Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Working

Something broke my heart a little last night. My boss darted into my elevator at the end of the normal workday with me. Because this is so odd, him leaving at 5:30 when the rest of the office clears, I made a note of it. “Wow, leaving at a decent hour today! Good for you!” I said to him. He looked at me with a half smile, then said in a defeated, deflated voice, “yeah, it’s my son’s birthday and I’ve got to be home early." He spoke as if his son’s birthday was this horrible inconvenience, keeping him from his work. This wasn’t the first time he spoke of his family like this. He came in late one day last week because his daughter fell ill at school and it was “his turn” to pick her up, and he grumped about the mess it had made his day all day long.

My last boss was like this as well. They both took vacation weeks not during the week their kids and schoolteacher wives were home on winter break, but the week before or after. They complained about family tasks, preferring to stay at work for all hours. I often thought that if one of the lobby sofas were a convertible that my old boss would choose to sleep at the office rather than at home with his wife. Both men hung drawings from and photos of their kids in a manner that smacked more of obligation than love. I was shocked to find out my current boss’s son turned 14 yesterday; the photo in his office is of a little-league playing boy of 9 years, tops.

And then I compare this to the problems a friend is having with her workaholic husband, distant and disinterested in the family, working 70-hour workweeks because he feels obligated. And, granted, he’s in the process of building his own business, but even when he IS at home he’s checked out and picks fights, never appreciating a thing his stay-at-home wife does, sometimes coming home so late he’ll go days without seeing his two young boys. He doesn’t spend time with his family; he does time with his family and it breaks my heart to see what she goes through.

And then there’s the flip-side to this. In my decade of professional experience, I’ve never had a superior who has put their family first. Family folk seem to come in two extremes: either work or family is viewed as a necessary evil. Those who appear to view family as an unfortunate obligation (usually men) make their way up the ranks while those who work to pay the bills and have little other motivation never seem to get ahead.

I will be the first person to label myself as a workaholic. I think my addictive tendencies inherited from my father manifested in my work instead of drink. But while I’ll be the first to volunteer to stay late when there’s a big deadline looming, I also strive to work as few hours as possible to get my work done. Since my career is a major factor in my decision to remain childfree, I often wonder what I would do in a similar situation to my current and former supervisors.

It's no secret that my husband wanted kids when we met, and during those conversations when I was inclined to consent, figuring by the time it came up in our lives I might be okay with it, I told him that if I had kids with him that he would be the primary caregiver. (Eventually, obviously, I came clean with him and told him how I really felt.) I've always known, since before the day almost 8 years ago when my mom said "you're more of a career girl, aren't you?", that if I didn't want to reevaluate my career goals a kid would make things incredibly difficult.

I knew before I had spent much time at all in the type of office where I'd spend my career, before I saw the coldness of the successful parents or the stunted careers of the good parents. Even aside from my lack of maternal desire, I've known that a career and a child wouldn't mix. As Oprah has said, she didn't feel that she could do both as well as she'd feel comfortable with. That sums up my thoughts pretty accurately.


Sarah G. said...

Hi Tiara,

I so agree with your sentiments here. I recently left a long-term relationship, about 10 months ago, with a man I'd hoped to be my fiance. We are still friends and we even hold out the prospect of reconciling and joining together again, but we ran into the same sort of thing-- he was working 80 hours a week, week after week with no vacation, while I myself was working 60-hour weeks.

We both wanted children but our jobs made it impossible, and soon we were encountering enough frustrations-- financially and otherwise-- that we broke up, after years together.

It's not that we want to work such ridiculous hours, it's that we have to merely to survive. We both used to live in the Bay Area in California, and it's so unbelievably expensive there that we'd go bankrupt if we didn't work those kinds of hours. My ex is from Chicago, and it isn't any easier there or even in smaller-tier cities like St. Louis, either. Housing costs are out-of-whack, traffic is terrible, pressures at work are overwhelming-- it's just too much to deal with that and raise kids, too.

Also, with the lack of power that workers in the US have these days, coupled with the profit rush in companies, the pressure is on us to work longer and longer hours-- many of my own colleagues are pushing 70, 80 hours themselves.

In short, there's just no time or money to raise children in the USA these days, and it's a nationwide problem anywhere you go.

In fact, among my own fellow skilled American workers, the only ones who've been able to marry and have kids... are ex-Americans.

That is, they've emigrated from the US, from this workaholic- and stress-obsessed culture we have here, mostly to Europe or to South America.

A couple of my good friends went to Belgium, others to Sweden or Denmark, a bunch to Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain or France.

They still work pretty hard there, but it's usually just a 40-50 hour week, going beyond that only on exceptional occasions. There's lots of vacation time, weekends off, plus a sort of public-provided helping hand to people who want to have and raise children, with maternity and paternity leave and more affordable housing and living costs. Your children's education is paid for by the state, and the public schools are excellent all aorund. The Euro is also a much better currency to earn money in than the dollar, it's worth more.

(I don't know many people who've emigrated to the UK, or places like Canada for example-- the UK and Canada are unfortunately taking their cultural cues from the USA and getting trapped in our same work-obsessed culture, whereas Continental Europe is adopting a more humane approach.)

The only hassle in doing this is that you have to get fluent in a foreign language like French, Dutch or German and use it on a daily basis, but everyone I know who's emigrated says it's not that hard to do-- once you're in the country living there, it's second nature to pick up the language, and the governments provide free language classes.

But it seems that for working professionals at least, or just educated couples who want to have a decent lifestyle and provide for their kids' education, the Europe Continent is a much better place to have and raise kids.

They love US-trained professionals in Europe especially those with families, and the immigration policies are very friendly to us. It's definitely something to consider.

burrito said...

Oy, sorry for posting on so many old posts.... but am enjoying reading through your archives. This one really hit a nerve - so many guys I work with who treat work as an escape from the family (my husband says the same of his co-workers)!

When I had a similar hypothetical discussion with my partner - I said that the only way I would even contemplate possibly even maybe having a kid is if I was not the primary care-giver. He told me much later that that discussion prompted him to try to imagine being a stay at home parent and he realized it sounded awful. It forced him to realize that he really only wanted to have a part-time kid: after work and weekends, and if he wasn't willing to be all-in, he could hardly expect me to want to be either. I wonder how many men have an assumption they are unaware of that the mom will do the heavy lifting?