A few months ago I wrote a post about my father telling me I should take “a nice part-time job” and how angry that made me. This post is a confession—I asked for that advice. Well, not for that advice specifically, but for any advice he could give me during a very difficult period in my life. So I shouldn’t have gotten mad at him for telling me what he thought.
Here’s “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say:
I recently went through my father’s “brag file” about his career again. This time more carefully. Buried in the file, I found a letter I had written him in early 1986, shortly before I turned thirty. I had completely forgotten I wrote this letter, though as soon as I saw it, I recalled where I was and what I was doing the day I wrote it.
In the letter, I complained about the heavy workload I had and the corporate politics that complicated my job. I bemoaned the struggles I had coping with two toddler children. And I asked him what I should do to make my work and family balance better.
Included in the envelope with my letter were my father’s handwritten notes of how he thought he should respond to me.
But he never sent me a written response to my letter. Instead, we talked on the phone a week or so after he received it. (This was in the spring of 1986, not the summer, as I wrote in the earlier post.) The conversation took place during one of my regular weekend calls to my parents, with my mother on the phone also, and probably one or both of my children hanging around to say hello to their grandparents.
Maybe if my father had written his response, he would have included everything in his notes so I could reflect on his advice more carefully. Maybe if it had been just my dad and me on the phone, I would have listened to his comments more thoughtfully or asked more questions. His notes were very thoughtful—more philosophical and nuanced than I remember his conversation being.
Or maybe now that I am thirty years older than I was at the time, I can understand him better. I am seven years older now than he was in 1986. So maybe now I can appreciate the wisdom of what he intended to say, when before all I heard was what sounded like a belittling remark “go find a nice part-time job.” (Isn’t it funny that when we call something “nice” it makes it sound smaller?)
His notes contained a long reflection on career stages—(1) the point when you first stick your head out of the trenches and wonder whether you like what you do, (2) the mid-life crisis of realizing that if you don’t change you’ll never get to do or be anything different, and (3) the regrets near the end of your career when you wonder why you didn’t accomplish more. I was at the first point, he wrote, and a few years earlier, he had gone through his mid-life crisis and made a major career move, which he described in some detail.
More than thirty years after that 1986 letter and our conversation, both he and I have weathered all three career stages. Unfortunately, he isn’t here so I can discuss them with him, nor can I thank him for his wisdom. (Of course, if he were still alive, I would never have gone through his brag file.)
Here is the advice he intended to give me when I was a young mother overwhelmed by work and family, though not all of it came through to me during our conversation:
1. You have to decide what you want—(a) a full-time career with advancement, (b) a part-time position to help keep your interest in your field, or (c) no career and enjoy life as a wife and mother (not a bad career either).
2. If you are not having fun, that may be telling you something.
It went on a bit longer, but that’s the gist of it. Simple choices, yet very hard to make. But all I heard was “maybe you need to find a nice part-time job.”
I don’t know what advice I had expected from him. Maybe something on the rewards of being a workaholic like he was—it would be worth it to stick it out through the rough periods. Maybe an acknowledgment of how well I’d done to that point in my life—to be working in a demanding occupation that made use of the education he had paid for. Maybe thanks for giving him two fantastic grandchildren and appreciation for the sacrifices I felt I’d made as a working mom.
But all I heard was “maybe you need to find a nice part-time job.”
So what is my advice to any thirty-year-old parent who would ask me about work and family balance?
After thirty more years of living, I can see that my father’s advice—albeit thoughtful—was too simplistic and based on the perspective of a man who had never faced the cultural gender conflicts I faced. The choices aren’t quite as stark as he painted them. Maybe they were never so stark, though I agreed with him at the time that they were. Maybe the world has changed enough that they are less stark now they then were.
In reality, the choices are complicated. We can make different choices at different life stages. We can have some of everything (career, family, hobbies), though not all of everything. And not at once. There is no perfect job, no perfect family, no balance that stays in equilibrium. In reality, we muddle along, doing the best we can, day by day, hour by hour. Not soothing advice, but muddling through has been my answer.
Still, one thing my father said is true—if you are not having fun, that might be telling you something.
What advice do you have on managing work and family balance?