Parenting is challenging and complicated, and most parents are doing the best they can in the world's hardest job. Hollywood knows that you're doing it wrong, though, if you spend even one second at work that you could be fishin' or teaching your kid to catch a baseball.
Basically, this is a story about parents who do honestly love their kids, but are workaholics who yammer away in a cell phone constantly and don't show up to their kid's science fair or soccer game or spelling bee. The child will feel the pain and misery of your (often ridiculously benign) neglect as he looks in the audience and sees you aren't there. It usually develops into An Aesop about not busting your hump for the boss man and instead spending time with your family, frequently by Cutting The Electronic Leash.
While not quite Always Male, has a strong tendency to be about Dad rather than Mom. Not really Parental Abandonment, because the parents are there, and not Hands Off Parenting either, because they usually aren't hippies. This trope is the most usual portrait of Parents as People, and usually part of the backstory of a Lonely Rich Kid.
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In the late 1980s, Telecom New Zealand ran an advert depicting a young boy speaking on the phone to his truck driver dad, with Elvis' Are You Lonesome Tonight playing in the background.
Anime and Manga
In Ponyo the father of main character Sosuke is this, much to his mother's annoyance. It's somewhat heartwrenching in that Hayao Miyazaki made the film at least partially as an apology to his son and wife for working so much. When the father signals I'm sorry from the ship, it's Miyazaki, talking to his family.
20th Century Boys: This has happened with a police detective and his daughter, to the point that she tells him if he's only one hour late to his grandson's birthday party, it'll be okay. It's a Doomed Appointment, of course. It also happened to Otcho, with similarly devastating consequences.
Little House With An Orange Roof: This is one of the catalysts for the premise; to keep the soulless corporation from firing him, the series' "dad" spends every waking moment working. It costs him his first marriage.
Sailor Moon: Ami's Hot Mom is a workaholic doctor, but also a pretty good person who had to raise her daughter almost on her own after her divorce. She even laments in the manga that she would really love to spend more time with her kid, but she cannot. This is to the point where she doesn't show up at all in the anime. Likewise her Disappeared Dad is a travelling artist (seemingly a wildlife painter) who communicates to her via letters and paintings but almost never actually shows up.
Rei also suffers from this - she lives with her grandfather in a shinto shrine and only sees her father (a famous politician) on her birthday each year.
Cardcaptor Sakura: Sonomi Daidouji, Tomoyo's mother. Like Dr. Mizuno, Sonomi's always very busy with her business and barely has time to see Tomoyo, but is genuinely affectionate to her and her friends when she is around. Specially seen in the episode where Tomoyo temporarily becomes a Cute Mute due to a Clow Card stealing her voice.
Sakura's father Fujitaka is a milder example, as he's an archeologist and uni professor with a very heavy schedule..
In Sonic X both of Chris Thorndyke's parents have this problem, leaving him to depend on the company of an eccentric grandfather, and later a blue hedgehog and his friends.
In Bokurano, Waku tells Moji that he used to play soccer, but his father never showed up for the tournament he was in, so he began to question why he was doing it, and decided to take a break from it. At his funeral, his father admits to having been burdened with work. In the manga, Aiko "Anko" Tokiosumi's father Akira is one as a news reporter, and it's revealed that she had once hoped to be an Idol Singer to see him on TV.
The relationship between Goku and Gohan in Dragon Ball Z. In fairness to Goku, he's a brain-damaged alien warrior who pretty much raised himself, so it's no surprise he's pretty clueless when it comes to parenting.
In the Spider-Man comic that first revealed that Norman Osborn was the Green Goblin, we see Norman being this to his son Harry in a flashback. We even see him bringing Harry an expensive present and trying to tell himself that this surely makes up for never having time for him. No Norman, it doesn't.
Thomas Wayne is sometimes portrayed as having been this kind of father to Bruce - in some versions, the fateful trip to the movies was intended to make up for this...
Green Arrow was this after he took Roy Harper in and made him his sidekick. Oliver was frequently out and about when they weren't in costume and left Roy by himself for varying periods of time. Roy's birth father died in a forest fire when Roy was three, and Roy's adopted father Brave Bow died of liver failure when Roy was twelve. Brave Bow sought Oliver out before that happened because he knew he was dying.
In 'Nexus' this is subverted as Jack rarely thinks about his father unless he has too.
Naruto in Demon in the Hyuga Clan goes through this for years (turning him into a rather soft spoken, stoic yet well adjusted kid) but due to being a master of Angst? What Angst? his parents (Minato and Kushina are alive and well) don't realise he's miserable. Hinata calls them out on it (Naruto confides in her) saying they're making him feel unwanted. When they answer that he (Naruto) would've told them she basically asks: "How can he when YOU'RE NEVER HOME?". Cue Stunned Silence.
Perfect Companions: Applejack's parents had to travel to help the other Apple Families get their farms started up, and as a result weren't there that often, even missing her birthday several times. They finally made it to give her Winona to help keep her company while they were gone. Sadly they died in an accident shortly thereafter.
Liar Liar: Learning to spend more time with his kid isn't Jim Carrey's main lesson, but it is one of the things he does learn.
North: Young North feels so neglected that he actually divorces himself from his parents. This sets a rather dangerous precedent as children across the nation are now forcing their parents to wait on them hand and foot, lest they call Cat's Cradle and get their own divorce.
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins: A particularly egregious example, as the child complains that his dad needs to attend more of his soccer games while his dad is actually at his soccer game.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A major source of friction between the Joneses Sr. and Jr. is that Sr. wasn't around much when Indy was a kid. The young Indy was frequently neglected as a child because his father was always off hunting relics. This also let a bad guy get away with a valuable relic that he was going to sell on the black market because he was too busy translating something to look at him. Bright side is that he reclaimed it years later.
Things had settled down in the Young Indiana Jones series when Indy was in High School, but now the physical distance had been replaced with emotional distance after the death of Mrs. Jones.
Played with in Coraline. Upset with neglect from her workaholic parents, Coraline is ensnared into the seductive world of the Other Mother where Coraline gets everything she wants and her parents exist only to please her. It's later revealed to be a honey trap, as the Other Mother is actually a creature that feeds on childrens' souls.
It is implied that her parents at the start of the movie are close to an important deadline and are not workaholics. They also just moved into a new house, which partly explains Coraline's resentment — she was also upset that her parents had her leave behind her old friends and home.
Both parents from Mary Poppins are period-piece examples of this trope, although in the mother's case it's her political crusades, not a job, that take up too much of her time. Moreover, in both cases, it seems as if it's not that their jobs are particularly time-consuming so much as they're mildly disinterested in the children and willing to palm their parental responsibilities off on someone else. Then again, this was completely normal for a well-off family in the Edwardian Era.
Happens in Inception, where Cobb's young son asks his father when he would be coming home. Cobb audibly sighs and later the audience finds out that he can't return to America because his wife set up her suicide to look like he murdered her. (She believed that she was in a dream world, and wanted Cobb to "die" with her to "wake up."
In Parenthood, Gil struggles to balance his home life and career to be able to spend time with his kids and still keep a roof over their heads.
In The Jetsons movie, George is given a promotion and becomes a workaholic to try and maintain said rise in power. He has to be snapped out of it by his family and the fact that Spacely Sprockets is destroying a alien race's home. This all leads to his crowning moment where he finally tells Spacely off.
This is something Tom Hanks character does in Road to Perdition. It turns out that his reasoning for keeping distant is because he doesn't want his sons (especially Michael) to follow the same road as him and become a hitman for the mob.
Johnny in Little Giants wants nothing more than to spend time with his father, who is always away on business. When the father makes it to the football game, Johnny plows through the opposing team and scores a touchdown as a mere side benefit of getting to his dad.
In The Compound, the fabulously wealthy father had grown up in an orphanage and, during his kid's childhood realized he didn't spend enough time with them. So he faked a nuclear attack and made them live with him in an underground bunker for 6 years. He was planning to keep them there another twelve, even if that meant they'd have to eat the younger siblings who were born underground. Well, the thought was there...
Old Kingdom series: Just before he sacrifices himself, Sabriel's father apologizes to her for not having been an "ideal parent", saying that the duties of the Abhorsen tend come before those of a father; Sabriel makes a similar speech to her son Sam later; Lirael's mother had to leave her because of something she Saw. Partially subverted, however: the kids may not like it, but they do understand, and so does the reader.
"Nasty little shock for old Barty, I'd imagine. Should have spent a bit more time at home with his family, shouldn't he? Ought to have left the office early once in a while... gotten to know his own son."
A minor point in Animorphs. Rachel's mom is a lawyer and a single parent so there are occasional references to her not being around as much as the other's parents.
In the New Jedi Order, Jaina Solo (Han and Leia's daughter) is this with respect to her mother as during her childhood her parents were always off saving the galaxy and were too busy for her. She oddly doesn't hold her father to the same standards, though this is partly due to the fact that she somewhat resented the fact that Leia never properly learned to be a Jedi even though she carries a lightsaber and that she otherwise shares all of her skills with her father.
Maya on Just Shoot Me! has a contentious relationship with her father Jack because as a child he was too busy running a fashion magazine (and being an out and out playboy) to be with her. The low point may have been when he hired someone to take his place to go trick or treat with her on Halloween. Ironically, when Jack tries to make amends, she ends up doing the same to him in order to go to a Halloween party with a handsome guy.
In the US version of The Office, when Jim comes back to work after his daughter's birth, Dwight attempts to induce a guilt trip in him by playing Chapin's Cat's In The Cradle to get him to take more time off (so Dwight can use his desk). It almost works.
The Wire: Detective Jimmy McNulty's bad parenting encompasses this trope, but is by no means limited to it. He is separated from his wife, and is frequently disputing the terms of the custody agreement, insisting he needs more time with both his kids. The first time we, the audience, see either of his kids is when he realizes almost too late that he has to attend his son's soccer game, and has to bring Bubbles, a police informant and drug addict, with him to the game.
The second time, he's playing soccer outside with his two kids, when suddenly he gets a page, at which point he bundles both kids into the car and takes them to the morgue (getting takeout for dinner instead of the restaurant date he'd promised them, and staying past their bedtime), in the company of a convicted felon, so said felon can identify the horribly mutilated corpse of his lover.
Ziggy Sobotka accuses his father Frank, always preoccupied with "dock business", of never having been there for him.
Roseanne - Roseanne tried to encourage Dan to spend more time bonding with DJ by threatening that she might have to play a Harry Chapin song for him.
Dan's issues with his own father are all about how much time he spent on the road with his job and trying to make up for it by giving expensive gifts whenever he came back.
Another episode had Roseanne realize just how much she and Dan ignore DJ (who, in a metafictional sense, had spent much of the series until that point being Out of Focus). They have to be told he's stopped seeing his friends and that he'd stopped playing hockey a year ago. When she finds out he's been driving their car around the neighborhood (implied to be to see if they'd notice), she decides to spend more time with him by making him work as a busboy in the diner.
On Will And Grace, Jack, who has daddy issues of his own, despondently recites the lyrics of the song into the mirror when his biological son's mother forbids him from seeing the boy again.
Power Rangers Turbo: Justin's dad is too busy trying to find and hold down a job to spend much time with him. Justin has a bit better luck than most on this page because this is resolved by the end, and in the meantime his fellow Rangers act as a surrogate family.
In the TV-movie "The Christmas Shoes" Rob Lowe plays a lawyer who spends too much time away from his family, but learns his lesson because of the aforementioned shoes (it makes more sense if you know the song on which the TV-movie is based).
The Trope Namer is a line from Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle". The father never seems to have time for his kid, making empty promises to spend time with him, and despite all that, his kid continues to look up to his dad, promising that he'll grow up just like him. When the dad is retired and finally has time for his son, he finds that his son is now the workaholic that has no time for him.
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me. / My boy was just like me.
The song was based on a poem Harry's wife wrote about her first husband's relationship with his father. And written when his child was born, while he was out touring.
Obliquely mentioned in Franco de Vita's "No Basta".
"American Dream" by Christian Rock band Casting Crowns, which compares the proverbial man-who-built-his-house-upon-sand to a workaholic father who's never there for his wife and child.
"Slipping Through My Fingers" by ABBA tells the story of a mother that laments how work kept her away from her daughter as she grew up. Made even more of a Tear Jerker when you learn that it's based on both Björn and Agnetha's lives and how they missed their daughter's early years.
"Father and Son" by Cat Stevens is an inversion, being more of a "Why You Leaving Home, Son?" The father has never really taken the time to get to know his son, and cannot understand the son's frustration at conveying how important leaving to become his own man is. Incidentally, "Cat's in the Cradle" is often a Misattributed Song to Cat Stevens.
"Busy Man," Billy Ray Cyrus's only hit song between his Achy Breaky heyday and his Hannah Montana-induced comeback, explores this theme.
"Someday Never Comes" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which not only invokes this trope with both the father's life and death, but states that the son ends up just like his father with the implication that his son will be the same way when he gets older.
First thing I remember was askin' Papa "Why?" / For there were many things I didn't know. And Daddy always smiled; took me by the hand / Sayin' "Someday you'll understand." Well, I'm here to tell you now, each and every mother's son You'd better learn it fast, you'd better learn it young 'Cause, "Someday" never comes.
Neil Diamond's "Shilo" uses this trope. A boy creates an imaginary friend, Shilo, because his father won't pay attention to him and he's lonely:
Papa says he'd love to be with you If he had the time So you turn to the only friend you can find There in your mind
The song "Wasted" by Cartel has a variety of fairly depressing moments in it throughout the course of a person's life, including this one.
He's seven years old, got his bat in his hand
He's looking for his father and he doesn't understand
'Cause Dad's too busy, got some deals on the way
His son sits alone as the children play
The song "Don't Miss Your Life" by Phil Vassar was written when the singer was on a plane missing his daughters. It's about a young man on a plane for a business trip, sitting next to an older man who tells him he's missed a lot such as his daughter's first steps, and who advises him "don't miss your life". By the end of the song, the young man decides that as soon as the plane lands, he'll buy a ticket back home so that he can be there for his daughter's eighth birthday.
I missed the first steps my daughter took The time my son played Captain Hook In Peter Pan, I was in New York Said "Sorry, son, Dad has to work" I missed the father-daugher dance The first home run, no second chance To be there when he crossed the plate The moment's gone, now it's too late Fame and fortune come with a heavy price Son, don't miss your life.
Queensrÿche's song "Bridge" is a particularly bitter version, made all the sadder when you learn that it was based on guitarist Chris De Garmo's relationship with his father, who died before they could make up:
You say, "Son, let's forget the past.." "I want another chance, gonna make it last.." You're begging me for a brand new start Trying to mend a bridge that's been blown apart But you know, You never built it, dad...
Fort Minor's song "Where'd You Go" is all about this trope from the point of view from the neglected family.
In the video for Kelly Clarkson's song "Because of You," when her younger self proudly shows her father a picture that she drew in school, he is so busy talking on his cell phone that is absent-mindedly drops it into sink full of water.
In Trouble in Tahiti, Sam denies his wife's plea for him to attend his son's school play, because he wants to play in a handball tournament and prove he's a Born Winner.
Poor Ashley Robbins suffered this in Another Code R when her father wound up leaving her — again - after he returned to civilized life. He was aware of it enough to invite her to visit, though, which kicked off the plot of the game.
In Mass Effect 2, Thane Krios' relationship with his son Kolyat is this trope. It turns into a Whole Plot Reference to the song when Kolyat decides to follow in his father's footsteps and become an assassin. The achievement for completing this subplot is even titled Cat's in the Cradle.
Mass Effect in general likes this trope. Tali's father was an admiral and never really close to his daughter, and Ashley's father was always out in space serving the military, while she, her sisters, and her mother stayed planetside, although the time she did spend with him sounds happy. Tali wasn't so lucky.
In Persona 4, Dojima-san is always too busy solvin' crime to do anything with Nanako. She asks him the title question over the phone more than once.
In Nanashi no Game, Ikuta was always too busy with work to spend time with his wife and daughter, which ended tragically for all involved.
In Knights of the Old Republic, we get a dose of this with Carth's son. Part of the reason he joined the Sith was because he resented his father for always being off at war.
Final Fantasy Legend II opens with a scene where your father is last seen leaving through your bedroom window. Throughout the game, the two of you bond through brief encounters as you try to convince him to stop working so damn hard.
In Katawa Shoujo, Hisao's parents spent most of his childhood working. He notes that this resulted in him having evenings to himself, enabling him to go out into the city.
Theo Nero in CharCole is far too distracted being a scientist to be a father to the main character. The most egregious example was when he wished his son a happy 16th birthday. The problem? His son had just turned 18.
Tiger from Spinnerette had a case of this in his flash-back; he often had precious little time with his wife and kids because he was working so many hours as a police officer. In truth it was because he was moonlighting as a superhero. When his family catches him, his kids aren't upset any more, in fact they're completely ecstatic! His wife... Not so much.
In Magellan, one of the main contributing factors to Charisma's Alpha Bitch personality is the fact that her father, the famed superhero Epoch, is frequently too busy with that to be around.
John Cheese of Cracked wrote an article angrily blasting this trope, referencing this very TV Tropes page specifically.
"Poverty isn't a number on your bank statement, it's a state of living that your kids are subjected to every day... All of the middle class people who want to lecture me about the meaningless nature of material goods, is assuming a shitload of things that still cost money — free time, safe neighborhood, peaceful evenings, an absence of chronic pain or anxiety."
Shows up in Unstable Fables: Tortoise Vs. Hare: Murray Hare misses his son's science fair to work at his car dealership. His wife is even worse, as she's a real estate agent who never takes off her Bluetooth headset and appears to be giving motherly advice when she's actually talking to a client.
There was a flashback which revealed how Timmy came to have Vicky as a babysitter. In the flashback, it was revealed his parents obsessed over him — or, at least, his father did — and made home movies of everything - even Timmy eating spinach. His mother, wanting a life of her own, practically dragged Timmy's dad out, hired a sitter, and they became the neglectful parents they are today.
Jimmy Neutron once traveled back in time and persuaded his father to invest in the show's McDonald's Expy. When he got back to his own time, his parents were millionaires, but they couldn't even bother to give him the time of day, so he went back to the past to change things back to normal.
Rocket Power had Sam's dad be like this when he comes to visit. By the end of the episode he tosses his phone in the back of their car and ignores it as it rings.
Wakfu: Nox, the main villain, 200 years before the actual show took place. His obsession with his work eventually drove his wife and children away from him. They died when the home they moved to was destroyed in a massive flood, and only then did Nox realize that his obsession had cost him the best part of his life. The revelation drove him insane, leading him on a 200 year quest to travel back in time to fix his mistakes, over the course of which he annihilated several countries, killed a dragon, and wiped out an entire species.
One of the Hanna-Barbera TV-movies had a Lonely Rich Kid stow away with Yogi Bear and gang, who end up getting accused of kidnapping (but of course!). The trope is summed up aptly when the dad confronts them:
Dad: "Why would he leave with you? What could you possibly give him that I couldn't?"
On Invader Zim,Dib and Gaz suffer from an extreme version of this, as their father Professor Membrane is always either at his laboratory or working on some odd project in the basement. He often communicates with his children through floating video monitors rather than in person. To make things worse, most of his remaining interaction with Dib is spent on lamenting his "insanity" and/or pestering him to study "real science."
One episode of Johnny Test had Johnny and Dukey enlisted by The Men in Black Black and White to help investigate an Obviously Evil-looking man by becoming friends with his daughter. Then it turned out it was the daughter who was evil, and plotting to destroy her father's pet food factory because he was too busy with work for her.