Monday, March 18, 2013

On the Merits of Living a Small Life

Life is just a game - if only the stakes weren't so damn high.

As is not surprising, being a new parent is doing weird things to me. But the phenomenon I've been observing in my own life is a change that has been happening over the past few years - it's just become much clearer since becoming a parent.

The punchline: my life is (or at least it feels like it is) getting smaller and less impressive than it used to be, and I'm far happier for it.

Recognizing this transformation in my own attitude has been extremely bizarre for me - after all, I'm the guy who, when asked "what do you want to be" when I was twelve, usually answered with "benevolent world dictator." I always had big things in mind for me when I thought about my future.

And for a while, I lived what felt like a very "big" life - for several years, I was the #2 guy at an international non-profit organization in Europe. I got to travel all over the continent, and I spent my days (and nights) hobnobbing with government leaders, community leaders, and other non-profit executives, and we talked about big ideas - ending poverty and injustice, fighting racism and intolerance, and so on.

Then I went to Harvard, where a typical day consisted of going to class with some of the best and and most famous professors in the world, having a small group lunch with the ambassador of some small country, and listening to a lecture by the Secretary of Defense in the evening. And, of course, all we talked and thought about at Harvard were big, huge, world-changing ideas.

Wowzers - a big life indeed. And, in retrospect, I recognize that I was profoundly unhappy in that life. I was almost completely burned out after my gig as a non-profit executive - and while I enjoyed my time at Harvard, I'm still not sure how truly fulfilling an experience it was for me (though my Harvard education definitely played a roll in getting me my current job, which was/is important, and I will always be thankful for all of the excellent friends I made at Harvard).

When I think about how grandiose my aspirations were (and sometimes still are), I compare my current life very unfavorably with my past life and education - after all, now I'm a bureaucrat, work an office job (half at home and half at the office), never travel for work, and only rarely meet "important" people (and practically never in intimate settings such as at Harvard). My job "feels" much smaller than my old job used to, even though I know that the work I do helps feed 75+ million hungry Americans and affects how billions of taxpayer dollars are spent - nevertheless, I mainly work on financial, statistical, and program analyses, so it "feels" small. I occasionally look with some jealousy at the Facebook feeds of some of my friends from Davidson, CEU, or Harvard who are always traveling for work, meeting "important" people, spending all their time talking about "big" ideas, and all those other things that I used to do. And I know I'm not alone in occasionally falling prey to this kind of existential uncertainty and discontent.

I try not to be like these people, but sometimes, I fail. Comic source.

But, at such times, I have to remind myself how much happier I am now than I was then!

After all, I really do enjoy an amazing life - I have a wonderful wife whom I love immensely (and who loves me immensely); I have the cutest baby in the world; and I have a flexible, low-stress job that pays me well. No wonder I'm happier than when I used to be incessantly stressed out, jetting all over the place, and sleeping too little.

So, to all of my friends who are still living "big" lives - I hope you're happier in them than I was in my "big" life. Perhaps one day I'll even figure out how to return to living a "big" life that won't make me miserable - I certainly wouldn't mind returning to living a "bigger" life, but I do not think that I will again be willing to sacrifice my happiness (or my wife's or baby's happiness) in order to achieve a bigger life. So, honestly, I have a hard time seeing how that will come about - but I guess we'll see what the future brings.

But in the mean time, living a small life definitely has its advantages, and may, on balance, be better than living a "big" life. Consider living a smaller life yourself if, like me, you find yourself unhappy or burning out.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Babycrat Is Being Impossible, Proves Women Can't "Have It All"

Mrs. Bureaucrat holding the baby that is changing her life in more ways than
she possibly could have imagined.

So, as you may have noticed, I've been on a bit of an unplanned blogging break. I've been on parental leave for the past few weeks as my wife has tried to go back to work, and it's been very rough on me, on Mom, and on the Babycrat. Unfortunately, it's been so rough that it's left me little time and little mental space for diversions such as blogging - but, I wanted to give everyone an update.

As I said, Mrs. Bureaucrat's return to work hasn't gone well for anyone. The Babycrat seems abnormally attached to Mom for a baby who is only 3-4 months old (my favorite explanation for this: "she must be very developmentally advanced - babies usually don't display this kind of object/person permanence until 6-9 months of age"), which means that she doesn't eat enough and spends at least half of her waking hours screaming when Mrs. Bureaucrat isn't around.

Even before Mom tried to go back to work, the Babycrat was/is what they call a "high needs" baby - she requires more care and attention than the average baby, particularly around sleeping. She has serious problems sleeping on her own - even with lots of sleep aids and soothing, she usually only sleeps for 30-45 minutes at a time on her own. The only way she'll take a longer nap is if we're sitting in a chair and she's sleeping on our chests. We've tried a bunch of different things to improve the situation (and still have more things to try ...), but it's a tough gig, even without all the extra screaming and eating too little when Mom isn't around.

This has been more than a little rough on me - and it's been no picnic for Babycrat, and it’s been even worse for Mrs. Bureaucrat. My wife has spent the last 6 weeks being pulled in multiple directions, feeling guilty for not being fully present either at home or at work, etc. etc. After days on end of being screamed at by Babycrat (and knowing that there's nothing I can do for her or give her that will make her stop screaming), I have occasionally been on the verge of breaking down, and I have sometimes found myself not wanting anything to do with my daughter after Mom gets home.

After 6 weeks of trying this whole Mom-going-back-to-work thing (which I only survived because Grandma Bureaucrat came to give me backup for 2.5 weeks of the 6 weeks), and after 2.5 months of trying to give the Babycrat a bottle without great success, Mrs. Bureaucrat has finally decided that the best thing for all of us is for her to quit her full-time job and stay home with the Babycrat. She already has a non-profit financial consulting gig on the side, so she'll pick up a couple more similar gigs that she can do mostly from home in order to keep working - just fewer hours and with much more flexible hours/locations so she can be with the Babycrat almost all the time (thereby keeping all of us from going insane). So, if you need some non-profit consulting services, drop me an email and I'll pass along your information to her ;)

I know it's been a tough decision for her, and I am extremely proud of her for choosing her family's happiness (and her own happiness, too, as I think she'll be happier in the long-term having quit her 9-5:30 office job) over the pressure to keep working.

As a relative outsider, I think the pressure our society places on moms is extremely unfair - I'm sure some people will negatively judge Mrs. Bureaucrat for deciding to quit her job. In fact, I think much of the difficulty of her decision stemmed from the peer pressure, societal pressure, etc. to keep working, rather than any deep desire to keep working herself (as she was immediately relieved once she told her work she was quitting, in spite of her deep doubts during the process of making the decision).

The reality is that working women who want to be moms today can't have it all - they just can't. At best, they can create a manageable but extremely stressful and tenuous balance between being a mom and working, if they want to do both. In the USA, if you're lucky, you get 12 weeks of unpaid leave after having a baby - but forcing our moms to go back to work after 12 weeks is fighting the demands of evolution. Babies are supposed to (hell, they are DESIGNED to) stay with their moms, 24/7, for at least the first YEAR of life. Some babies are flexible/chill enough to allow their parents to fight this evolutionary imperative - but not the Babycrat. Then, once moms go back to work, we make them pay one-third, one-half, two-thirds, or even more of their after-tax salary to someone else to raise their child while they go to work, because we're not willing to be flexible enough to let them stay home long enough after birth, to bring their babies into the office with them, to let them work from home, etc.

Instead, Mrs. Bureaucrat's options are:
  1. Work full time. Pay one-third, one-half, or even two-thirds of her after-tax salary for someone to raise her child for her. Have her child, her husband, and probably herself be miserable.
  2. Quit her job and try forge her own way outside the rigid constructs of our institutionalized employment system.

In fact, the NYTimes published an article on "Why Gender Equality Stalled" back in mid-February, which is a more erudite piece on why women (still) can't have it all. It was a depressingly timely piece for us, as we were agonizing over these decisions right about then.

But, the point of the article is that she shouldn't HAVE to make that choice - she could have it all, if we decided to arrange our society and employment structure differently.

There are tons of things we COULD do as a society to better enable women to have it all:
  1. Give a year of paid leave when having a baby.
  2. More part-time jobs, and/or more willingness to convert full-time jobs into part-time jobs.
  3. More telework.
  4. Subsidize child care.
There are of course more, but those are the ones that jumped to my mind first.

I subscribe to a few business magazines, and they occasionally run profiles on women who supposedly "have it all" - and these stories drive me nuts, because they are so preposterously unrealistic:
  1. The women have all put off having children until at least their late 30s, but more often in their 40s, which is very, very late - borderline dangerous, in fact, and would definitely be considered by most health professionals to be "high-risk pregnancies".
  2. They are all executives of some sort, usually earning at least $200,000/year.
  3. Invariably, they have housekeepers and either a nanny or stay-at-home husband.
In spite of the optimistic tone of these kinds of stories, it's quite easy to see that these women don't "have it all" - they have chosen their career over raising their family, and they have the financial means to outsource most of their domestic duties and/or have a husband who has taken over the role of homemaker. There is of course nothing wrong with the husband being a homemaker - but the point is that someone else, either the husband or hired help, is the primary caretaker of their children, not mom. I don't really think that counts as "having it all."

So, Mrs. Bureaucrat is going to do her best to "have it all" - though she has to do it in spite of the institutions of our society, not with their assistance. In the long run, I am sure this will be the best for us and our family - but things could be better. They’d be better if Mrs. Bureaucrat (and other moms) didn’t have to choose between their "regular" jobs and raising their children, if we gave moms enough (paid?!?) time off to raise their children during the first critical year of life (recognizing that this is best for mom, baby, and society in general), and if the productivity gains of the past half-century had been passed down to workers in the forms of wages, rather than entirely captured by executives and stockholders.

After all, the ideal arrangement would be for both my wife and me to have half-time jobs that paid us at the level of our current full-time jobs - which would not be far-fetched if productivity gains over the past half-century had translated into higher wages for all. Then Mrs. Bureaucrat and I could both be equal partners, both in raising our child and in being members of the workforce.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible, so we’re going to get by as best we can in the traditional gender roles of me working a bit more and her doing a bit more of the child-rearing. I recognize that this decision about working/not working/working some after having a baby is a highly personal one and that there’s not one right answer for all moms - some babies are fine with mom going back to work after 12 weeks, and the Babycrat might not have tolerated Mrs. Bureaucrat going back to work in spite of all the possible flexible arrangements in the world. Furthermore, many women don’t have a choice about going back to work, as they need every extra bit of money they can make, even after subtracting the (shockingly high) cost of childcare.

The point of this blog post is to narrate our personal struggle with this choice, and to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way - but currently, our society just doesn’t support moms and families enough to make it possible for them to "have it all".

P.S. I'm heading back to work at the end of March, and Mrs. Bureaucrat is leaving her job for good at the same time - so blogging may continue to be sparse until then (as I continue to be the main baby caretaker), but it should then pick up as we all settle into our old (and new) routines.