he asked in a teasing tone. But when I told him it was going to a soccer game where two of my children were playing, his face darkened.
“That’s not acceptable,” he said. “I suggest you think about what’s most important. A year from now you won’t even remember that soccer game. Let me know what you decide.”
I thought about it and prayed about it. I could skip the soccer game and keep the client and the income stream. The analytical part of me screamed, “Go to the meeting!” On Saturday morning, I still hadn’t decided. I took a walk to clear my head.
When I got back home I called the client and told him that I chose to miss the meeting. He told me to send my final invoice and hung up. My stomach turned over. I wondered if I was making the right decision.
I was. In a way that client was right. I don’t remember anything from that day’s soccer match. But I remember lots of splendid moments I would never have experienced at a client meeting or while working on a report. I remember Dave playing ball and Debbie playing the clarinet and Diana dancing.
I wasn’t perfect, by any means. I’d get it right for a while and then I’d backslide. I had to keep catching myself and willing myself to do the right thing. Looking back, I could have done much better.
When you’re in the midst of making a career, it’s easy to make exceptions until they become the rule. It’s easy to let your family forgive you and forgive you until they stop. That could have happened to me. I was lucky and to this day I’m grateful for that “kick in the stomach” that Sunday.
A wise person told me once that life is like juggling the balls that represent all the claims on your time. You’ll never be perfect, so you’ll drop a ball from time to time. It will be OK, you’ll recover. But, he told me, some of the balls, important relationships, are like glass balls. If you drop them, they break. Don’t drop the glass balls.
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