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Why You Can’t Have It All.

On the other side of the gender divide, there is a conversation that has been going on for decades but has grown louder in the last decade: Can women have it all? People like Sheryl Sandberg talks about how she can have it all by leaving at 5:30 every day. Anne-Marie Slaughter takes the other side of the debate by explaining how she found she could not in a widely read article in The Atlantic.

I want to wade into this debate myself. Let’s start with a simple statement:

I can’t have it all.

These articles all talk about women, but they could be about the human race. The evolution of technology has changed the way we work to a point where work life and home life are a blur. This is not a female problem, it is a people problem. When people can work any time, the expectation becomes one where people are expected to work all the time.

In the 1950’s, when it snowed, people couldn’t go to work and kids couldn’t go to school and the world stopped: There was sledding and snowmen and snowball fights and that was it. In the Snowpocalypse a few years ago, with three feet of snow on my front lawn, my wife and I desperately juggled schedules as the power of the Internet moved every meeting to a conference call and the email became, if anything, even more unrelenting.

I have my kids in day care and picking them up by 6pm is the law of the land. We don’t have a nanny and we joke all the time that this is a key part of our work-life balance. If we had a nanny, we might forget about our children entirely.

The best jobs are fun. That means work is fun. It engages the brain. So people with jobs like Sheryl’s love to work.

But she knows a fundamental truth. As I always tell my wife: “I will never regret skipping that meeting. There will always be another meeting. But going swimming with my kids. If I don’t go swimming with them, I will regret it.”

Every time I go swimming with my kids, they want me to get into the pool. They love to play swim tag – a game that involves them swimming near me and then racing back to “base”, while I hopelessly try to lure them off base far enough for me to get them. I don’t love to play swim tag. I frequently would rather they play in the pool with each other while I read a book. But every time they ask me, I remember how, when I was very young, I wanted my mother and father to play with me in the pool and how frequently they did not – for the exact same reasons I had: it’s boring, I have better things to do, I was planning to leave in 20 minutes, whatever. But I really wish they had. So more often than not, I get in the pool. I will never forget the time I spent with them in the pool. They love it so much. And seeing them happy makes me happy.

I want more of that. I agree with Paul Graham: School is prison. It is a place we send our children when we have to work because we need a place to send them. I would prefer to home school my children. But I am unwilling, due to my own selfishness and materialism, to give up all the things that I would have to surrender to do so. I live in a nice house, I go out to eat at nice places, I buy local, organic food at the farmers market, I go on nice vacations from time to time, and on a day-to-day basis, I feel like I never need more money. And I think all of this benefits my children and in the big picture is a somewhat reasonable trade-off. Of course, in the macro, I could use a lot more money. My car is a piece. We write a huge check for our mortgage every month. I have a day care bill that is unsettling. I can’t retire. I have friends who have start-ups and I would love to give them money but I can’t afford to.

But I have no illusions: My kids would rather be at home than at school. And I drop them off early for school before care. And they stay late at school for after care. And they would rather be with me. And I would rather be with them. But we can’t be.

Why? Because I value my job. I like my job. I want to do a good job at my place of employment. And I work hard at my job. Working hard takes time.

When people talk about the compromises one makes to accomodate work-life balance, that is what they mean. Time taken with children is time taken away from work. In the kind of white collar, knowledge worker jobs that I have – that my peers have – there is always more work. In the time I took to write this blog post, I could have written a deck. So the time we take to raise our children is time that is not invested in work. In modern day parlance, it is time we are performing poorly at our job. Because there are no boundaries. Time we take at work is time I am taking to do something I enjoy (“work”), that makes my children suffer (generally speaking, they spend most of that time in school/prison), albeit the money from my vocation helps them too – it pays for swimming/pool membership, it pays for gummy bears, it pays for…. uh, I think that is all my kids appreciate that money buys.

And I want more. I would say that work is far more about all the things that I want that are not even on this list. Most of them include my kids: Scuba lessons. Fishing trips. I want to take my kids on a trip to the Far East. I want to take my family to France for three months. I want things that there is no possibility I can afford in the near term. I would say that is the real reason that I work. My kids suffer today so that I may strive to make their lives better.

This is the essence of the trade-offs we make. We do things today that we like, hoping it does not screw up our kids in the future. We do things now we don’t like because we hope to make our kids lives better.

The worst part about spending time with kids is when you are thinking of all the other things you should be doing. If I could get rid of all of that and simply live in the moment, every time I successfully do that, I find that I am incredibly happy. But then, that is also true of things I do at work, or when I play basketball.

Live in the moment. Flow.

But remember, you will never regret not working another 15 minutes and going to leave and spend it with your kids.

(This was written very quickly. Excuse the nonsense.)

One Response to “Why You Can’t Have It All.”

  1. Aidan Says:

    Love the insights on the expanse (cross gender) and evolution (technology, etc.) of this challenge and I couldn’t agree more. A key here that you’ve touched on is that the balance has to be self-motivated/driven. I’ve always noted, from my 10 yr stint at GE and beyond, that it’s very telling that people always talk about “work/life balance”…never “life/work balance”. I was highly fortunate in my personal “school” experience so I disagree with the school=prison conclusion. For me school provided a great additional dimension of learning, interaction and growth that I never would have experienced at home. hat said, “school” and “before car + school + after-care” and not the same thing. All tolled, I maintain that a common trait of the parents that I most respect is “true selflessness”…prioritizing what is actually “best for your children” – no to be confused with :what they want” or “what you want” at any given time. Of course, this requires a balance of the latter two as well….and I think that’s the trick. If it was easy it would be boring, right?