My husband is leaving his job. He and his boss came to the decision together this week. He’s held a high-level job in the financial sector for the past five years. The departure came as a surprise, except…when I stop and reflect on his time with this firm, it isn’t a surprise at all.
There are organizational and structural reasons behind his exit — a growing company that’s brought on several top-notch people in the past year to fully assume several roles he was filling in an ad hoc way. He led the effort to find and hire most of this new talent, ironically. But my gut tells me another factor in his departure was his reluctance to fully embrace a corporate culture where family was a very, very distant second to devotion to The Company.
To be fair, he largely adopted the workaholic mantle, resisting only around the margins. He was rarely home before 7 p.m. at night. Family dinners, during the week, never happened in our house. I ate dinner with the kids, and he swooped in and helped me get them into bed every evening, getting a cursory update about our sons’ school days and having just enough time to read a book with our toddler. And then it was back on the laptop, sending emails, finessing PowerPoint presentations, crunching data, until the wee hours of the night, every night.
But that wasn’t enough. His boss, the CEO, wanted to meet with him on weeknights and weekends. He would call or text and want to get together on Sunday for coffee or tacos to talk about work matters they didn’t have time to cover during the week. This became a regular thing, every weekend. My husband would do his best to schedule these meet-ups around the kids’ activities or our toddler’s nap time, but he didn’t feel like he could say no.
And then there was the pressure to travel — weeks-long trips abroad. I’m not proud to say that I’m a great big baby when it comes to his work trips. I hate being alone with the kids overnight. I roll with the long workdays and the nights with him holed up in the home office, but I desperately need to know that he’s going to be around to tag in at night. A surprise pregnancy with our third child really brought this issue to a head. That’s when my husband made it known that it was problematic for him to take big trips.
And then a couple of months ago, his boss’s wife reached out to me. We’ve chatted at business dinners and holiday parties, and I’ve always enjoyed her company. But I was perplexed by the email: “You seem like such a great person. I’d love for the two of us to meet for dinner!” We arrived at dinner and chatted amiably, until she broached the subject that seemed to be the motivation for dinner.
She talked about how the company had exceeded earnings expectations and suggested perhaps our husbands could stand to work a bit less. But in the same breath, she seemed to wear her husband’s long work hours like a badge of honor. She talked about his frequent long absences while she was managing young children alone. She mentioned that their conversations during family meals were dominated by dissecting and analyzing every facet of the company’s inner workings. But couldn’t they lighten their workloads and spend more time with their children, she queried, now that The Company had attained a certain measure of success?
I was speechless. Perhaps she wasn’t acutely aware of the power differential between us. I’d love for my husband to work less and have more time with his family, but the boss didn’t seem amenable. I may have let slip, in tone or reaction, that the infringements on family time were wearing thin. And in the weeks following our date, I couldn’t shake the feeling that during this dinner, I was being evaluated for devotion to the company — and perhaps I was found lacking.
And maybe I am lacking as a corporate spouse. But are there no reasonable boundaries between professional life and personal life? The kids lived for their weekend time with Daddy, when he could step away from his phone and computer and kick the soccer ball in the backyard or play a game of chess. In the moments when Daddy was pulled away yet again, on weekends when they yearned for time with him, I started getting mad — not at my husband but at corporate America.
Is nothing sacred? Family time on the weekends doesn’t seem to be. My husband genuinely liked his boss and considered him a good friend. But does he need to hang out with him in the evenings and on the weekends? Can his children take priority some small fraction of the time? Is something broken in some corner of the corporate world?
I suppose we’ve been at a cultural crossroads for some time, where much of the professional world glorifies workaholism. Even though we all know that nothing comes free, if you’re working all the time, you can’t be present as a parent. I don’t want to talk about business affairs at every (rarely occurring) family dinner. I like to talk about other things. We enjoy talking to our children. Add to that a president who is proud to proclaim that he never changed a diaper and seems to lack any interest in his children until they’re old enough to suit up and come to the office. And many, it would seem, are impressed by this behavior?
So here we are. The future holds some uncertainty for my family. But we are fortunate to have the resources to pull through this — not all families do. I recognize that, which is why I think our culture desperately needs to make a shift to allow for more work-life balance.
And I’m also feeling relieved. The financial sector can be a lucrative place to land. I think we were almost intoxicated by the money, for a time. But the truth is, I was never entirely comfortable with our brief stint in a top income bracket. I think it harkens back to studies I’ve read about how there’s a tipping point when you analyze income and happiness — a point at which greater income doesn’t, in fact, lead to greater happiness. It leads to greater spending, bigger expectations, a never-ending wanting of more things, and a lesser appreciation of all the things you already have.
And in that way that your life experiences mold your worldview, I’m disinclined to put much value on accumulating things. I watched my mom bravely face a horrific disease and sat next to her and held her hand when she died. When she left this world, she didn’t get to take a single thing with her. I know most of us would like to find challenging and meaningful work that enables a comfortable lifestyle. But I don’t imagine many people lie on their deathbeds wishing they had spent more time at work and acquired more things.
I’ll gladly forgo a whole lot of things for a whole lot more Daddy time for my kids. Thanks, hubs, for choosing us. We’re one lucky family.
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