Quality time is unstructured

My daughter and I got back from a long weekend in Paris a few days ago. This was a trip that we had been talking about taking together for years, and I’m pleased to say it turned out to be everything we hoped it would. My daughter is the best company and the spring weather was absolutely gorgeous. But the best thing was – and we agreed on this – that we had nothing scheduled other than our flight back home. We did what we felt like doing at the pace we felt like doing it with no pressure to move on to the next thing until we wanted to. We ate whatever we were in the mood for whenever we felt hungry. If we felt tired we went back to the hotel, but it didn’t matter if it took forever getting there. No one was expecting us to be anywhere at anytime. And I tell you, this sounds simple enough, but it was the most liberating feeling.

This is something I often hear people who opt out or want to opt out say. They wish they didn’t have to be in such a hurry all the time. And we are very much in a hurry all the time in our day-to-day lives. I at least feel like I am. I sometimes wish I could clone myself because I need to be in so many different places at the same time. And it’s not only us; it’s also our children. Their time is very structured with school and hobbies and whatnot and we raise them to fit in to this hectic world, which seems to be spinning faster and faster.

I went to a seminar the other day and heard Professor Anna Rotkirch talk about family time management. According to her, and I’m so glad because I’ve been saying this for years, when it comes to time with your children quality is quantity. Just spending time with your children – and this goes for both mothers and fathers – is so important. This time does not need to be structured, it does not need to involve actively engaging your children in activities; it just means being there. Research has shown that this has such a great impact on children and their development throughout their lives, and the positive effects even ripple down to the next generation.

One of the things Professor Rotkirch recommended was something known as the 15 minute technique. This technique has been developed for parents to use with their children, but really it works with anyone. It involves being with your child (or whoever else) for 15 minutes without an agenda, without any structured activity, and without telling or teaching in any way. Just being there.

It is hard at first. When we’re constantly on the go, constantly having to get things done, doing just nothing tends to make us antsy. But apparently, if you work through that nervousness, just being together works wonders. If we do this, the person we are with might open up to us and talk about what he or she is thinking and feeling. And how wonderful for the person on the receiving end of this 15 minute technique to be able to do that, to talk about what they want to talk about. And this is something we might never experience if we’re always on a schedule or have an agenda.

I’m not going to ask you to fit one more thing into your busy schedule, because whenever I see recommendations and lists of things to do, it just tends to overwhelm me. I am a true believe in doing what works for you. But I will say this: unstructured time really is the best thing.



Learning how to roll with it

I had one of my worst interviews ever a while back, which also turned out to be one of the most important in my study on men opting out.

A friend of mine put me in touch with a man who opted out of a career to become a chiropractor. He had graciously agreed to participate in my study and the next step was for me to contact him in order to set up an interview. Well, that sounds easy enough, but this guy turned out to be very busy and getting a hold of him was extremely difficult. Finally after what was literally months, he suggested a time to meet. Fantastic! The timing wasn’t optimal for me but no problem; with some minor rearranging in my schedule I made it work.

So we had a time, so far so good! However, he didn’t want to meet in any of the places I suggested (interviews are good to conduct in quiet and private places so that the interviewee can speak openly and freely without worrying about anyone else hearing), he wanted to meet in a shopping mall that was on the way for him between appointments. At this point I thought I need to take whatever I can get and agreed.

The next day I drove to said shopping mall to see if there was a café with any remotely private corners or nooks where we could conduct the interview and I found one which actually didn’t seem so bad. I was very pleased; finally this was going to happen! He said he only had an hour, but being the seasoned interviewer that I am, this didn’t worry me. An hour is fine; much data can be collected in 60 minutes.

Well, the day finally came and I set off to the shopping mall about 30 minutes ahead of schedule to be sure to get a quiet table. I get there, I order coffee, and I sit down at the table right at the back of the café. It was private, it was quiet, and there really weren’t that many people there either. This seemed like it was going to work out after all.

About 15 minutes into my coffee, the café starts to fill up (who knew this café was so popular?!) and music starts playing, pretty loudly I might add. The minutes pass and I look at my watch. It’s time. He should be here. I realize I have no idea what this man looks like but right then a man walks in. I stand up and he walks over to the table next to mine where someone is waiting for him. False alarm. I sit down and wait. It’s five past by now and my phone rings. It’s him. He says he’ll be there in 10 minutes. Argh, that will only leave us with 45 minutes for the interview, but okay that’s fine, it’s better than nothing.

About 17 minutes later a man comes in, he’s looking around, I think that must be him so I get up and say his name. Bingo! He’s here! But right then I see he has a kid in tow. I really like children, don’t get me wrong, but as interviews tend to be private – which is what you kind of hope for as a researcher – bringing someone along is usually not a good idea. I sigh quietly to myself but smile. It’s okay, I’m not letting this faze me; he’s finally here. The kid is hungry and needs something to eat, they go to the counter and there is nothing he wants. He finally settles for a soft drink, the dad has some coffee, and 25 past the hour they’re finally making their way to my table. We now have 35 minutes left of the interview.

No problem, we can do this, 35 minutes is better than nothing. The music is still playing loudly, but whatever, my dictaphone has a really good mike. We start the interview and I realize that this man, ironically, has the softest voice of anyone I have ever met. I realize I can hardly hear a word he’s saying. I pray that the mike is picking up his voice anyway and I start reading lips like crazy.

The good news is that the café and the kid don’t seem to bother him at all. He’s very open when he talks about his experiences, but still I feel a bit disappointed. His story doesn’t seem to fit my understanding of opting out. Maybe there was something he wasn’t telling me? Maybe the café setting was a mistake after all, or maybe my lip-reading skills just weren’t up to par.

All this was going through my head when he suddenly said something important. This man practises aikido in his free time. He explains to me how in aikido you can’t resist whatever is coming at you, you have to accept it, and use that force to your advantage. You have to acknowledge and embrace it and use it for your next move. In other words, you just have to roll with it. He explained how this is a philosophy he adheres to in his practice as a chiropractor but also in life.

Wow. It triggers the most amazing light bulb moment in me. I’m not exactly new to research, but all of a sudden I realize I had been making the mistake that so many people make, but that you have to be really careful not to when doing research. Instead of really listening, I had been confirming what I already knew and trying to fit my male interviewees into the model I developed for my research on women opting out. After all, I am the expert on opting out. The thing is, although some of the men seem to fit into my model, all of them don’t, and at the time I wasn’t really exploring that possibility. I was just trying to confirm what I already knew.

No more. I still haven’t listened to the recording of that particular interview so I’m not sure if my dictaphone actually picked up any of what he said. But regardless of that, this was probably the most important interview I’ve had so far during this research project, and I am so grateful that this man took the time to teach me the importance of acceptance.

This goes for any situation in life, whether personal or professional. You may think you know what a person is saying or what he or she needs; you may think you know the best way forward. But if you don’t listen you may be totally off and things will, most likely, just backfire. If you stubbornly stick to your own agenda, you’re not going o get very far, or at least you’re not going to get there in the smoothest nor most productive of fashions.

They really are very wise, those people who practise aikido. We could all learn from them.

It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.