I'm celebrating 30 years of marriage this month, and I just returned from a trip visiting family in Europe to celebrate. It's a bit of a blur, looking back at three decades. I met my wife in college, and we were married a week after graduation. Then came our first child about 18 months later. We hit the ground running, raising our four kids with the last one about to finish college next spring. After 17 years working as a journalist and a long corporate career before that, I've packed a lot into three decades.
I'm often asked about the secret to a happy marriage and a happy family. It's not so easy to explain, but I do have a general rule about how to compromise, set priorities, and still find happiness even in the midst of what often feels like chaos and pandemonium. (If you've ever had kids close in age, you know it's a circus all day long.) The rule is pretty simple: You can't have everything. You have to make some important decisions about your job, marriage, kids, and free time that will seem excruciatingly complex at all ages of life.
It's human nature to think we can take frequent extended vacations, raise well-adjusted kids, pursue a rewarding career, and invest in a significant other all at the same time. Maybe you've found a way to make that work, but those four pillars of life (work, spouse, family, free time) will often interfere with each other. In fact, one of them will suffer.
Let's talk about vacations first. I strongly believe that your career and vacations will cancel each other out if you want to maintain family relationships and not have conflict in marriage. You might think--isn't taking a break to spend two weeks in Florida actually good for your kids? Isn't a wine-tasting trip to France romantic, especially if you leave the kids behind? Isn't it fine to relax by a pool all day a few times a year?
My wife and I decided early on in our marriage that we would only take short vacations, and for the most part we always took the kids. I will admit that one of the main reasons had to do with our finances. In the early years, we'd pack up a camper and go to a state park for a weekend, and that was enough to at least get a break from the daily routine. But by Monday morning, I was back at a startup leading a team of designers and writers, training them how to create marketing materials. We never touched foot in Europe or even left the United States, unless you count a couple of trips to Canada. I made my first trip out of the country in 2016. It was a tough decision, but I don't regret it at all.
My career as a writer, which started around September of 2001, took an incredible amount of effort. We had to make some sacrifices somewhere. We chose to take shorter trips or skip vacations altogether. (That's changed somewhat now that our kids are older; we just returned from Austria last week.) Of the four pillars, we chose each other, our kids, and the job and skipped longer vacations. I knew my job as a writer had to be a priority because not many people survive long in my field unless they work hard and persevere.
What happens if you do pick all four? The pillars will strain against each other--your job will conflict with the vacations, or you'll spend time raising kids, vacationing, and working and end up getting divorced. You'll be in constant stress because you're trying to keep a perfect balance between things that cannot be perfectly balanced. You can try, for sure. Some people do make it work. You can persevere through conflict in all four areas and think to yourself--I'm going to make this work. There are books about this topic--your best life now! You can have it all, if you are smart and wise.
It's not wise. For one thing, kids hate to travel. Bring them along, check your phone notifications right up until the flight attendants pries it out of your sweaty palm to keep tabs on work--but that steam rising above your head is not from the overhead fans, it's from your spouse getting angry. It's your husband giving you the death stare. Work, kids, and spouse are possible. Maybe you can decide not to have kids and then take long vacations. Maybe your job is not that important, and that's perfectly fine--you prefer Aruba anyway.
My point is that you do have to decide between them, and if you wait 30 years to make up your mind, you won't like the results very much. The kids will get into trouble and meander through life. Your beach house in Florida, once a wonderful getaway, will seem like a prison with good Wi-Fi. In the end, you have to decide which of the pillars are the most important, and then focus on three of them. Trust me, it wasn't easy. But it is possible.
And maybe it will work out. I do know of one family that seems to strike a fair balance. Yet, in most cases, the tension between the four pillars is too much. It doesn't work.
If you disagree with me, send me an email how you managed to balance them all. Maybe there is a secret you can share or a plan that works. Let's discuss!