Reading the recent remembrances of legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace, I was struck by a quote from his son, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. Shortly before his father’s death, Chris Wallace talked about his father’s failing condition.
He’s in a facility in Connecticut. Physically, he’s okay. Mentally, he’s not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family — me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.
The stories we’re featuring on the site now touch upon the impact that fathers have — even in their absence. In Learned at My Father’s Feet, Kae Dickson remembers her experience caring for her “Daddy” at the end of his life, as dementia robbed him of his memories and independence. In A Circle, Broken, Amy O’Loughlin reviews a family memoir by CNN journalist Mark Whitaker, who describes his complicated relationship with his absentee father, an African American scholar who blazed trails only to see his career burn out amid his struggles with alcoholism.
For Mike Wallace, work came before family. After his first divorce, Wallace left his sons behind in Chicago to pursue a broadcast career on the East Coast. He had a famously cold relationship with his son Chris early on, though they reconciled and became close near the end of his life. “Part of it is, he was chasing fame and making it big and proving himself, and that was the motivating force,” Chris Wallace said. “Because I can see where it has taken him, I hope I’ve learned from his mistakes. I spend more time with my family and the relationships with my children.”
Many people would say that the tradeoff was worthwhile in Wallace’s case: his hard-nosed journalism helped usher in a golden age for broadcast journalism. But it’s telling that Wallace himself seemed not to care much for his success at the end of his life. And for the rest of us mortals, who lack Wallace’s once-in-a-generation talents, perhaps there’s all the more reason to question whether the ways that we prioritize career over family and friends are really, in the long run, worthwhile. That’s especially true for those of us who are parents, as the stories in the magazine remind me.
It’s hard to think of another role with as much impact as being a mother or father. For almost every other position, we are replaceable in the long term. Someone else will do our job, for better or worse, if we’re not there to do it. Someone else will eventually start our company or make our invention or sketch out our idea. Maybe it won’t happen for a long time; maybe it would have happened earlier, if we weren’t around to slow things down. But eventually, society makes progress, and the niches of innovation — in business or technology, art or politics — are filled.
It’s harder to say that about the gaps in our private lives. Steve Jobs by all accounts had loving adoptive parents, but even that was not enough, some say, to fill a void he felt because he was abandoned as a child. Civilization marches onward toward a predictable and rational future, but the trajectories of individual lives vary wildly, thanks to the influence, or absence, of family and friends.
I say this as a far-from-perfect parent, husband, son, and friend myself: how easy it is to forget the impact we have on those close to us, with all the incentives to see our worth in the job we have and the house we live in. Yet in our private lives we have more power than we may realize. Paradoxically, the real movers and shakers of the world, as Tolstoy once said, are perhaps the most constrained in what they can do, pushed and pulled by the forces of implacable history.
May is a time for college commencement speeches, and uplifting talk of making a difference and achieving success. Certainly our work defines us in many ways, and can be a vital source of meaning. Still, it’s worth considering whether the greatest difference we will ever make is one closer to home.
Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the coauthor of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.