Last night I was forced to watch yet another episode of the pretty boys and girls who play doctor and sleep with each other (I once saw an amazing diagram in TV Guide showing the love connections of every character of Grey's Anatomy proving that literally every character had, at one time, slept with every other character no matter how unlikely the connection). I was shocked to realize that in its own juvenile way, the show was getting at something really important.
Cristina, played by Sandra Oh (okay, she is a serious and good actor) is caught in a love triangle -- the standard plot line of the show -- that puts her in a bind. Her heart surgeon mentor is in love with her boyfriend doctor. The upshot is, she can't keep her mentor and her lover. She has to choose, love or surgery. That becomes the mantra for the episode, "love or surgery" asked of every character male or female.
It was Sigmund Freud who famously said, "Love and work... work and love, that's all there is."
What he had no way of anticipating is the complexity of engaging in both, simultaneously, in the modern world. Feminism was born out of women's desire to be moms and workers (and to be treated fairly in both roles).
I would argue much of the dilemma faced by men in 2010 is caused by their inability to reconcile love and work. One in five women are more educated and make more money than their husbands. Seventy percent of the jobs lost in the recession have been men's, so far. One in three men are less educated than their wives.
But those numbers only scratch the surface. As men, we are asked to roll on the ground with our kids, change diapers, and share our emotions with our spouses in ways that just wasn't part of the deal for our fathers. At the same time, the expectation to excel professionally has accelerated. A man's worth continues to be judged primarily by his checkbook in our society.
John Edwards and Tiger Woods are extreme examples of the quagmire between private and public life that many men find themselves in. How to be superhuman at work and at home? It's not easy. It requires compromise and a level of honesty about our shortcomings, which most men don't like to admit ("Babe, I just don't know if I can do this" are not words most men will utter to their wives without a gun pointed at their heads).
So all this was swirling in my head as I lay in bed next to my beautiful wife. I wondered how well I had done at balancing work and love. How well I had modeled how to deal with success and failure for my two sons and a daughter?
I've lived a rather big life in some ways, CFO of a big company by 29, venture capitalist, writer. But I hit the wall 13 years ago. Going through a painful divorce with two, then baby children, while getting sober -- learning how to be a dad on my own with no safety ropes, getting remarried after six years and having a third child, while continuing to live a rather public life.
As I snuggled my wife in bed watching Derek and Izzie and the rest of the crew, my four-year-old son fell off to sleep and my 15-year-old daughter and then 13-year-old son came in to hug us goodnight, I realized that just talking about the strain of work and love was half the battle, since there are few easy answers whether you are male or female in our current society.
The problem, of course, is that us guys don't like to talk. As the pressure mounts, we often find ourselves lying to ourselves. And once we are lying to ourselves, its just a short hop over to begin lying to our loved ones. That's what got me in a heap of trouble all those years ago.
In the end Christina chooses work over love. But her lover Owen won't accept that answer, sweeping her off her feet in a passionate Hollywood ending. If only the real world was that easy.