What with the election and all, we're a bit behind on "Can't have it all" manifestos. Fortunately, a lawyer (and mother of two young children) threw some grease on the fire recently by quitting her big DC law firm with an email to her colleagues that recounted a rather rough day, hour by hour. (That link goes to Lisa Belkin's post about it at the HuffPo; scroll down to see the time log in all its glorious detail).
A short recap: She was woken up by her baby in the middle of the night, spent 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. dealing with her kids and traffic to daycare and work, worked from 9:20 a.m. to 6 p.m. on various lawyerly things, was late to pick up her kids because she didn't have approval to send an email to a client until 5:50, the kids screamed in traffic on the way home, she fed everyone chicken nuggets, then lost the battle with her husband over who had to do bedtime duty. After she got the kids down at 9, she fired back up the computer, fell asleep at her desk, got back up close to midnight to finish, took a shower and then went to bed at 1:30 a.m. She wrote to her colleagues that she was leaving because she was unable to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family.
I sympathize with the bad day. I've had a few like that. There was a particularly ripe one a few weeks ago where I had two big project deadlines hanging over me — one of which definitely needed a lot more work to be done. After being up until midnight working, I woke up at 5 a.m. with a screaming baby. Because my husband was out of town, I was on kid duty with the baby and then the older two until 9 a.m. when our nanny showed up. I worked rather feverishly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when she left. Then I had kid duty from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., at which point it was back to work. On days like that, I resent the time it takes to shower. Fun stuff.
But I'm not sure that quitting one's job is the obvious answer to a brutal day. In our culture, where we're still not entirely comfortable with women having big careers, it's a narrative that seems to make sense. "Working" is the thing that's out of place, so "working" is always the suspect variable. The narrative goes something like this: "I had a bad day at work and at home. That must be because it's impossible to combine career and family. Therefore, I need to quit one, and I can't really quit the family. So the job has to go." But to someone with a different perspective (like, perhaps, this woman's husband???) reacting to a bad day or a string of bad days (note the REPEAT on her email) by quitting one's job might seem like a non sequitur. Here, for instance are some other narratives one could employ:
1. I had a bad day…and therefore I had a bad day. Some days are awesome and some suck. Such is the human condition. There is no further lesson to be gleaned from this. This tends to be my feeling on such things. Also, I know for a fact that one has awful days as a stay-at-home parent of two young children, too, even with no paid work to muck things up. The stress is different, but it's very much still there. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in her former job, our lawyer heroine could at least go to the bathroom by herself.
2. I had a bad day…and therefore we need a childcare situation that eases my burden. This lawyer was getting two young kids ready in addition to herself, and driving them to and from daycare. Hiring a full-time nanny could be roughly equivalent, financially, to having two kids in daycare. The difference is that the kids wouldn't have to be ready by the time she left. She could spend time in the morning just hanging out with them, rather than racing to get them ready. She also wouldn't have to spend the time in traffic with them. The nanny could feed the kids and give them a bath, so family evening time could be more relaxed. Good childcare is expensive but so, incidentally, is quitting one's job.
3. I had a bad day…and therefore my husband needs to step up his game. It seems a little unfair that our heroine was getting the kids ready, bringing them to daycare, picking them up, making dinner, and doing the bedtime routine. It's not like her husband was in Paris. It's clear from the time log that he was there. And he was home by 7:45 p.m. when the argument over bed/bath ensued. One never knows what the situation is in a family (perhaps he was the "on" parent the entire previous week while she was traveling?) But it is certainly easier to combine career and family if one's partner is doing a reasonable chunk of the work.
4. I had a bad day…and therefore I need more control of my time. Maybe she could have negotiated for this in her current role. Maybe she could have been more explicit in her work parameters. Maybe she could have asked to work from home 1-2 days a week and skip the traffic. After all, if her alternative was to quit, what did she have to lose by asking?
5. I had a bad day…and the reality is that I didn't like my job anyway. Our heroine is certainly not the only unhappy lawyer in this world. Some of these unhappy lawyers are moms, and some aren't. If you love what you're doing, it can feel fun to fire the computer back up after the kids go to bed, not like some punishment imposed on you. The work is what you'd want to be doing anyway. If that's not the case, then maybe you're not in the right job. Motherhood provides women with a socially sanctioned reason to quit, but when we use that excuse for what is really a different matter, we just make things harder for women down the road.
On a side note: I love the genre of resignation emails. Some are matter-of-fact (here's where I'm working next; here's how to reach me). But others attempt for eloquence, trying to sum up one's contributions and thanking everyone involved. Others are fascinating passive-aggressive attempts to insult the people at the company one is leaving. I saw one once from a person who was looking forward to leaving because this person could now focus on the priorities of God, family, and work — in that order. Hmmm….