I came across two interesting lines in a recent article about President Obama (keep your hats on; this is not going to be a political piece!)
In delineating possible reasons for his limited effort regarding a particular matter, his associates cite, among others, family commitments, adding that 6:30 family dinner is said to be “sacrosanct” most nights.
The end of the article sounds a more optimistic note and suggests that Obama is now freer to spend more hours at work. “Now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway,” Mr. Obama said.
It seems that even the President of the United States can’t have it all. This highlights (as I mentioned in a previous article) that this is an issued for men too, that hard-working, high-achieving men also have choices to make – and a price to pay.
I respect the idea that 6:30 dinner is sacrosanct; we have a similar attitude towards dinner in our home and if my husband walks in a few minutes late, everyone is a little put out. I think that regular family dinner time is an important stabilizing and bonding experience for parents and children (especially if you can get your kids to stay at the table to talk a little after they have finished rapidly shoveling the food into their mouths!).
But my husband is not the President and I’m not sure that the position doesn’t call for a greater sacrifice of family time. This is every man’s conflict. I know a very successful businessman who spent about 25 years building his wealth, power and reputation. When these were secured, he turned to his wife, “Now I can relax a little and we can spend time together.”
“Easy for you to say,” she retorted, “but I had to make a life for myself while you were working those long hours. And there’s no room for you in it.” Ouch. Yes, everyone pays a price.
This issue gets so much PR as a uniquely female struggle, something that truly committed feminists with the right will and determination should be able resolve – or at least that’s the party line. But work/family balance is a human issue and the solution is complicated – or not.
Perhaps it’s a matter of deciding your priorities – and accepting the consequences of that choice. Time is not elastic (and neither are we!). It is just not possible to have a high-powered career and spend significant time with your family. Not unless there are more hours in your day than there are in mine.
You may decide that you need the career – and the resulting sense of satisfaction, power, prestige and income that it supplies – and that you are willing to sacrifice something in terms of your relationship with your children in order to achieve this. I’m not telling you what’s right or wrong. I’m just suggesting that something (intangible perhaps, subtle perhaps) will be lost.
And the same is true from the other side of the coin. If you make your family your priority, your career achievement will be more limited. It has to be. You can’t be available to a sick child and a demanding employer at the same time. You can’t help your teenager with her English essay and be on the telephone to your counterpart in Singapore simultaneously. You can’t (as I once saw) go on an amusement park ride with your child and have your cell phone glued to your ear. Well you can but don’t delude yourself that this counts as bonding time with said child.
It’s not all or nothing. There is balance available. A happy medium is certainly possible. But it requires scaling back either your career expectations or your family time. With all these cautions in mind, I think it is possible to meld a satisfying career with a fulfilling family life. But chances are you shouldn’t run for President...