Published: March 17, 2013
“I have not had it all.
I have had a lot. I feel lucky to have had a successful career as a journalist and author while being the primary caregiver of our four children for a decade.
But I definitely did not have it all.
And unlike most people written about in the media who don’t have it all, I’m a male who didn’t have it all.
I, the dad, had to make career “sacrifices” to run the family’s domestic life.
And my wife, also a journalist, made those same “sacrifices.” She anchored the first decade; I did the second.
When asked to climb the editors’ ranks, I declined.
I use the word “sacrifice” in quotes because I don’t think of myself as having made a sacrifice. I wanted to coach my kids’ teams and help with their homework. I wanted to be in the principal’s office by their sides, as they faced a five-day suspension (not a hypothetical, unfortunately).
And I wanted a career where I’d feel that I was helping make the world a little better.
It’s turned out pretty well. Stories I’ve written have made a difference. Being there for my children has too, I think.
And both my wife and I have held challenging full-time jobs through most of it.
The key: I was able to work out of our home for 30 years. We never could have done it otherwise.
It’s been striking how strong and sustained the reaction has been to the recent decision by the chief executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, to end telecommuting at her company.
Bill Gates noted in an interview this month how effective it had been having his salespeople based out of the office. In the current New Yorker, James Surowiecki argues the opposite, that having people working together and sharing ideas in the same office fosters innovation.
My own feeling is that every situation is different, varying even within a company from job to job.
Ms. Mayer’s decision at Yahoo struck a nerve. She is a rarity, a mother with a newborn baby running a major corporation. And here, one of her earliest decisions as chief executive was to take away one of the most useful tools many women have for advancing their careers.
Anne-Marie Slaughter also created a stir with her essay in The Atlantic last summer, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Ms. Slaughter, a onetime high-ranking State Department officer and currently a Princeton professor, wrote that because the American work place isn’t parent-friendly, women’s careers are stunted. Forced to choose between job and children, she wrote, women feel a domestic pull that is not as strong in men, driving them to sacrifice high-powered careers for home and preventing them from reaching the top tiers.
“Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes,” she wrote, adding, “I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.”
An important part of the solution, she wrote, is for companies to create a more parent-friendly culture, and No. 1 on her list is working at home.
I think her essay is mostly right, but misses on two points. First, the message is that women are disadvantaged because of the social pressures weighing on them to be at home. Not said is that those very same social pressures weigh on men to be the primary bread winners, a burden of similar scope.
Having been both — the primary bread winner and the secondary earner anchoring the household — I’m here to tell you the latter (more home and less work) is often more fun.
The other questionable premise for me is the implication that a more parent-friendly work place will catapult women upward.
I’ve seen very few people — myself included — reach the top or even near the top while working full time at home.
I do not blame job discrimination for blocking my path. I knew what would happen when I made these decisions. I knew there were jobs that, by their nature, were too inflexible for me if I was going to achieve the balance.
You can’t cover a war and be there for your children. Do not believe it when people say they can travel and still keep up with their kids at home by talking on the phone or Skyping.
“What happened in school today?”
“Who did you play with?”
Because I was able to work at home, I could put in 60-hour weeks and still coach and all that other stuff.
It was also crucial for me to have control over which long hours I worked. To do that, I had to be selective about the reporting positions I took, and I earned that freedom by working so hard there was no question I was working so hard.
Fortunately, my balancing act didn’t feel hard because I love what I do.
I’d put in an hour or two before waking the four of them each morning, made their lunches and got them on the bus. Then I’d work until they came home, oversee the activities, cook dinner and make sure they were on top of their homework and in bed on time. When they became teenagers — a decade-long hormonal storm a parent absolutely must tend to in person — I’d enforce the curfews, police the drinking, keep an eye on the friends.
Then I’d return to work around 9 p.m. and go past midnight, until I nodded off in front of the computer.
Ms. Slaughter of Princeton offers several suggestions to make companies more parent-friendly besides working at home: lots of teleconferencing; no Saturday meetings; less travel; leaving the office by 6:30; a school day that matches the work day.
But these same benefits that lift you also hold you back. Foreign correspondents can’t cover a war and travel less. A reporter’s interview is going to be better if it’s done in person instead of teleconferencing. News is as likely to break out on Saturday morning as Wednesday at noon when the kids are in school.
The workplace, I believe, can be made more parent-friendly, but it’s not going to be all that friendly, which is why they call it work.
The core problem isn’t the workplace, it’s work.
Those jobs that refuse to be friendly are often the hardest, most time-consuming, most unpredictable, require the most personal sacrifice and, to me, deserve the best compensation and most corporate status.
Which does not mean that these are the people whom I admire most or want to spend my time with. When I see a man who has reached the top of a company only by making work his entire life, I think, what about the kids, what about the wife? And it’s no different when it’s a woman.
In the mid-1990s I was given the opportunity to advance as an editor. I liked it. I was pretty good at it. Then one Friday night I got off the train at maybe 9 p.m., and when I walked into the house, there was my wife in bed with our three little sons watching “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
In that instant I knew what I wanted, and not long after, I went back to reporting.
Booming: Living Through the Middle Ages offers news and commentary about baby boomers, anchored by Michael Winerip. You can follow Booming via RSS here or visitnytimes.com/booming. You can reach us by e-mail at email@example.com.”