The days are long, but the years are short. We're all incredibly busy, but imagining the future will help you make the most of the time with your kids now.
We each have many roles. If you're reading this article, you're likely a parent or a parent-to-be, and a committed one at that—this is Parents.com, after all. You may be someone's spouse or partner, in an important relationship that needs nurturing. You are a child yourself, perhaps helping to care for your own parents or grandparents. You may be a breadwinner for your family, an employee, or self-employed and trying to make a new business venture take off. You certainly have friends you'd like to spend time with, and probably also have hobbies you'd like to give more attention to.
But, who are you first?
Before you answer, I'd like to describe my house to you. There are four bedrooms, one in each corner of our second floor. My wife and I are in one corner and, when the kids were at home, they were each in one of the other corners. Our kids are all grown now and on their own. The beds in their childhood bedrooms are neatly made, and their toys are stacked in the closets where their clothes are neatly hung. Dust is accumulating on the sports trophies on their bookshelves. My wife and I walk by those empty bedrooms many times each day, past the pictures of our growing family over the years that are hanging on the hallway walls. We are, of course, nostalgic for those younger days when we could cuddle with our kids at story time and tuck them into bed for the night. But we feel truly blessed—and we have no regrets about the days gone by with our kids, about what else or what more we should have done when our kids were little.
But I wasn't always such a hands-on dad. During a parenting talk I gave this past week at a preschool in town, I described the epiphany moment I had when our oldest child turned 5 years old. I was filming him and his friends at his birthday party and realized I had missed a lot of those first five years. I was early in my career, shooting for superstar professional status and million-mile frequent flyer status. Even when I was there with my kids, my mind was on the next meeting I had to attend, the next paper I had to write, or the next conference I had to organize. As proof of my misplaced priorities, when I told my wife I was speaking at this local preschool, she reminded me she and our son were alumni of that preschool's mom-tot program—"reminded" is a kind word; I'm not sure I ever knew which mom-tot program they attended. I was too busy, too important. That moment, filming my 5-year old, changed everything. That's when I became a parent first. I began declining invitations that would have enhanced my superstar quest, lost my frequent flyer platinum status, and put my kids' activities in my adult calendar to make sure I was there for them whenever I could be.
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At the conclusion of my talk at the preschool, I answered questions from the parents in the audience. (As an aside, let me say how pleased I was to see so many dads in attendance—that would not have been the case when our kids were preschoolers.) One mom's question was a familiar one; I hear it at almost every talk I give, and each time it strikes a chord deep inside me: "My kids are the most important part of my life—but it's not the same for my husband. What can I do about it?" Her husband was not one of the dads in the audience that night.
What I tell parents who ask that question (and I have also heard it from dads about their kids' mom) is to have their spouse/partner picture the bedrooms in their house 18 years from now, when the toys are stacked in the closets and the sports trophies are gathering dust on your bookshelves. Imagine the pictures hanging in the hallway of your kids in younger days. Will there be fond nostalgia, and a sense of pride and accomplishment for a parenting experience well-lived? Or will there be regrets? By then, it will be too late to change course. Now is the time to answer the question: Who are you first? Now is the time to be the parent you want to remember being.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus 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 noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Twitter.