Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” may have made more grown men cry than any other song: The story of a father who’s too busy working to spend time with his son cuts to our deepest fears as parents.
Even Chapin himself has said that the song scared him to death.
If you have work that you’re personally invested in and a family you want to spend time with, though, there’s naturally going to be tension between the two as they battle for your limited time each day.
I have an amazing wife and three kids, but I also have two businesses to run. In the first couple years running my startup, vacations were rare, and frequently missing family meals tested my marriage and my character as a father.
The tension you feel as a working parent is not necessarily bad—but if you prioritize the wrong things, you may look back on these years with regret.
Thankfully, you are not doomed to the depressing fate of Chapin’s song simply because you have a demanding job. There are practical ways to make sure your schedule reflects your priorities. Here are four strategies that have worked for me:
Communicate with your spouse
One focused conversation about boundaries can create a compass that keeps you on a path to happiness at work and at home.
Sit down and make a “too much, too little” chart together. Write down guidelines for how much time at work is too much, how many missed dinners are too many, what is considered too little time spent on work, etc.
Protecting everyone’s needs starts with setting clear expectations.Keep family life consistent
This is especially important with young children.
If dinner is family time, you should be a part of it. Likewise, you should be present at kids’ activities.
Too many career advancements at once can ruin family stability and throw your life into chaos.
Don’t justify slipping away by saying you’ll make up for lost time later on. You can’t and you won’t. Invest in your current relationships with your kids so you still have relationships in the future.
Share the burdens and the vision
Help your family see the value in what you do when you’re not at home.
Include your spouse on work trips, for example. Let your partner help you make business decisions and be a sounding board for you.
Let your spouse have the final say
For the most part, these strategies have helped me keep my work-life balance in check. But when all else fails, my wife draws a line I don’t cross.
She reminds me when I’m putting in too many late nights, taking too many calls during family time, or spending too much time on email when I should be with the kids. When I get so focused on work that I start to drift away from my family, she pulls me back in—and I let her.
We often say a good business is “like a family,” but remember that like a family is not the same thing as having a family. No business should replace your actual spouse and kids. It’s good to work hard and push your limits, but don’t go past them.
If you do, you’ll be tired and alone at the finish line, and there will be no one at home to celebrate with you.