“I wanted to be able to change diapers.” That’s what Tim Donohue told me when I asked him about the life-altering choices he’d made regarding the elusive work/life balance. We had both just read the recent New York Times article, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” revisiting the topic of women with Ivy League pedigree and promising career prospects who’d “opted out” of corporate life to dedicate themselves wholly to the art of maternal domestication. Judith Warner’s findings were decidedly mixed, but with all of the talk of women on the “Mommy Track,” I was left to wonder, What about the dudes? What role do men play in weighing their obligations at home and the office?
The debate about working moms is now so ubiquitous that we must conclude it’s a real issue—that women are wrestling with this topic so consistently that the battle waging within them is genuine. Women, as a whole, seem clearly to want both a) to play a formative role in the upbringing of their children and b) to satiate the desire within to capably accomplish tasks of seemingly greater import than changing diapers or organizing class parties or even holding office within the school PTA. Regarding the now public discourse over this internal wrestling match, men have done largely what they should—if they know what’s good for them—remain silent (sitting behind their three-olive martinis, newspapers and crossed feet adorned with the slippers June brought to the front door).
I am not fool enough to break that silence, but I do seek to explore whether there is any similar angst, any similar wrestling over this topic regarding their own roles, in the realm of men. As it appears, there is and they are.
The 60-Hour Work Week
Tim and Lesley Donohue live in Denver. Tim is a mortgage banker, Lesley is a nurse, and they both played a meaningful role in bringing Louise, their beautiful newborn baby girl, into this world. What makes them unique and relevant to this discussion is that they’ve been planning—for years—to also both play a meaningful role in Louise’s day-to-day care into the future. They intend to accomplish this with Tim working (roughly) 36 hours per week and Lesley 24, co-parenting along the way. Why 36 and 24? They’re compelled by the logic of philosopher, author and theology professor, Gilbert Meilaender, who suggests that in order for a family to support itself financially, practically and relationally, the parents’ aggregate occupational efforts should consume no more than 60 hours. “We simply can’t have it all,” Tim told me. So he will don the Baby Bjorn while Lesley works two 12-hour shifts per week. Tim will fill in the gaps with his flexible work schedule, and maybe they’ll need six-to-eight hours of childcare per week.
No, you don’t just up and decide to do this. Tim’s been planning on it for over a decade, since well before he even met Lesley. I can corroborate that because I recall him telling me, very specifically, at a coffee shop, about ten years ago, that he was engineering his work-life to accommodate his life-life. He wanted a job that offered good pay, lots of flexibility and a boss who trusted his employees to get the job done without being micro-managed. “I wanted a career that was a good expression of who I am, but that also gave me plenty of space to be who I am.” Fifteen years ago, when he made these career decisions, Tim was a mentor to high school and college youth. Today, he’s a husband and a father, a son and a brother, a friend to many, and an active member of his community.
But Tim knew it was going to take a lot of effort to put himself in that position. In a volatile business that is 100% commission, he started socking away money very early. He knew that an overabundance of income one year could turn into a drought in another, so he worked to save one, and then two full years’ worth of living expenses as an emergency reserve. He saved cash to buy a car with no debt. He bought a house in a high cost-of-living area north of Baltimore, and aggressively paid his mortgage down with every shred of excess income, so that when he and Lesley moved to Denver (with a lower cost-of-housing), they were able to buy a house without a mortgage. In their mid-thirties. With two years of living expenses saved.
What makes Tim and Lesley so successful in finding a healthy balance between work and life is that they don’t consider it to be a balancing act. Instead, they have successfully integrated work and life.
Is it possible that our notion of work/life balance implies that these are two opposing forces, and furthermore, that positioning them as competitors creates inertia that keeps them from being more successfully integrated?
Tim and Lesley make it look easy because of their forethought and the deliberate steps they took years ago to make a more integrated personal and financial life possible today, but most of us didn’t do that level of planning and are entrenched in seemingly irrevocable roles today. Or are we?
Women may not be the only ones giving up elite Northeastern educations for parenting purposes. Andrew Ritter has two degrees in geological sciences (one from Colgate) and plied his trade up the stalactite ladder (or would that be stalagmite?) all the way to Project Manager, around the time he met his wife Jennifer, an attorney. But as Jennifer’s legal career gained momentum, Andrew was burning-out of…whatever it is that geological scientists do. He decided to punt his degrees and valuable experience, starting up a residential remodeling business, the work he did during college. Andrew didn’t fall prey to the “Mancession” of late. He simply decided that killing himself in 70-hour-a-week increments was not the way he was going to spend the majority of his adult waking hours.
Therefore, when baby Wilson and his little brother Ridgely came along, and as Jennifer’s career arc soared, Andrew had the occupational flexibility to opt-IN to being a part-time stay-at-home dad. “There’s no question,” Ritter told me, “that it has been difficult financially.” In a high cost-of-living area, they feel sometimes as though they’re just treading water.
“Was it worth it?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t trade these years for any corporate accomplishment. I get to walk my kids to school every morning, and when Jen is in trial—leaving at 6 am and returning at 2 in the morning—I can be here to make sure everything runs smoothly at home.”
Maybe the key to “having it all” is simply a willingness to redefine our “it all.” Or maybe the secret is to pursue our “it all” with less. (Or both?)
Messrs. Ritter and Donohue both agree that the choices they have made are their choices—they’re not universal and worthy of widespread adoption. But there are themes here that very few of us would dispute:
- It’s becoming increasingly difficult for a household to live comfortably and save for the future with a sole source of income.
- Both moms and dads struggle to know exactly how to allocate their time between the individual purposes to which they feel called and their chosen roles as partners and parents.
- Dedicating ourselves to a work/life ratio that feels out of kilter eats at us, and can leave us dissatisfied with our efforts in the office and at home.
Our attempts to balance work and family have failed. But resourceful, forward-thinking moms, dads and companies are getting more out of work and life by creatively integrating the two.