The unbearable lightness of success

I’ve had a strange past few weeks. As you know, I threw a book launch-art exhibit three weeks ago, and it was a great success. I’m so pleased. But it has also coincided with what I will for the time being just cryptically call ‘workplace turbulence’, which made the whole event a bit unreal to tell you the truth.

But still, people came, I spoke, we had sparkling wine. I received lots of gorgeous flowers, which I have enjoyed immensely. And I’m so grateful for the supportive and positive energy I felt from everyone who came. Thank you.

However, although I loved every second, I am also one of those outgoing introverts who likes being with people but gets my energy from being alone. Therefore, I always feel completely drained after experiences like my event. Plus, as is typical after periods of high stress, I also came down with the flu a couple of days later.

There I was, lying in bed, too sick to work. I was exhausted and frankly just wanted to hide under the covers. At the same time a radio interview and an article about me and my new paperback aired and was published, that I of course shared on social media while pondering life’s contrasts and ironies. While I was sick and just generally miserable, there was my face, smiling out over social media newsfeeds and radiating success.

Well, I’m better now, the post-even exhaustion has worn off, and my job situation is sorting itself out. A few days ago, my daughter and I had a very meaningful conversation about what it means to be successful. I told her about the irony and the mixed feelings of the past few weeks. We agreed that although achievement and success feel great when you have worked hard and get to see the result of that hard work, this type of success can also be very fleeting. Being recognized in the media can be flattering and exciting, but it doesn’t ultimately make you a happy person.

So, what is success then really? Or at least a more lasting feeling of success?

For me it is having a meaningful life. It means doing meaningful and important work, important in that it adds to the greater good. And it means meaningful activities and experiences. This includes relationships, good conversations, and spending time with and being there for the people who are important to me. And I know I share this feeling with many others who opt in to lifestyles where they are able to make more space for relationships.

But this is something we rarely talk about today, especially not in conjunction with the term success. And our hectic lifestyles really don’t enable it either.

This is something to think about. What do you want to see when you look back on your life?

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A world where there is room for everybody

I am lucky to be married to a man with whom I have a lot in common, and who shares many of my interests and values. We get along well and sometimes we mistakenly think we know everything there is to know about each other after being married for as long as we have. I say mistakenly because every once in a while one of us will surprise the other with an unexpected opinion that is just hard relate to. When that happens, we argue and debate, neither really willing to budge, until one of us finally laughs and says “How is it possible that you aren’t of the same opinion as me?” It diffuses the situation and we finally end up agreeing to disagree.

One thing that strikes me though when we have these disagreements is how difficult it can be to accept that someone you know so well can think so differently about something. This is actually not that unusual. In fact, there is something known as ‘assumed similarity bias’, which is an unconscious assumption that other people invariably think the same way we do and share the same values and beliefs. We don’t stop to consider that their worldview might be drastically different and when we see evidence of this it is just hard to grasp.

The truth is that we are all different, even those of us who have a lot in common. And we cannot even begin to understand what goes through another person’s mind unless we stop and really listen.

One thing I wonder, however, is whether we are getting worse at dialogue and debate in society. This is an important question because the ability to discuss and debate and reach an agreement, if not a common understanding, is one of the pillars of democracy.

We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, all the more so on social media. Algorithms make sure that we see what we want to see, although, to be honest, even without these algorithms we wouldn’t see all there is to see anyway as we tend to portray only our best selves, or the selves we wish to be.

On the other hand, the discussion and debates that do happen are often rude or just filled with misunderstandings. Rude because when on social media people tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face (you can read more about that here) or misunderstandings because a hastily written comment might not be entirely thought through. Or even if it is, in can be misinterpreted in a myriad of ways by the reader. Have you ever heard about not discussing important issues over email or text message because it is a recipe for misunderstanding? Well, I’m wondering if the same goes for social media debates. Something has just got to be said about face-to-face conversations.

My worry is that if debate is often either nonexistent because of the glossy façades we create in our posts, or unreasonably harsh because of bad social media manners, how does this affect our common understanding as a democratic society? We need to try to understand what other people really think and feel in order to be able to create a world where there is room for everybody (and which won’t self-destruct, which seems to be a real risk at the moment). But if it’s hard to relate to one’s friends’ and family members’ different opinions and views, how hard is it not to relate to people who have completely different values than our own?

I don’t really know what the solution is. All I know is that this needs to be said again and again. Dialogue and debate need to be constructive and we need to be better at listening. We need to stand behind what we say, in every situation, whether online or in person. If we can’t, we simply shouldn’t say it. And we need to be kind.

If we’re open to constructive and friendly debate and discussion, a common understanding can be reached, even if, like with my husband and me, it’s an agreement to disagree. At least it creates an understanding of where the other person stands and why.

Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

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.

 

 

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.

 

Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.