The working parent's dilemma
Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to be at home with her children for dinner.
There is something irresistible about this confession. We long for the intimate details of successful women's lives; how they manage and how they do not, and whether they make peace with it all.
The only frustrating part of Sandberg's confession is that she did not confess enough. Much of modern motherhood is make-believe - it's a preoccupation with perfectionism and dogma and illusion. Sandberg is not our role model, her life is almost nothing like our own. But that's not the point.
The significance of her revelation is that it draws back the mask of contemporary working mothers' lives. It is possible for a mother to disguise her family priorities sufficiently to climb the ladder to that height? And importantly, it is possible to run a company worth $100 billion while still leaving in time for dinner?
There was a time when it was very difficult to reconcile my working and mothering selves. I returned to paid work six years ago when my eldest was a toddler and I seemed to straddle a particularly savage divide. I arrived everywhere harried - to the train station in the early morning with my child, stroller, and our multitude of bags; to the daycare centre with my child in tears; to my desk with me in tears; and then back again in the evenings to the daycare centre and the train station and home. Rinse and repeat.
Inexperienced with the facade required for these dual roles, I found my credibility crumbling in both worlds. "Enjoy your long weekend!", my male colleagues would tease as I, a part-timer, packed up to leave mid-week.
But the days at home alone with a toddler were no less exhausting, and they did not feel like a 'holiday'.
Then I would read somewhere that stay-at-home mothers are described as 'full-time mothers', which left me as what, a 'part-time mother'? Except it did not feel part-time when I spent my working day fielding calls from the daycare centre because my daughter was too distressed to be there. I willed us both through those days. Just one more hour, little one. Caught between the demands of work and family I experienced a choking sense of guilt. I would try to alleviate it by endlessly examining it but it was pure economic necessity that got me over the line. Our family needed the money.
I no longer experience significant guilt in leaving work at 5.30 for my children. I am more confident about my decisions, but also, my partner and I have arranged our careers to better accommodate this juggling and to share the load more fairly between us. Like Sandberg, I have seen that the world does not end when you leave in time for dinner.
Besides, the stern disapproval of carers left hanging with your children when you are late to collect them is more fearsome than that of most employers. I come home for dinner because the urgency of my bond with the children feels particularly strong at that hour. The dinner and bedtime hours are when children fold back into their tiny, young selves. They are fragile and open; peeling back the layers of their day. They disclose their hidden concerns, burst into tears readily and want to be held in your arms. By the time they are asleep in their beds they resemble themselves as babies.
The problem is, as a society, we still have not imagined a way of organising work that accommodates the truth of our lives. We work in jobs that often don't produce tangible things and the proxies for performance have become long hours in the workplace. In a toxic climate of individualism we see children, and in fact any form of dependence, as some abhorrent condition that must be hidden from view. It is this absurd compulsion to reduce all the complexities of humanity to 'choices' that prevents the conversation from going forward.
It took quite some time in the position of COO before Sandberg felt safe enough to make her confession. A woman in men's clothing confessing that she is still a woman. But we will know the revolution has truly begun when men in men's clothing make these same confessions, and not for a pat on the back, but because they want to acknowledge that to shut off half of their lives is to die in slow, painful increments.
Regardless of whether you are a parent or not, if you are not being recompensed for work after your 'day' is done you probably should not be there. You have other things to do, you have a life. My priorities and work flow will shift several times over my lifetime, not because I am a woman but because I am human. Yours will, too. There may be serious illness, there may be elderly parents to care for, there may be divorce and falling in love with someone new.
This is what it is to be human. Becoming a parent only sharpened my realisation of that fact. Perhaps parents will be the workers who humanise the workplace for everyone. After all, the problem is not children, the problem is the tyranny of workplaces that behave like you are theirs 24/7.
Do you struggle to get out of work and home to your family at night? How do you manage it?