Family First vs. Family Most

“Family first,” it says on Gary Vaynerchuck’s Twitter profile. Given the million-dollar entrepreneur seems to work 28 hours a day and constantly talks about “hustling your face off” on all social media channels, the feels like an odd claim — and his alleged yet not confirmed divorce only adds fuel to the fire.

But as someone who’s watched a good amount of Gary’s stuff over the years, I can also say that he was always open about how much time he actually spent with his kids and family. He started taking more vacations and then completely disappeared from the public eye on those times, and he explained that, while limited, some interactions with his kids are non-negotiable, like family dinner.

When someone says “family first,” we usually expect that to mean they’ll prioritize family time above all else — but it’s “family first,” not “family most,” and while the difference is subtle, it is nonetheless important.

I like to think of myself as someone who puts “family first,” but if you measured that attitude only based on how much time I spend with my parents and sister, you’d probably give me no more than a D. I have missed plenty a birthday, and while I was getting my Master’s and working full-time, family time was a rather rare occurrence. I spend more time at my family’s house now, and I usually stay for a week or more, but when I’m gone, I might be gone for months. We talk once a week on the phone, and almost every day on WhatsApp, but time-wise, I could clearly do more.

Maybe, however, “family first” is not just about time. It’s about how you spend the time you have together, even if, sometimes, that time is much less than you spend at work, with friends, or in some remote location. Are you deliberate when you’re with family? Do you pay attention? When an emergency happens or your mom needs someone to talk to, will you drop everything and listen? Personally, I’d much rather have a dad, or son, or sister like that than someone who’s always around but never there, just drifting in and out of the living room, glued to their phone.

The fondest memories I have with my family are not the seldom and big vacations, though of course those are nice. They are sitting around in the kitchen, just chatting, making silly jokes and laughing till our bellies hurt. They are our Christmas photo tradition, and the movie nights on which we spend half as much time picking the movie as it takes to watch it, and my dad calling “Dinner!” for the millionth time.

It’s a noble goal to want to spend more time with family than anyone else, but the reality of being a grown-up is that most of us dedicate a third of our lives to work and another third to sleep — and neither is fully optional. To fit the rest of your life into the last third is a grueling task on a good day, and don’t get me started on the bad ones. “Family,” “home,” these words should signal comfort and restoration, not more stress and obligation, and even if everyone cuts themselves some slack, the jokes at dinner will still be just as funny.

Don’t feel bad if the blocks labeled “family time” in your calendar aren’t yet as big as you’d like them to be. Life is a long journey, and there’s always room for improvement — but even if you’re not always the last to leave, you can still be the first to pick up the phone, and that too counts for something.