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Career Gain – Worth the Pain?

I’m delighted to report that we have a new little man in our lives; Robert decided to join us in the outside world on Monday, November 25th, and, aside from looking vaguely like Winston Churchill when he’s asleep, is the most beautiful person in the world (no parental bias here).

So it was with tears in my eyes (blame the cocktail of hormones racing through me at the moment. I also cry over Pink Floyd songs – go figure) that I read the LEAD case about Laura, who with three children, a full time job and a fast track career husband, was finding the balance of work and family life difficult. I ran skipping and jumping away from a life similar to that not six months ago. Harvard was going to give us the time and space to figure out an alternative to working too hard and missing out on family time. It was also a chance look back and realize, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

The overriding emotion I remember from my working life was that I was pleasing no one. My son was in childcare for 10 hours a day. I’d get him home, tuck him up into bed and not see him until the frantic scurry that was breakfast. If he was ill there would be an argument over who would stay home to look after him. And if I wasn’t at work by 8.30 am I thought everyone was watching me and putting little black marks next to my name. For extra brownie points I’d go in over the weekend just to be seen there. I’d usually end up replying to emails.

So, in an attempt to distill down all the complex issues surrounding being a working adult with people who depend on you, here are my thoughts:

What are you going to be when you grow up?
From the youngest of ages it’s a question posed and pondered. There would be a lot more firemen, vets and postmen in the world if we all held to the convictions of our youth. But our society places all aspects of self-esteem and social ranking on the occupation you have rather than the type of person you are (isn’t it better to ask a child the question “what type of person do you want to be when you grow up?” and see if they can’t live up to it?). So we grow up linking self-esteem with identity and from there we derive our ego.

Ego and the Id
Put up your hand if you are an underachiever. Thought not. According to Freud, the Id, Ego and Superego are all that make us tick. As achievers each of us wants to be ranked and respected for that rank. In the words of Lisa Simpson “Grade me, grade me, grade me!!!” The only avenues open to do this are the sad illusions of the pay scale and the number of poor minions we rule over under the title of “management.”

Where feminism has led us
I am sad to admit that after reading lots of 1960s feminist literature I can’t remember any of it – none of it seemed to connect with my life and my opportunities (the only bit I remember from Erika Jong’s “Fear of Flying” is the scene with the avocado and the dog). The battle had, for the most part, been won. Women could work and have kids…hum, means we get to work twice as hard doesn’t it? Just another example of a great idea that doesn’t quite work in practice.

When the math doesn’t work
Math was never my strong point. Reports from school generally read “makes silly mistakes, could try harder.” And that’s sometimes how you feel as an employed mother. You work 40 hours a week and the pay, after tax, just about covers the childcare costs for one son and the grocery bill. When you have more than one child you might as well just hand the whole pay packet over to childcare and hope you can top up the difference with a “bake day.”

Who pays the bills?
Imagine the people in your life as a series of debit accounts. Those you love most in the world are very definitely in the black – lots of spending power there. Your boss/colleagues/clients have far less “emotional credit” – even spending a little bit in these accounts will show up in your statements as a significant loss.

So what do you do with your life – you have obligations and you don’t want to spend your precious credit in your smaller accounts so you sacrifice the credit you have with those you love. You work late, work weekends, talk work over dinner, read your standard operating procedures to your child as a bed-time story (they won’t notice until they’re at least two). And you run the danger of running your account right down to zero because you haven’t been checking your statements.

In the meantime, your employer’s credit has been riding along nicely with no peaks or troughs. But here’s the clincher – you’re not married to your boss (usually).

So are there any solutions?
The reason for coming to Harvard was to learn how to make earning a living work for us rather than the other way round. Those solutions will not be learned from a case study nor from a section discussion.

Individual solutions are needed. Here are a few options:

1. Work to a longer game plan – I used to work to a five year timescale. Now I think we have to ask where we want to be in 10, 20, 30 years time. Aim for long, slow growth where you peak in your mid-forties instead of mid-thirties. (Don’t worry Kofi Annan, your job is safe for some years yet.)

2. Take turns – if you are in a partnership, work out a plan whereby each takes turns to crank up their careers.

3. Box clever – if you are going to live your work, make sure it’s work you can be proud of. If you want to save the world, have a damn good stab at it. Set your sights high enough for you to be proud of having given it a good go. A career in middle management may not be worth the sacrifices.

Now, after that little rant, I think there is a young man in the next room who needs a cuddle. You don’t get a second chance at those in your life – and you shouldn’t need them.

December 9, 2002
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