It was September 2014 when I got the call. My dad’s heart had failed. The left chamber was no longer able to pump blood into his organs. They, too, were shutting down.
In the three frantic hours that followed, with no flights available until the next day, Christi and I packed up all the belongings required for a six-week-old, a two-year-old, and two emotional adults to make a seventeen-hour, straight-through-the-night drive from Missouri to Hershey, Pennsylvania. With thirty minutes of sleep in a forty-two-hour span, we arrived in Hershey in time to see my dad coming out of surgery, where he had received a heart pump to do the work of his left chamber.
What Happens When you Put Your Family Center Stage
The next three weeks were difficult. Christi was living with in-laws while caring for a screaming two-month-old who didn’t sleep and a needy two-year-old. I wasn’t much help, as I spent most days driving an hour back and forth to the hospital and tried to work on the days in between.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, my dad would stay in the hospital another three months, needing another heart pump replacement by December. In mid-November, having returned home to Missouri a few weeks prior, Christi and I flew out for a job interview I had for an executive position with a company on the other side of the country. It was the first time she had left our babies behind, and the trip was a disaster. On the day we arrived, Christi melted into tears during a meeting with the head of the human resources department. Just the impression I wanted to make, bringing an unsupportive and overwhelmed wife.
Here we were, in survival mode, our time pulled toward our high maintenance babies, my dad’s needs, facing a possible reprieve with a job that could give me a sense of identity I felt I was missing.
A month later, with dwindling finances, my dad still in the hospital fighting for his life, the looming prospect of moving across the country for a job, and a difficult four-month-old and two-year-old in tow, we inexplicably decided to drive twenty-one hours to spend Christmas with Christi’s parents in Canada. Looking back, we have no idea what we were thinking.
To add chaos to chaos, two days before Christmas my dad surprised us all when he was released from the hospital. Now that we were just an eight-hour drive away at Christi’s parents’ house, all I could think about was my dad having a chance to hold his four-month-old granddaughter for the first time.
But Christi resisted.
Big time. In tears.
I felt alone. Why couldn’t she see my perspective?
But this wasn’t one moment. This was a months-long fade—one in which I had worked hard to keep all the plates spinning. And in my laser-focused efforts to fix everything and be everything for everyone, I became blind to what Christi had suffered.
In the previous five months, Christi had given birth, gotten little sleep, and been unable to breastfeed our daughter. Suffering from debilitating and chronic back pain, she had endured the seventeen-hour drive to Hershey, the three weeks living with in-laws, and the gut-wrenching trip across the country for a job opportunity that didn’t pan out. Now, having driven twenty-one hours to Canada, I was demanding we drive another sixteen hours round trip back to Pennsylvania.
Convinced she was just being selfish, I packed up the kids and drove them, by myself, through an unexpected snow squall that had me petrified.
I made it though. Saw my dad. And celebrated with him and the kids as best I could.
I thought I was putting my family center stage.
But upon my return, our marriage needed some work. Christi was bitter. In postpartum depression. On the bottom rung of life. She resented me, and I couldn’t understand why. I felt like I was doing absolutely everything I could—getting up with the kids at night, cleaning the house, making a living, and honoring my parents. In my mind, I was crushing it.
In Christi’s mind, nobody was crushing anything.
That was several years ago.
Today, we are each other’s greatest teammates. Our gut instinct now is to fight for each other, not against each other. But Christi and I needed help to start functioning from our strengths. We weren’t on the brink of divorce because it’s not in our vocabulary, but we were emotionally and spiritually exhausted.
Not until we got honest with all that was stealing our time did we begin redeeming it for ourselves. Not until we saw what was robbing our attention did we turn it toward our family. And not until we were willing to look inward did we begin to see the unhealthy places we had put our identities. That’s when we started fighting for each other. That’s when we committed to making the decisions we needed to make moment by moment to find our way forward again—looking not merely to survive but to live fully alive, because our family was now center stage.
The pull toward work or any other endeavor that affirms our identity often provides a dopamine bump in our brain that being at home with our loved ones does not. Crushing it on our “stage” for superiors, stakeholders, or followers provides a much higher level of instant gratification than an oft-interrupted game of Chutes and Ladders in which our opponent struggles to know which way is up and which is down. Our ego also knows the difference between the accolades of our coworkers, fans, followers, or customers, and the appreciation (insert sarcasm) we receive at home.
Many of us put more effort into becoming famous on stages outside the home because that’s where we find our identity and significance. Your stage could be on social media, in a boardroom, on a sports field, in a hospital, on the battlefield, in a government building, on a farm, in an arena, or in any other role or activity to which you attach your sense of significance. But putting a career or any other source of identity center stage can wreak havoc on the relationships with the ones you love the most.
No one wakes up one day and decides, “I’m going to ruin my marriage, neglect my kids, and cause mistrust in my family.” Yet our busyness and personal pursuits—our time and attention pulled in other places—can create a slow fade that leads toward just that. The problem for each of us is that the lure toward the immediate gratification of achievement and success outside the home can wreak long-term havoc inside the home.
But, you really can show up in intentional and meaningful ways for your biggest fans—the loved ones under your roof. You can have healthy personal rhythms that enable you to show up as the best version of you for your family. You can have a rock-solid marriage—one in which you and your spouse fight for rather than against one another. And you can have a mission for your family, a purpose that enables you and your kids to feel part of something so much bigger than yourselves alone.
This is what can happen when you put your family center stage.
Adapted from Famous at Home: 7 Decisions to Put Your Family Center Stage in a World Competing for Your Time, Attention, and Identity by Dr. Josh and Christi Straub, releasing from Tyndale House Publishers in May, 2022.