As I tucked my 11-year-old daughter into bed she looked up at me with those big brown eyes and asked, “Where were you this week, Daddy?” With a bit of confusion I replied, “I wasn’t gone, I’ve been here all week.” She innocently blinked those long eyelashes of hers and inquired, “Well, why didn’t I ever see you?”
I have to tell you that this shot was harder than any I had taken playing football in high school and college. My absence from our home had become so normative that it wasn’t even a topic of discussion the entire week. My wife, must have been avoiding the conversation with our children so that they would not wonder why my work responsibilities seemed more important than they were.
As I tried to recover from this gut shot delivered by my 11-year-old angel, I attempted to make sense of what she just said. Yes, my wife and others had tried to talk to me about the number of hours I was working, but I wasn’t buying what they were selling. Yet, there in the darkness of my little girl’s room, surrounded by walls covered with horses, looking into her puzzled eyes, I could see she was beginning to wonder just who I was and what I was all about.
At that moment, I was wondering the same thing. How did I let work become the most important thing in my life?
Rationalization and justification
It started with going into the office early. I told myself that I was a morning person and after all, “the early bird gets the worm.” As my career took off, these mornings started earlier and earlier. I rationalized that it was okay to arrive at work at 4:30 a.m. because I was still making it home at a decent hour at night.
But then my responsibilities continued to grow—I was making myself downright indispensable! Instead of getting home by dinner, I started making it my goal to return before the kids went to bed. In retrospect, I don’t know why I bothered; after getting up at 3:30 a.m. and working until 7 at night, I was of little use as a dad and a husband. While my dear wife would cry with frustration that there was “nothing left for us” I would justify my actions because I was providing for my family.
One thing is certain in corporate America: If you perform, it will take all you can give. This performance-based behavior is accepted, encouraged, and celebrated by companies everywhere. Without proper boundaries, and if things are not kept in proper perspective they can lead you to the place where I was that Friday evening staring into my daughter’s beautiful brown eyes.
This was a real wake-up call for me. So I began a process to understand why. Why was I an absent dad? Why was I choosing work over my family?
Sure, the money was good, but that was not why I was so driven—stuff had never been important to me or to my wife.
It took much prayer and wise counsel, but over time God revealed my heart to me: I was a workaholic. A workaholic driven by a nagging desire to achieve, to perform, to prove myself important. It was selfishness, and at its root was pride.
If you can relate to my situation—if you feel your priorities are misplaced as I found—don’t wait for the “gut shot.” Do something about it.
Here are some of the steps I took to address my workaholism:
1. Pray. Take time in prayer and close personal examination. Be careful—like me you may have the gift of justifying and rationalizing, which ultimately leads to compromising what is truly important … your family. Ask God to reveal the root issues in your heart. Ask that He remove the hardness from your heart so that you can be shaped and molded in this area of your life.
If you don’t already, pray with your spouse. There is no better way to connect as a couple and create closeness. In my case, my wife was wounded by my misplaced priorities. She needed to know that I loved her, that we were connected, and that I was committed to her.
While praying, thank God for your wife, for the good and perfect gift that she is, and ask Him to make you the kind of husband that she needs and deserves.
2. Join a small-group Bible study for couples. Find couples who want to live an authentic Christian life. My wife and I were involved in small groups with six other couples and that was one of the most loving, meaningful, and enriching times in our lives. We laughed together, we cried together, we challenged each other, and we learned from each other. Most important, we lived life together. To this day, these continue to be the most meaningful and deep relationships we have outside of our family.
3. Set boundaries. Talk with your spouse and make a commitment to him or her on the specific actions that you will take to keep those boundaries. I even gave my wife a written guarantee that outlined the specific actions that I was going to take.
4. Start a regular date night. Don’t make this hard and complicated. Find a way to carve out some time with your spouse.
We had a date night every Friday night, but we didn’t always go out. I was in charge of bringing home take-out from a local restaurant, and she gave the kids frozen pizza and rented a movie for them to watch (which they loved). Then we sat down to dinner by candlelight and talked about life. My wife will tell you that as simple as this sounds, it was a lifeline for her. She would hold onto the knowledge that even when I was unavailable during the week, she could count on my commitment to these times we had together. Be careful; this is not an end all, fix all. But it was a very effective action that helped us weather a difficult season.
5. Write it down. It is amazing how clear your thinking can become when you force yourself to write down your thoughts and what actions you are committed to taking. I find this as a good “litmus test” for rational thinking.
6. Understand reality. One of the things that I did when writing down my thoughts was to create a table with the calendar years in columns across the top and each of my children’s names in rows on the left. I then put their ages under each calendar year and considered how much time we had left to truly influence our children. Someone has said, “Parenting is an illusion of permanence.” A table like this reveals the stark reality of that statement.
7. Create dad times. While I was absent a lot, I tried to compensate by being intentional when I was with my kids. One really effective action was going on father/daughter and father/son weekends every year—no matter what! We started going to a great Christian camp in Texas called Pine Cove; these fun-filled, purposeful times with my son and daughter have been extremely meaningful to us and are highly anticipated each year. We talk about them for months in advance and recount memories for months afterwards.
8. Create accountability. Find a trusted friend and confide the struggle you are having and the commitment you have made. Ask this friend to keep you accountable.
I continue my battle with workaholism daily. But I figure God still knows how to snap me out of it—that’s why He gave my daughter those big, beautiful brown eyes.
Copyright © 2008 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Bill Eyster is FamilyLife's vice president in charge of digital relationships. He and his wife, Tracey, have been married for over 25 years and have two children. For over a decade Bill served marriages and families through his local church while enjoying a successful, 22-year career with a Fortune 500 company. But upon God's "halftime" call he exited corporate America to pursue significance through his position at FamilyLife.