Nov 24 • 4M

Thanksgiving thoughts: My family leave act

The choice I had to make

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Robert Reich exposes where power lies in our system — and how it's used and abused.
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Thanksgiving often brings up one of the central dilemmas in my life — trying to find a better balance between work and family, and failing miserably.

It’s the word “balance” that’s always thrown me. I used to assume that a better balance meant more of what you really wanted and less of what you didn’t. For me, and perhaps many of you, that metaphor doesn’t help.

Sure, I’ve met lots of people who find a better balance by doing less work and having more time for family.

But that’s hard to achieve economically. Working families don’t have it easy in America, and the work-family challenges are particularly daunting for women — especially women of color. Not to mention the pandemic we’ve been living through, where working people have been trying to balance childcare, virtual schooling, and precarious employment.

But for some people it’s at least possible. Live cheaper, scale back, give up the rat race.

I’ve even met a few people who’ve done the reverse. For them, a better balance means more work and less family. They love their job and find the world of spouse and kids harder to manage. So they’ve hired a babysitter, gratefully sent the kids off to college, or got a divorce. Now their energies are happily focused on work.

I know someone who found balance by cutting back on both. She simply needed more time for herself. She had had it with a boss who kept piling it on and a family that relied on her to do everything for them. Finding her balance required setting some firm limits.

All these people found a better balance between work and family by devoting additional time and energy to the one they valued more, and less to the one they valued less.

But what if you’re like me and, I suspect, many others — you love your job and you love your family, and you desperately want more of both? You’re doubly blessed, in a way.

But here’s the rub: There’s no way of getting work and family into better balance. You’re inevitably shortchanging one or the other. You’re never able to do enough of what you truly value because you want more of both.

I used to think it was just a matter of improving my “time-management” skills. Rubbish. A family doesn’t need you just when you block out time for them. Work doesn’t present new opportunities or crises on a predictable schedule.

In the end, you simply can’t do more of both. There’s no room for better “balance.” The metaphor is all wrong. You have to make a choice.

I vividly remember one night toward the end of my four years as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Clinton had won reelection. My workload seemed under control for the first time in months.

I planned to be home to say good night to my two boys, then young teenagers. I hadn’t been home in almost a week.

But my plan wasn’t working out. Another work crisis intervened.

When I phoned Sam, the younger of the two, to tell him that I might not make it in time for bed, he said that was O.K. “But will you wake me up when you come in, Dad?” he asked.

I explained that it might be early in the morning and he needed his sleep.

“I’d like it if you’d wake me,” he responded. “I just want to know you’re here with us.”

That did it.

Being secretary of labor was the best job I’d ever had. I couldn’t get enough of it. But I also couldn’t get enough of my two teenage boys, whom I knew would be gone from the nest and on their own in a precious few years.

Finding a better balance? I’d been kidding myself into thinking there was one.

The next day I told Clinton I’d be leaving, and explained why. He said he understood. He had the same dilemma, but couldn’t leave for another four years.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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