What We Talk About When We Talk About Work and Life

Family is not just something you cheat on your career with. A career is not just something you do for dollars even though it robs you of your family. Our families and our careers are both parts of who we are.
07/16/2013 07:31 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Last week, the Times ran a "Business" feature about one mother's flexible work arrangement. Sarah Uttech works from home one day per week, and likes the set-up. It's funny to me that this is newsworthy -- I've rarely met someone with job flexibility who doesn't like it; telecommuting one day per week, while sadly not pervasive, is hardly rare -- but the reporter positioned it as a counterpoint to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. The article starts:

Sara Uttech has not spent much of her career so far worrying about "leaning in." Instead, she has mostly been hanging on, trying to find ways to get her career to accommodate her family life, rather than the other way around.

Why does every published discussion of employment and parenthood have to divide women into Those Who Want Time With Their Families against Those Who Are Willing To Relentlessly Pursue Power And Leadership At Work? It's polarizing, and I don't think it does much to further the discussion.

Interestingly, Uttech doesn't sound like she wants to be part of that dichotomy, she comes across as someone who's tried to find good solutions for her own life through creative and intelligent problem-solving. It's the Times reporter that casts this as a stark alternative to Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and, by reference to childcare arrangements, Marissa Mayer.

Here's what I wish we saw more of, instead:

1. Conversations towards creating laws/policies/regulations that protect more workers. We shouldn't have to fantasize about paid sick leave (which Uttech apparently ranked as one of her top "concerns," more important than "climbing a career ladder.") This is supposed to be a civilized country.

2. Creative discussions geared to improving childcare options. Presently, in more than half the United States, daycare literally costs more than college tuition, and the yearly child care costs for two children is more than the minimum wage. We are beggaring ourselves to get through our childbearing years.

3. Conversations that refuse to describe Work and Family, abstractly, as if they are inherently, necessarily, parties to a chronically dysfunctional relationship. Family is not just something you cheat on your career with. A career is not just something you do for dollars even though it robs you of your family. Our families and our careers are both parts of who we are. The Times piece continues:

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" ....

Can we just stop with this? The world is not divided into Rewarding Careers (aka "Important, Sheryl-Sandberg-worthy-career") vs. "Flexibility" (a.k.a boring job that goes nowhere and deadens your soul). Each of us imagines a rewarding life differently and needs different kinds of flexibility and has the opportunity, and responsibility, to figure out: what are the options for how I can blend these different needs together. Discussing it monolithically describes so few people, and doesn't help the rest of us.

4. Conversations that acknowledge this as a Human issue, not a Women's issue. That's why I love this response piece by my friend David S. Cohen (it's the fourth letter), who describes, in his own life, how important it is not just that his wife has "job flexibility" but that he does as well, because "child-raising is not just a mom issue; it's an issue for everyone who has children."

Yes! But what I like most is this: He describes a day where he works from home, also does laundry, reads to his boys, fixes a toilet, makes pizza dough and runs to the grocery store.

And he makes is sound fun.

Let's aspire to that. Not the specifics of the one day working from home and the toilet-fixing and the pizza dough -- I, personally, will be happy if I never ever make my own pizza dough. But you can tell that he's doing it because they're part of a life that feels right to him, not because he's on a hamster wheel of expectations he must meet to Be A Good Parent And Worker. His summary of the evening is as follows: "The four of us enjoyed talking with one another, playing together and helping one another out."

The spirit of joy and adventure is missing, too often, in the way we discuss work and fife. Too often, a working parent's life is described as a desperate, cheerless crush to an ever-receding finish line. The Times reporter's description of Uttech's job priorities ("hanging on") and typical day ("Up Early, Always Moving") makes her life sound relentless. We read that she's awake before dawn and doing housework while everyone else sleeps, logging hours in the car each day. There's a timestamp for each detail. Her statement, "I never miss a baseball game," (and then we read that there are six games a week) sounds more like a weary brag, not a thing of joy.

At the risk of sounding positively un-American, I would be happy if I never went to a Little League game, let alone six a week. It's no more necessary, per se, than homemade pizza dough, and it's not what I would use my career-flexibility to make time for. But what's weird is, I can't tell whether Uttech likes baseball or not. Because the reporter is much more interested in listing what she does than in describing why she's made these choices.

I'm talking about the tone, here. Uttech may take deep pleasure in her work and in all those Little League games; she may have some days that feel lethal and some hectic days that feel thrilling. But as we talk about these matters, we're missing an important ingredient when we don't talk about joy and pleasure. After all, the reason we want flexibility and the reason we want ambitious careers is the same: to enjoy our lives.