We live in a society - and an era - in which many middle-aged men define themselves by what they do, not for who they are. It's career success (and, of course, the salary and wealth that accompanies big jobs) that seems to be the brass ring for most. Corporations are all too happy to encourage this "work first" mentality.
We know, of course, that sometimes this prioritization can hurt marriages, families and ultimately lead to lives that may be cash rich but soulless and tinged with regret. Work is obviously a very important component of life - we spend at least a third of our time doing it and we need it to support our families - but it should be a means to an end, rather than the end itself.
That's why it was so refreshing that two of the most powerful men in the country recently put their family life before their professional pursuits. Joe Biden, perhaps the most transparent and authentic person in politics today, has suffered through an unimaginable tragedy with the loss of his beloved 46-year-old son, Beau, this summer to brain cancer. This loss only compounds the hurt in Biden's heart - he lost a child four decades ago (along with his first wife) in a car crash.
I remember being super impressed by the young Biden's reaction to the first horrific tragedy. The newly elected senator from Delaware was suddenly a single father of two young boys who were now motherless. Biden decided to do something then that spoke volumes about his character and about his priorities: instead of taking an apartment in Washington, D.C. during the week so he could pursue his political career, he instead took Amtrak home every night - a very long commute - so that he could read to his sons and put them both to bed.
Biden's lifelong dream was to become president of the United States. He ran unsuccessfully two decades apart - in 1988 and in 2008 - and both times lost by a mile. He did, however, become the second most powerful leader in the land when a neophyte presidential nominee named Barack Obama decided to go for an experienced partner and picked the senator from Delaware to be his running mate. (You may dispute that Biden was the second most powerful leader because of the relative powerlessness of the VP position. But I'm reminded of what our first vice president, John Adams, famously said: "Today I am nothing. But tomorrow I may be everything.")
Biden was a very loyal soldier these past seven years to Obama and to our country. Like so many who have been the VP in our history, he probably yearned to become everything one day. But then tragedy struck and Biden did what a man with his moral compass should do: he became the strong patriarch who shouldered his family's profound grief. He comforted his surviving son, the grieving widow of Beau, and the two grandchildren who would grow up without their father.
Joe Biden would once again do the right thing and put family before the quest for power. He would not try to run for president unless he knew that he and his family were sufficiently healed and ready for the rigors of a national campaign.
Lord knows what private thoughts and discrete conversations went into Biden's decision-making process. What we now know is that while the VP was doing the honorable thing the clock ran out. It was no longer feasible for him to mount a credible campaign. So his dream was extinguished, on the heels of a personal loss so great, and now it is time for Biden to retire from public life and to once again embrace the even more profound role of keeping a family together and strong as it soldiers on.
And then there's Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan who will likely become the speaker of the House, arguably one of the top four positions in Washington, D.C. But the former VP candidate was reluctant to take on the consuming job of leading a fractious Republican delegation in Congress. Not just because he would have the unenviable task of keeping an unruly mob together to keep government moving, but because he has three young children and he didn't want to miss the most precious years of their lives. (It reminds me of a saying my late mother used to often say to me: No one on their deathbed wishes they had fewer children).
Although Ryan's politics are often wrongheaded and his opposition to federal policies on paid family leave is reprehensible, it was great for him to remind us fathers around the country that we should always put our kids first. He made it clear that he would not allow the big job he was about to be awarded get in the way of attending soccer games or parent-teacher conferences or other vital parenting moments.
So, where do we go from here? Leaders like Biden and Ryan should translate their priorities into legislation like a robust Family Leave Act that allows for widespread maternity and paternity leaves. Also, perhaps award tax credits to businesses that provide day care for employees; or tax incentives for businesses that allow greater "flex time" for employees who want to care for children, elderly parents, or ill spouses.
We may be an economic power and not Denmark, as Hillary reminded us recently, but we can learn a lot from our enlightened friends in Scandinavia. Government, corporations, and small businesses must become more family friendly.
Our kids can't wait.
Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, is the proud father of three children and a former little league baseball and basketball coach. Questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.