Uneven Footing

I am really quite excited to see the resurgence of feminism in the mass consciousness.

I’ve actually been meaning to write more about my nebulous thoughts and experiences around it, but this other thing has been eating at me a bit, so I thought I’d throw it out there and see if I can drum up any discussion, because frankly, I’m stymied.

How do I negotiate prioritising and “leaning-in” to my career in the context of doing what’s best for our family?

At the core of it, Neil’s salary is over 100% higher than mine. This is due to a number of things; but primarily because of a higher overall salary for the work he does compared to what I do, and a more direct career path for him (he’s been doing the same thing for a while, marching steadily upward, while I flitted around and dabbled).

But, while he would never boast about this himself, he also owes a huge amount of credit for his earnings and career success to the fact that he works really, really hard. He goes in early most days. He stays late when he needs to. He isn’t a doormat or a workaholic, but genuinely believes in what he is doing, really enjoys doing it, and works hard to deliver excellent work, all of the time.

His pride, drive, and passion are core to what I love most about him.

And before we had a kid, these rarely presented any challenges. He worked late, I worked late, we sorted it out and fended for ourselves when we had to.

Introducing the tiny human has meant we have also had to introduce a lot more compromise. Generally we’re pretty good at making things work, and Neil really is very involved in the mechanics of making sure we’re all fed, clothed, and reasonably clean. He’s got time booked out in his calendar where he won’t take late meetings because I have commitments. But occasionally, we both need to extend our work days, and we need to make a choice about which one of us has to lean toward the family more than toward our jobs.

So how do you choose who’s going to ‘take one for the team’ this time?

Prioritising Neil’s work means ensuring he can continue to earn the income our family needs to keep existing (we can not live on my salary alone).

But I worry.

I worry that I am going to lose opportunities to increase my own career progression and financial contribution to our family (not to mention my own personal goals and hopes and dreams), by not being able to lean in as hard.

I worry that by taking on the bulk of the household responsibilities, so Neil can continue to thrive and grow in his role as our primary breadwinner, I am spreading myself thin enough that my outside-the-home-work ends up relegated to the position of ‘job’ rather than career.

I worry that by ‘betting on the short-game’ we are losing out on the potential of the long-game, but at the same time, that a focus on the long-game for future unknowns in my career may bite us in terms of opportunities for Neil that could very concretely impact our family now.

None of this is about parenting, or time with Isaac, which I’m really very happy with. Heck, if my salary were higher, I’d consider introducing a maid/nanny/mother’s helper/au pair/household manager into our lives, to make the choices a little less stark.

(Or is the right bet a financial hit to have those resources, so we can start making more time-choices now, in the hopes that it pays off in the future? – see, I can play this game all day.)

My in-person life is pretty much devoid of working couples without massive salaries who make this work.

I know a lot of families with two average incomes, who work to live and rarely exceed the 9-5:30 boundaries. I know many who live on one income, with someone staying at home to manage the household. I know a few where there is one ‘main breadwinner’ income-earner, and the other who has ‘just a job’ and generally makes most of the work-sacrifices to take care of the family. And then there are the Sandberg-esque examples, of two people who already have huge careers before kids come along, where hiring extra help is, financially, a no-brainer.

Maybe you are or you know someone, like me, somewhere in the middle?

Is there anyone out there who has any more of this figured out than I do?

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10 thoughts on “Uneven Footing

  1. Nicole

    Oh Jen, if only there was an easy answer to this. As much as I agree that it’s wonderful to see this push for equality in the workplace, and I’m damn glad that women (in certain societies, of course – we all know this isn’t universal) have the opportunity, should they choose, to take on a role other than housewife (or very traditional female jobs like secretary/nurse/teacher), it would be naive to claim that there’s not a practical reason that we fell into those roles for so long. Raising a family without substantial help (whether hired, or from grandparents etc.) with two parents working full time “careers” is simply impossible without some sacrifices. Trust me, I do not say that lightly. I spent more than a decade in school to earn the highest degree available in my field, and then, much to the chagrin of many of my mentors and advisors, stepped off that path in favour of a job that supported my family goals. It’s a good job, and I’m happy with it (and in the short term, I’m earning more money than had I continued with academics), but despite having done a strong, highly published, highly-awarded PhD in a prolific field with a well-recognized advisor, by taking “a break” and working outside of academics to focus on my family, even if I only do this for 3 years, I’ve ruined my chances in academia. Whatever edge I had is gone, and I can’t go back. So, ya, what’s the answer? Well, it’s not as fucking simple as a catchy phrase like “lean in”. Not unless you have a massive support network that is willing and able to lean out of their worlds and into yours for a bit to help you…. which is a fantastic lead in to some excellent advice (for men!) on this very topic from my very favourite online author in the whole world, Black Hockey Jesus: http://www.babble.com/babble-voices/black-hockey-jesus-reviews-black-hockey-jesus/2013/06/10/lean-in/

    Jen Watkiss Reply:

    Love Black Hockey Jesus. And I’m really loving all the men I’m seeing stepping up and being really equal parents. Neil is and always has been absolutely a 50/50 parent with me.

    But I feel like it gets more complicated when we’ve got X units of ‘home’ tasks to be done, and X-2 units of ideally available time, if we are to do the work things we both want to. Where’s the reasonable place to make the sacrifice?

    And, of course, Neil would never expect me to sacrifice my career or goals because of some default gendered ideas of who should do what.

    Which makes it even harder to decide where, as a family, we should prioritise? The proven road that supports us now, or the less-proven, but with the potential for big gains in the future?

    *sigh*

  2. Chris Simmons

    Can’t add much to this, as I’m a) a man and b) in a single-income household (by choice), but I’m also happy to see this more in the popular consciousness. I’ve become actively involved in my company’s campaign to recruit more technical women, which touches on both the problems you state above as well as the issue of women in STEM. It’s an interesting conversation, and my work on this has helped open my eyes to more issues than my straight, white, male self would usually see, but I have no idea what the “right answer” is (if there even is one – life’s about choices and trade-offs, right?).

    Jen Watkiss Reply:

    Conversations with men about these things have been some of the most enlightening I’ve had. There’s certainly something to be said for getting out of the echo-chamber of other women.

    And have you heard about http://onthemarc.org/home? I recently discovered it, and it’s my new favourite thing.

  3. jencloss

    Maybe time is what you need? I don’t mean time, as in more hours in the day (although that would certainly help), but looking ahead a few years. Isaac will be in school and will be more independent. The early years are very intense and these little people take a lot of time and energy. I realize that never really goes away, but I’m pretty sure in some ways it gets a bit easier and will maybe allow you more time and energy to put your focus elsewhere. Maybe?

    Also, surely your move has had an impact. Neil was able to continue along mostly the same path whereas it seems like you were forced to start again. That can’t be easy. You guys have always seemed to be on top of things when it comes to planning and just generally having an idea of what you want to be doing, but have you read Lauren’s recent blog post? http://www.laurenbacon.com/the-one-question-you-must-ask/

    Perhaps thinking of it all in that context and looking at where you are now, with the responsibilities that are currently on your plate will help you put everything in it’s place in the larger picture.

    Jen Watkiss Reply:

    Funny, it was partly Lauren’s post that got me thinking about this, again.

    While I know that Isaac will be less high-maintenance in time, I also know that making a habit of prioritising one career over another will have an impact over time.

    Mostly this is about me thinking about what we want for the future, and trying to figure out the most reasonable path for getting there (and what it means for what we do in the present).

  4. Nicole

    Yup, Michael is 50/50 too, where he can be (bottom line: I’ve got the biological components, of course). He’s leaned out plenty, particularly when I had to get back into the lab when Adele was 3.5 months old. A great example: at 3 months postpartum, he and I slogged the baby to a conference in San Diego, where he spent 4 days cooped up inside a hotel room with a napping baby while I dashed back and forth between talks to pump/nurse. I tried very hard to “have it all” (another Sandburg saying), but quickly learned that playing the academic game (i.e., standing in front of an audience of 100, trying to sound smart and professional on a few hours of sleep and worrying about my breasts leaking in front of everyone) was highly overrated. And really difficult. Chris has a point – life is about balance. I know that my personal definition of “it all” has shifted enormously. Perhaps instead of looking at how to achieve everything we think we want, we should be looking into how to accept that everything we want simply may not fit, at least all at once. I think there’s a huge problem in thinking that’s a statement against feminism. It’s not – it’s purely about practicality and biology. Unfortunately, feminism is a victim of those things, but I think the sooner we find peace in that, the more satisfied and relaxed we’ll all be.

    Jen Watkiss Reply:

    I am surprisingly more at peace as time goes on with stepping off the fast-track. Especially here, where there is much more opportunity for part-time hours. I’m just not sure what it means for how work looks for me, and what it means for our family, in the future.

    You mentioned that by stepping out of academia, you’re basically off that track now. And (as I do you total disservice by paraphrasing), that you’re ok with it, since your early experiences (that conference) weren’t as satisfying as you needed for the sacrifice required.

    I, personally, felt the opposite about getting back into work – some of the hardest things, in terms of challenge and time spent, feel the best! But, they require sacrifice on the part of both Neil and I in order to work.

    And I just have no idea which of us will reap the bigger win, or pay the bigger penalty on our careers, depending on which way we lean.

  5. Kim Werker

    Oh man, I’m so in here with you. The nature of my work and Greg’s is very different from yours and Neil’s, but the issue is exactly the same, overall. He wants to get an academic job after he finishes his post-doc in a year and a half. The kicker is that our family (read: totally just me) can’t endure the shift in everything if he ends up in a typical assistant-professor position that demands an excruciating amount of high-stress work, on the order of 80 hours a week. He doesn’t want that either, but until he finds something that’s *not* that, I can’t rule out the possibility that oh my god, the horror. When we’re pushing forty! My work, on the other hand, is always very flexible. But I need it and want it, which means it’s not flexible to the point that I can ditch it. And because I work freelance, I can’t disappear or the work dries up. I need to constantly be looking for the next job. And for the more intensely creative work I do, I need a lot of mental and emotional space to get it done. (Read: Last year when I was trying to cram full-time work into 3.5 days/week, I nearly died.)

    So on paper, mine is the career that’s obviously the one to bend to Greg’s. It’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m a self-employed creative professional, and he’s not. Despite this, I get really touchy about the nagging part that I’m also the woman. Greg never has people assume he would prefer to stay at home with Owen rather than go to work, but people assume that about me. A new friend recently introduced me to someone as, “This is Kim; she loves her work.” I don’t think, in general, we even pay attention to whether fathers enjoy their work. It’s just what they do. But when a woman works, it’s often assumed it’s because she has no other choice. This drives me INSANE. I know loads of men and women who hate their work, but that assumptions are made about my work simply because I’m a mother? That’s infuriating.

    I’m going off the rails here, but I hear you. Owen will start daycare next week, and in my imagination this will solve so many problems, not least of which is that the poor kid is under-stimulated when he spends all his time with an adult (me or Greg or a nanny/babysitter). But it’ll also give me so much more space, as a work-at-home parent. And because I work from home, and Owen was in-and-out of home with a nanny, I often wasn’t just *alone*. Oh god, I can’t wait to be properly alone for hours at a stretch! And because Owen’s daycare will be at the university, some days Greg will take him in and pick him up, which will allow us to share this aspect of parenting.

    Anyway, yes. Wine. Bourbon.
    Kim Werker´s last blog post ..Austin Kleon on the Fetishization of Creativity

    Jen Watkiss Reply:

    So much YES to the “assuming you work because you need to” thing. It seems extra-pronounced here, where the “thing that’s done” in our neighbourhood (which is basically the socioeconomic equivalent of Kits/Point Grey here) is mums with young kids stay home, or work part-time if they want to work. I can not count the number of ‘poor you’ pitying looks I’ve gotten, or expressions of ‘oh, that’s so hard!’ when I tell people I work full-time.

    I’m very excited for you, though, with the daycare thing starting! It’s been AMAZEBALLS for Isaac, in terms of socialisation, and stimulation, and confidence. He’s always been a very social kid, but this has brought him to a whole other level. And the quiet. OH the quiet. So awesome.

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