“Putting Family First,” Ensign, June 2002, 8
After my mission to Argentina, I fell in love with and married Juanita. We were carefree college students with no money but lots of time for each other. Within a six-month period, I graduated from college, took a job with an international computer company, bought a house, and was called as ward mission leader. In addition, we were expecting our first baby. My wife and I were on our way!
I had learned not to be afraid of hard work and felt that in order to provide well for my family I had to be willing to pay the price in terms of time and dedication. Going to work an hour early each day made all the difference. I won many awards and helped sell millions of dollars of computer equipment. I was promoted to the regional staff and could go anywhere in seven states without asking anybody. This was fun! At church the missionary work was going great, and I spent several nights a week in missionary work. Soon I was called into the bishopric, also very time consuming.
Occasionally Juanita quietly reminded me that I ought to spend a little more time with her and our two small children. I reminded her that being away from my family five or six evenings a week was necessary so I could be a successful provider and build up the kingdom. I thought to myself, “Juanita is a good mother for our children, so why can’t she take care of the home front while I’m doing my important work on the outside?”
Then Juanita got very sick. She didn’t sleep for two nights, and the third evening she said, “Jeff, I feel like I’m going to die.” She complained of sharp pains in her abdomen. The emergency room staff thought it was appendicitis, but the tests were negative, so they sent her home with a shot of painkiller. She fell peacefully asleep, and when she awoke the pain had subsided. What we didn’t know was that during the night her appendix had ruptured. We thought she was getting better. But in a couple of days she had a high fever and was feeling miserable. This time a surgeon at the hospital saw a huge reservoir of infection in an ultrasound image. He told us Juanita’s life was in jeopardy and she needed surgery immediately.
When Juanita’s temperature soared, they packed her body in wet towels to cool her down. She shivered and moaned. Suddenly my heart was struck! Now nothing else mattered to me except Juanita. My carefully constructed world had quickly fallen apart. My career, in comparison, became so much fluff. My Church work, though important, paled in comparison to this crisis. My tears fell on her forehead as I walked closely beside her, holding her cold, moist hands as she was wheeled off to surgery.
I went to pray in the chapel on the third floor of the hospital. My whole world became Juanita and Heavenly Father. I was afraid she was leaving me forever, and my whole being rebelled at the thought. I prayed as I had never prayed before. During the operation, I remembered back on how little time we had spent together in recent years. I remembered all the time we had spent together during our college years and how happy we were. Now I would gladly trade those extra hours on the fast track at work for more time with Juanita. I realized I had been spending more time in my Church callings but spending less time with my wife and children.
When I saw the doctor, he looked haggard. I was worried, but his first words were, “She will be OK. The operation went perfectly.” He told me she would be in the hospital for about two weeks and she should not lift anything, including our infant son, for another six weeks. As I approached Juanita’s hospital room I saw a big sign advising that visitors were limited to immediate family. There she was lying in bed with a suction tube gurgling, two IVs in her arms, and an oxygen mask over her face. She looked very sick. This turmoil brought about a great change in my heart. I recognized that by not being with my family I was missing what was most important in life. I came to understand that eternal family relationships didn’t just happen, even to good people who were sealed in the temple. Relationships have to be nurtured with hundreds and thousands of hours of loving time together. I recognized I had to choose to make time for my family now or else it might be too late.
With Juanita in the hospital, my employer let me work half-time, and the bishop said he’d cover my calling. Soon I found out what Juanita had been doing while I was a casual occupant of our home. I learned that if I didn’t change the baby’s diaper, nobody did. If I didn’t get the children dressed, they stayed in their pajamas. I quickly became grateful for the ease of frozen meals and cold cereal. I learned to appreciate a hundredfold the work that Juanita had done all these years in our home without my noticing.
In time Juanita got better. And in a couple of months I was back full-time at work, but now my heart was different. I recognized that my most important work was in the lives of my wife and children, not a jumble of silicon chips. Even Church callings did not excuse me from being an involved husband and father. I realized I could be laid off, change jobs, find new employment, or be released from my calling, but my family was forever. I quietly resolved to seek every opportunity to actually be with my family, to teach them, to enjoy them, to love them.
Putting that resolve into practice has not been easy. It has demanded setting clear priorities and making trade-offs. It has required much prayer and sensitivity to the Spirit to take the initiative and make decisions that would benefit the family. The first choice I made was to stop going to work at 6:45 A.M. Instead, we spent that time having a family devotional and eating breakfast together. This brought a new level of spiritual and emotional closeness. It was a trade-off, however. I was no longer a “rising star” at work but now was a “good, consistent performer.”
We also decided to make the family dinner hour a priority. When involved in a demanding project, I no longer stayed at work until late into the evening. Instead, I would come home, eat dinner with the family, and then finish the project on my laptop computer.
I took unpaid paternity leave at the time our daughter Emily was born. With me at home full-time for several months, Juanita was able to focus on the baby while I took the responsibility for the other children. Everyone grew from the experience. Having condensed time and demanding responsibilities at home taught me a lot about family life. Since I was not being paid, it also helped our family to learn to be frugal and to value time over money.
I finally have learned to put family commitments on a par with Church and work commitments. Whenever I have an errand to run, I take a family member with me. The one-on-one time is more valuable than the errand. I also take family members on business trips. When I was called to be bishop, I often took one of our eight children with me to the hospital or other nonconfidential visits. It strengthened our relationship and testimonies to share these experiences together.
When I am out of town, I often call morning and evening for family prayer. I kneel in my hotel room, and my family kneels near the speakerphone in the den at home. With eyes closed it seems like we are together. I send my children individual e-mails. They fax me notes and pictures. I leave cassette tapes filled with stories from my life for them to listen to at bedtime.
Probably the most remarkable change came when I was offered an excellent promotion, which included a move to New York. However, the commute would have been horrendous and the cost of living high. I hated to turn the promotion down, but it just wouldn’t work for our family. Then, in a quiet moment, an impression came that I should propose to take the job but stay in my home and telecommute. I reasoned with my future boss that I could better do my job through a modem from my home in the West than from an expensive office in the East. To my surprise, she agreed to try it out.
The positive difference in my work and family life was immediate. I could roll out of bed early with a good idea and immediately type it into the laptop. So what if I was still in my pajamas! A little later I could get the children up, and we could have our family devotional and eat breakfast together. Because I was working from home, I could listen for baby Amanda while Juanita went to aerobics, shopping, or ran errands. When work got frustrating and I needed a little break, I could put Emily in the jogging stroller and go for a quick run or play a 10-minute game of one-on-one basketball with Jeffrey. Then I could go back to work refreshed. I felt grateful for the unusual blessing of this new work schedule.
In retrospect, I am so grateful for the wake-up call of Juanita’s illness several years ago. As I look at our nine children today, my heart almost bursts with joy. I have a close relationship with all of them. Had I not changed my ways I might have been an executive by now, but I would have missed what is most important—my family.
“Throughout your life on earth, seek diligently to fulfill the fundamental purposes of this life through the ideal family. While you may not have yet reached that ideal, do all you can through obedience and faith in the Lord to consistently draw as close to it as you are able. Let nothing dissuade you from that objective. If it requires fundamental changes in your personal life, make them. … If you have lost the vision of eternal marriage, rekindle it. If your dream requires patience, give it. … Don’t become overanxious. Do the best you can. We cannot say whether that blessing will be obtained on this side of the veil or beyond it, but the Lord will keep His promises. In His infinite wisdom, He will make possible all you qualify in worthiness to receive. Do not be discouraged. Living a pattern of life as close as possible to the ideal will provide much happiness, great satisfaction, and impressive growth while here on earth regardless of your current life circumstances.”
Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “First Things First,” Ensign, May 2001, 7.