Giving Up the Extra Legroom for the Kids

Airplane seatsEditor’s Note: In a post for an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month. He will be offering different advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart from this series.

My career was taking off, and so was I. As my star rose in the very, very small firmament that is my specialty, the invitations for the honor of my presence increased: keynote speeches, advisory boards, prestigious panels, exotic meeting locations, all-expenses-paid trips with notes saying, “Please bring your wife if she can get away.” Success was intoxicating; it was nice to be recognized and admired by peers. My kids were little, and I told myself they were sleeping for most of the time I was out of town, anyway. My wife caught me up on the milestones I missed.

As the kids turned 5, 3, and almost 1, they weren’t sleeping as many hours as they did when they were younger, and they were starting to have experiences – in kindergarten and preschool, at playdates and Gymboree — they would remember without me. T-ball was starting in a month for our 5-year-old, and our 3-year-old’s hair was just long enough for first pigtails. The baby was walking — running really — to keep up. I tried to keep up, too. To know their friends’ and teachers’ names, what they liked best on TV (how badly do I date myself if I tell you it was Barney?). But even when I was home and they were animatedly telling me about their day, my mind wasn’t with them. Instead, my mind was on the next colloquium I had to prepare, the next flight I had to catch, and the call I should make to a colleague to discuss the seminal lecture I would be giving in Scandinavia. It was during our middle child’s third birthday party that I had my fateful Dorian Gray moment. I was filming my kids running around in party hats with ice cream cake on their cheeks. As I filmed my daughter opening her presents, I had a stark vision of my future, but I didn’t look like me; I looked like Rick, Mike, and James.

Rick, Mike, and James were real people, colleagues I knew from my hotshot meetings, established megastars in their universes of influence. Million Milers! There wasn’t a major meeting in my field without one or more of the MMs on the dais. In the lounges after the meetings, they regaled us with travelogues; they had been everywhere and seen it all. For small talk, we compared frequent-flier miles and upgrades, and chirped about the legroom. Rick had trouble remembering if his second child was in 10th or 11th grade, but worried that his oldest, a college freshman, was probably drinking a little too much, as she did in high school when she got a DUI. Mike’s three teenagers were estranged from him since he left them and their mother back east to move west for a big promotion. He was confident they would reconcile when the kids were old enough to understand adult responsibilities. James’s divorce came with a brutal custody battle. His wife made wild accusations about his extracurricular activities on the road. I was on my way to becoming George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air while George was actually still an intern on ER. There was just one big difference between George and me. Okay, maybe more than one big difference. But the one that matters for purposes of this discussion is: George’s peripatetic character didn’t have kids, but I did.

With a vivid and terrifying vision of becoming Rick, Mike, or James, I stopped filming the birthday party and started to really see it. I realized a few things: I liked hearing my kids tell me their adventures better than I liked hearing those of the MMs. I liked sleeping at home with my wife better than alone in a luxurious hotel room that I could only describe to her by phone. I liked hearing my baby giggle better than I liked hearing polite applause from colleagues in a far-off ballroom. I wanted to be at the first T-ball game. Heck, I wanted to coach the T-ball team.

That was the day I grounded myself. Not all at once, of course. I still had obligations to fulfill. But I learned to say no, and I learned to be a lesser player. I was fortunate that my job didn’t require the travel or the renown — those were merely accoutrements of my success. I could still earn a decent living and sleep at home, as long as my ego would survive a cut in prestige. And it did. In a matter of months, I went from budding superstar to just being a regular star. If any of this story sounds familiar, if you are superstar wannabes, ask yourself these questions before you get too hooked on the fanfare: How much status and stature do you need? How much do you need to know your kids, and how much do they need to know you? And how much are you willing to miss during all those hours on the tarmac? For me, even though I lost my Premier Executive status with the airline and gave up the extra legroom, I gained something more precious — time with my kids that I’ll always be grateful for. And, yes, I did end up coaching T-ball, too.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).


Image: Well-lit empty airplane interior with window and blue seat via Shutterstock.

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