The presidency and the daddy-track

In the run-up to the Democratic party convention this week, I’ve seen a number of profiles of President Barack Obama. Some are fawning, some a lot less so, but most are in agreement on one factual point: Obama has much younger children at home than other recent presidents. He also has a Sheryl Sandberg style approach to seeing them. If he is in town, he will be home and eating dinner with them at 6:30 p.m. If at all possible, he would like not to miss family dinner more than two nights per week — and one can imagine that two nights per week are quickly consumed by various pre-scheduled functions of the presidency. This schedule does not leave a lot of wiggle room.

Washington culture, at least in the popular telling, has long been based on after-hours deal-making. Legislators on different sides of the aisle socialize together. Over drinks (or cigars in a smoky back room) they hammer out a compromise. That is how things get done.

There is some question of whether things get done this way any more. Certainly, people claim there’s less cross-party socializing, and in a 2-party system with the country split 50-50, there may be little room for compromise anyway. For you to win, the other guy has to lose. From Obama’s perspective, why would he spend time he could be hanging out with his family trying to make connections with people he doesn’t think will work with him?

It makes sense. But what if that calculation is wrong? Would a grand bargain on taxes and the budget have been possible if the president had been spending his evenings schmoozing with various congressmen? Party discipline is strong, but people also enjoy the attention of more powerful people, and will do various things to keep it.

This is not a political blog, but I think Obama’s situation is an interesting one to ponder, because it’s a much more high profile version of the dilemma many of us face in our professions. How much after-hours schmoozing is necessary to move ahead and get things done? If we cut ourselves out of the networking in order to be home in the evenings, do we undermine all the hard work we’re doing during the day?

If you think in terms of 168 hours, sometimes it’s possible to work around this dilemma. If you have little kids and stay late at work, maybe you can spend the early mornings with the kids and come in to work a little later. Or if you live close to work, maybe you go home at 5:30, grab dinner, and then head back out to schmooze at 7:30 or 8 (or summon the congressperson to the White House for a drink at that time). You can get creative on the schmoozing. I am a big fan of the power playdate, in which the kids play while you do business with someone who has kids the same age as yours, though I realize this will never be as popular as grabbing a (grown-ups only) drink. You can also remember that networking need not consume every night. Putting your children to bed four nights a week is still doing bedtime duty most nights.

But I do think this is an area of career building that many parents under-invest in. We see the schmoozing as wasted time. But sometimes a little wasted time can make big things happen. What’s your approach to after hours events?

Photo courtesy flickr user BeckyF

15 thoughts on “The presidency and the daddy-track

  1. I think you see schmoozing as important because to an entrepreneur (or a few other business or attorney-type people) it is.

    To my dad, the exterminator, or to nurses, teachers, bus drivers, miners, physicians (unless they want to move into administration) and retail sales people, it is unnecessary.

    I actually think schmoozing is fun, because I’m stuck at home. I’m excited about the soy sauce factory tour next month with my Society of Women Engineers old friends, who are still willing to let me hang out.

  2. I read the book on The Obamas by Jodi Kantor and this was one aspect of it that really stood out to me. Actually my husband and I had a fight about it b/c I was like hey honey if Obama can be home for dinner and turn off the work, why can’t you? (We are entrepreneurs though and the truth is to have the big career you might be able to be back for dinner but you do have to go back to work atnight or work weekends etc) which is very hard to do when you have a young family. It’s possible but it is very difficult. And he was like, that is a lie no way he believes Obama is home for dinner. I think home for dinner when you are the president is a little different than it is for most of us but fathering is fathering and we should laud it. But before we get all excited about fatherhood in america there is a lot more we could do for mothers and working mothers. The first thing would be affordable local childcare in every neighborhood in America. Preschool and all day kindergarten in every community – as part of public schools. Until you have that you can’t really say you support parenting in America.
    So the other thing that stood out to me about it is that for a man to be home for dinner from 6 to 8:00 and then go back to work that is often lauded as this incredible amazing thing, whereas for a woman we are doing that plus often making the dinner, meal planning… working a 40 to 45 hour week … and the mental responsibility is still ours .. in the obama’s marriage for example, ms. obama is also the harvard educated professional who in many ways is responsible for their safe spot in the upper middle class, she was still mentally responsible for getting the kids adjusted to a new school etc. when they moved, and it is she not he who scaled back and socially she is still expected to not have too much of an opinion and go to ladies that lunch and stuff. so before we get all excited about fatherhood in america, we might want to talk about what it is really like to be a woman in america.
    I do think that men who are raised without fathers often have more respect for fatherhood and take that role more seriously… whereas most women are pretty committed to motherhood either way whether it is their only full time job or one they combine with several other paid full time jobs : ) but we are rarely lauded for it .. look at that woman running yahoo.. nobody was like dxmn that lady is home for dinner… you aren’t going to read a lot of articles saying that you just aren’t…

    1. I think with Obama there may be a sense of making up for lost time. He spent a lot of time on the road when he was in the state legislature, and then running for Senate, in the Senate and then running for president. This is the first time that he and his family have been in the same place for most of the time. Obviously, there is no where for him to go up on the ladder — he’s arrived and is taking back some of that personal time now. The question is, does doing less schmoozing make you less effective in terms of making policy?

      1. good point. yes, now that he has made it we forget also that he did “make it’ in part by not being home for dinner for much of his career, and that this is an expectation of most politicians at that level as well as most folks in higher levels of corporate america. a person’s temprm plays something into it like he is supposed to be more introverted whereas others are more extroverted. I love a good networking event innately but there is nothing that says a person can’t lead effectively as an introvert etc. and there seem to be some advantages to this style, to being more measured and less extroverted for example. It takes all types.

  3. Interesting post. I’ll have to think some more about this.
    One thing I know that I think right now, though is this: if Obama succeeds in changing the culture towards a saner place where people aren’t expected to turn over their entire lives to their careers- even at the highest levels- and where we reserve after hours time for the occasional schmoozing event or true emergency… well, that is a huge accomplishment, and in some ways just as important as a grand bargain on taxes and spending.
    Don’t get me wrong, I want the grand bargain on taxes and spending, too. But it should be possible to accomplish that during normal working hours, at normal working meetings (they can bring in lunch if they really need to do this over a meal). It shouldn’t require after hours work. Save the after hours for the truly urgent cases, like “hey, we just finally located Osama Bin Laden, what should we do now?” I’ll bet he didn’t mind missing family dinner for that one (if that was necessary)- and I’m sure his kids would understand it. But to have to habitually miss out on family time because other people refuse to do routine work during normal hours? I’m all for him bucking that norm.

    1. @Cloud- I’m curious how you think work travel fits into all this. I’m sure there’s a lot of excess travel that happens and I’d love to see more virtual meetings. That said, someone explained to me once that the reason those high-tech virtual meetings haven’t caught on quite so readily is that when people don’t really care if you’re in the room, you can be on the phone. They don’t care if you’re rendered in high-def. But if they want you in the room, they want you in the room, and it doesn’t matter how high-def you are in virtual form.

      1. Interesting point. The only place I worked where I did a significant amount of travel, I was charging hours. So there was a very formal and official mechanism to compensate for the extra time work travel entails. There were complicated rules about what amount of the actual travel time could be charged, but even if we counted the travel days as regular 8 hour days (despite the fact that they often were 12 hour days!), there was always enough extra work time on the trip that I had “spare”hours when I got back- which I took to catch up on things at home. This was before I had kids. I think if it happened now, I’d use that extra time to catch up with my kids.
        Of course, not all travel-intense work places have that sort of culture. And I very specifically have looked for jobs that minimize travel since having kids. I’m lucky enough to be in a field where it is possible to do that for a few years without destroying my career.

    2. I’m totally with Cloud here. If he can drive change in our ridiculous work culture from his lofty position, woo hoo.

      Getting people used to virtual meetings is something we don’t spend enough time on, IMO. I think it’s because sometimes people don’t trust the technology (or maybe they’re not using the right solution). But if you can make that part of the culture in your group, it works really well.

      My hubby used to work on an online collaboration product so in his division *all* meetings were using this product, hardly any were in-person, and they had several team members permanently working from remote locations. They totally made it work even though our company culture isn’t quite as enthusiastic about it.

      I’ve got a few colleagues in a different location who I meet with regularly, and even though I can drive there in 10 minutes, I’ve been scheduling online meetings. They grumbled at first but got used to it, and it’s great because there’s no wasted “travel time”. We can “see” each other via Webcam, so I’m not sure f2f meetings add *much* more, especially when there’s only 2-3 people in a meeting.

  4. For working parents the best time for networking at least for me it is like 7 a.m. For women also 7 a.m. is a fair time for networking b/c you are less likely to get hit on etc and there is less booze involved. If you can be that person at coffee and there are powerful folks involved it can work. The working lunch is OK but not great for a working parent and the 5 to 7 p.m. networking is bad; I’ve found that to be a bad time for me or that window between 5:30 and 8 or 8:30. I do think more networking done say at 8:30 p.m. would be great. Ideally if you had more working parents in power you’d have more telecommuting, and more of this kind of stuff and more conference call meetings, etc. With the unemployment rate so high though these kind of discussions are not that easy to come by. Also maternity leave isn’t all that it is cracked up to be in terms of empowering women to work but there are things that can be done so women can breastfeed etc. if the society really supports it (which is questionable in our society) We are honestly pretty uncomfortable with a lot of things like a woman’s breast in public so outside of entrepreneurs I’m personally not that optimistic for the empowerment of women in my time though it is an issue that is important to me!

    1. Networking breakfasts are a great idea. The lack of booze is one of the many reasons for this — people are more in work mode rather than social mode. But there are a lot of more traditional sorts who prefer to kick back with a beer (even if it means seeing less of their families) than get up early and bond over coffee.

  5. One other thing as I do care a lot about this topic about empowering parents and being a great parent a great professional no matter if you are man or woman or mother or father… for some people the issue might be the dinner hour…I do think that if the men father more and fatherhood and a 50-50 split of parenting were more of an expectation and norm tht would do more for empowering women financially than other things– actually than most other things maternity leave and some social programs included … and that historically we let a man say he has fathered children — say like a poliitician — just b/c he is still married to their mother but he is mostly working while she is the stay at home mom. actually if you look at politics it is amazing how many politicians have stay at home wives. I’m not against stay at home moms but I don’t aspire to be one so it is weird when the model for power is still so much based on this. I was raised by a single mom so honestly I do not care about dinner hour and I would feed my kids fortified w vitamin macaroni and cheese from a box every night if it meant a. I could self actualize and work and try to contribute to society and b. I could spend quality time with my kids. but the issue is still there and laura having written about family breakfasts and other things : how do you be a great parent and a great professional, acknowledging that after 45 hours of work a week you probably should be doing something other than working… whether that’s reading a book and strategic thinking or taking the kids to the pool or whatever. obviously life is wide and so the parent of a young child is going to have a different view of this than say a single person or a grandparent… sleeping say 7 or 8 hours a night and certain things are non negotiables but most of the time most of us make hard choices about how to live and work well so it would be interesting to see more of a debate about this. what would it be like if you gave guys a tax credit for being able to show thta two days a week they took the kids so their woman could self actualize or do something that increased her earning and her wealth independent of him.. that’s an idea i’d like to see kicked around.

  6. @Twin Mom, I am a physician and I actually find schmoozing pretty important. At least while you are in the stages of building your career, it’s good to network. I try to go to every social event for the drs at my hospital, and do not consider it wasted time. And I have two small kids.

    1. @Sarah – I tend to think it’s important in most professions. If you want to move up in your current one, it helps to meet the people above you who could make that happen. And there’s always the chance you might want to change organizations — in which case you want to meet people who work elsewhere.

  7. I think this is a very interesting topic. It kind of bugs me that “being home for dinner” is so often used as a shorthand for making family time. My parents made a big deal out of having dinner every night at 6 and I’ve rebelled a little bit because I thought their expectations were too rigid and did cut into time that I thought could be used for more valuable pursuits. I like the family breakfast idea, and the family midday-meal-on-weekends idea. With school-age kids and teens, the pressure on the hours between 5 and 7 or so just seems to escalate.

    I’ve also found the power playdate to be both useful and problematic. I’ve met some very interesting people as the parents of my kids’ friends. But when kids get older they choose their own friends and have very definite opinions in these matters. If the kids don’t hit it off or if they “break up” with their BFF (whose mother happens to be your valuable work contact), it can get a little awkward.

    1. @Karen – true that the power playdate should probably be reserved for the 8 and under set. Family dinner takes on this mythological power. Which is why more people claim to do it than do. Half of American families claim to always eat together, but that CELF study I keep citing found that only like 17% of families regularly sat down together. Time together is good. Time over a meal is convenient to spend together. But lunch works. Breakfast works. Or probably even time together in the car.

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