Thursday, November 20, 2008

Still Struggling

I know this is going to sound a little defensive, and I swear I'm not. I had a conversation last night with a work friend who knows me pretty well, and I know he was trying to be helpful. Parts of the conversation got under my skin, mostly because of the conclusions my friend seemed to draw. I don't talk about personal stuff much at work, so it was a fairly unusual conversation to have. I guess I'm surprised that despite knowing me as he does, he reached the conclusions he reached.

So anyway, the conversation last night inevitably turned to where I am at professionally and where I am headed next. I was explaining how hard this is for me, because (as he well knows), I really love my job, and I don't know what to do next. In a nice way, he told me that he thinks my life lacks balance. Less nice was the suggestion that I haven't made my home life a priority because it's not important. He essentially said that if it was important, I would simply take another job that is less consuming.

As I told him, it's not quite that simple. I am sure there are people who take jobs that they don't love because they pay well, or take jobs for the primary reason that the hours work around their personal lives. I can't take a job based solely on those characteristics. I have a deep-seated need to get personal satisfaction out of my job. I need to be passionate about what I do. I need to love it. The fact that I haven't thrown up my hands in the air and walked out on my job for something less crazy isn't a reflection of how much I love my husband (although, the fact that he stays and supports me through it all IS a reflection of how much he loves me).

I love my husband. He's my best friend. We talk about absolutely everything (including, despite the fact that he was in bed when I got home last night, this conversation I'd had). But I am a completely separate person from my husband, and part of my identity and satisfaction (gasp!) doesn't come from him. It's fascinating to me that people look at our relationship and think there must be something wrong with it, because I am sort of hard-charging and have a time consuming, high stress job. When was the last time you heard that about some male politician or CEO? No one looks at a man and thinks, "gee, he's not home enough. His marriage must suck." No one looks at men in top positions and thinks, "His priorities aren't in order." Rather, the stereotype is that such a man is a "good provider." No one tells the men in my office that they really should be home more, or that maybe their families aren't important to them. It was somewhat shocking to me to hear this from a friend of mine.

I mean, I get it. My friend doesn't work in my office, but in another office that I collaborate with a lot, so he sees how much I work. We've worked together enough that there are weeks that I've seen far, far more of him than I have my own husband. My profession can unfortunately be like that, and his most certainly is like that. Although we are friends, we mostly talk about work-stuff. We don't sit around and talk about our feelings. I mean frankly, I mostly work with men, and we work in a high-stress environment. I am there for loads of ridiculous conversations, but most of them are not group hugs. Anyone who works with a lot of men in a high stress environment will probably get what I'm talking about. I mean, I know who's been circumcised and that eating at particular restaurants makes this one or that one poop too much. . .but we (mostly) don't cry on each other's shoulders. Nonetheless, I don't automatically assume that because this particular friend works for who he works for, his family must suffer. I don't assume that his marriage is in shambles. I don't assume his personal life isn't important to him. I mostly assume that it's probably fine, but we don't talk about it. I don't really talk about any of my male work friend's personal lives. Not that I don't care. . .but we don't really go there. I don't jump to conclusions, though.

Everybody's marriage is different. Everybody decides what works for them, and finds a way to make it work under the circumstances that they choose. I know of couples who don't even live in the same city, for long periods of time. They make it work. If you have open lines of communication and you make the effort, it does work. I didn't get home last night until 9, but I had coffee with Terrific T. yesterday morning, and lunch with him in the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be working late. It's part of how we make it work. We talk on the telephone a lot during the day. Is it perfect? Of course not. But is anyone's situation, anyone's marriage "perfect"? Of course not. (And if you think yours is, please don't tell me.)

I guess this gets under my skin so much because as I try to make choices about my professional future, I've been wondering a lot lately whether you really CAN have it all. Can you be a successful professional woman AND have a family? Is it possible to coexist successfully in both worlds? I watch my female friends who have kids and careers, and they seem to struggle much more than any man I know. And the fact that this friend of mine, who has worked so closely with me for so long, assumed that my personal life takes a back seat to my career really strikes at the heart of my anxiety over my ability to have both. I want both. I NEED both.

It's certainly true that my friend last night is not the only one who has pointed out the personal cost of my job, and the fact that it is very taxing. I value those opinions, and I appreciate the friends that are looking out for me by asking me to consider those issues. I know they have my best interests at heart. The question I am left asking myself is whether any of these people are having the same conversation with my male colleagues. Do people question THEIR commitment to their personal lives? Do my male colleagues secretly struggle with balancing careers and families? Is the struggle going on, but just unspoken? I think I'm going to ask them.


Carlita said...

I'm no expert but I understand this struggle on a very personal level. I have no actual answers for you or myself but I have come to the conclusion that other people's opinions (often culturally loaded with gender bias and a whole bunch of other baggage) are not the best criterion on which to base our most important decisions. The truth is that I know plenty of men whose personal/family lives are pathetic on account of their dedication to their jobs. I also know men who have allowed their professional lives to suffer the consequences of having children. I think it comes down to a very personal establishment of priorities. If there really is such a thing as balance out there then it usually looks like a part time or reduced hours job and a great network of family support. It sounds like you are highly skilled so maybe you have the rare option of working less or taking time off when you need it? I guess that these are struggles that usually last an entire lifetime. I hope that you find peace very soon.

Heather said...

I will tell you that it can be done. I went back to work when my daughter was 3 months old and never dropped to part-time. I've worked for a long time in a high-stress IT job and love every minute of it. There have been times that my house has not been as clean as I would have liked, but other than that we've all been a happy, healthy family.

BTW, I think one of the secrets is to keep your DH involved. My husband has shared sick time responsibilities, doctor's visits and all. Love him!!! Never make them feel like they are not as competent as you with a baby/child. It makes it easier for us to have balance.

JamieD said...

You raise a lot of very good points. When all the buzz was about Sarah Palin and her ability to be a mother while in DC I thought to myself, "If it were her husband who was the governor of Alaska and running for VP, we wouldn't even be discussing this. I bet we wouldn't even know how many kids they have."

What is important is what works for you and Teriffic T. Since Hubby & I have been working opposite shifts, though we don't see each other as often, I think we value our time together more.

Io said...

Man, reading this really made me think about my applying for this other job. I think I'm going to apply, but it makes me want to cry thinking about leaving my job. I love my job. And while I don't make much money, I don't care normally (obviously at this point it's more desperation). I'd rather be happy than rich.
And Al gets it. He doesn't even want me to apply because he knows how happy I am where I am.

Io said...

Uh yeah. That was all about me. What I was trying to say was that I understand. And think you can have it all.