Back in 2018, I reviewed the book The Ambition Decisions for the Wall Street Journal. This book (which I had mixed feelings about) surveyed the authors’ sorority sisters two decades after their graduation from Northwestern University. Among other questions, they wanted to understand what led some women to keep their feet on the gas with their careers while others scaled back or opted out completely.
The authors noted that opt-out types often talked about the chaos of managing their two working-parent-families. They would recount tales of such chaos, points of evidence that they felt showed life could not continue this way. Generally this meant mom needed to quit as, I don’t know, earth might crash into the sun if dad did.
Anyway, this section stuck out for me because I realized that people have very different ideas of what constitutes chaos. One example in the book was a woman who lamented that she had once been in three countries in 24 hours for work. I got the sense from reading The Ambition Decisions that this woman had recounted this bit of evidence a lot. She was quite taken with this narrative that her life had been crazy — unsustainable! — based on what she considered an airtight story. Three countries!
Is it crazy? I don’t know. Visiting 3 countries in 24 hours might sound exciting to American ears, but it’s probably not too hard to hit if you do work in Europe (I know a few European vacations of mine have featured crossing into 3 countries in 24 hours!). Fly from NY to Paris for meetings, take the 90-minute train ride to Brussels later in the day for a dinner and you hit it without having done anything terribly heroic. Indeed, if you enjoy your job, and have a good system at home, another way to tell the story is this: “Wow, wasn’t I efficient to visit two of my European clients on one trip? I saved myself an extra 14 hours on planes! I’m definitely going to use that time for some other priorities in life.”
But no. People tell stories to justify decisions. If you are wedded to the story that two-career family life is chaotic, you will look for evidence to support that thesis. Can you find evidence? Sure. But there’s probably other evidence too.
So one message of my writing is to be very careful with the word “crazy.” Rather than calling a situation crazy, or chaotic, maybe the story can be retold in another way.
I know I try to do this. And I try to encourage others to as well. I was recently having a conversation with a woman who noted that her moment of Rethinking Everything came when she and her husband were both traveling — with a one-night overlap — and the relative who was supposed to stay with their kids bailed. While this story had a slight twist (he changed jobs, not her) it was still told as an episode that led to serious rethinking.
So I asked what happened. It turned out the sitter who was with their kids during the day re-arranged her schedule to stay overnight.
In other words, Plan A didn’t work, so they figured out a Plan B. I think this is a much better version of the story! A valuable lesson was learned (figuring out a back-up plan is good!) Indeed, told in the right way, this could be a helpful story for other people. The “crazy” narrative doesn’t have to prevail.
Do you have any “crazy” stories that could be retold?
Photo: All is calm, all is bright.