Learning about men and what they have to live up to

When I set out to research men, I admittedly felt a little daunted by the task. I mean, would I as a woman be able to really understand what it means to be a man? Would I be able to give an accurate account of the opting out and in experiences of the men in my research project? This is something that gender scholars spend a lot of time thinking about. For example, how do I as a researcher affect the research and how does my position and perspective color the way I see the world? These are important things to reflect over. Although researchers strive to be as neutral as possible in the face of their task, we are all human and how we understand and interpret things are invariably affected by who we are.

Anyway, so when I embarked on my research project on men opting out, I set out with the intention of learning as much as I could about men and what it is like to be a man from as many sources as possible. I basically read everything about men that I could get my hands on, from research to fiction, hoping to become enlightened and better prepared for my task. I was expecting to learn a lot.

Well, the feeling of a new world opening up to me never really happened. It was almost a bit anticlimactic because I kept looking for that source that would provide me with some Earth-shattering insights, but it never came. I was starting to wonder whether I was missing something or just not seeing whatever must have been right in front of me all along. 

I mean as a sociologist and a person who has just always been interested in people and psychology in general, I already knew a lot about the societal expectations we place on men. I mean who hasn’t heard about what a ‘real’ man is and should or shouldn’t to. You know what I mean, things like men don’t cry, men shouldn’t show weakness, the strong silent type… But I thought there must be something more. 

Okay to be fair, I did learn a lot. For example, I did learn about social codes among men that I had no idea existed. That is, how men interact with each other. But on a whole, I have to say I was really struck by how stereotypical everything I was reading about really was. 

The social expectations on men are to this day really very one dimensional. Men are in a nutshell expected to be manly, strong, competitive, stoic, unafraid and definitely not show too much emotion or any weakness of any kind. The media depiction of men, whatever the genre, is also very stereotypical. It was actually quite disheartening to tell you the truth. The reason is that I know as a researcher who has interviewed men and as a person who knows men that these one-dimensional ideals of what a man should be don’t even nearly describe what real men in the real meaning of the word really are like. They are also difficult to live up to.

Men and women alike are multidimensional. We are all human, and part of being human is experiencing the whole range of emotions that are available to us. We are strong and we are weak, and we are all vulnerable at certain times in different ways. We all need love and closeness and we all have meaningful relationships we want to nurture. And we all cry. It’s part of being human.

The fact that men and boys are discouraged to partake in much of this saddens me. Researching men has taught me that social masculine ideals are very problematic in many ways as they foster violence on many levels in society (including in the home and at work) and have a negative and sometimes detrimental impact on men’s health. I put my hope in younger generations. Research has also taught me that, thankfully, there are a lot of young men who are breaking these unrealistic and unhealthy masculine norms.  

The truth is, that talking about the difference between men and women is actually not really very helpful at all. Even though there are biological differences, obviously, the actual differences in what we are like as people and what we need are really not that great. There are greater differences within the sexes than between the sexes. All men are certainly not alike, nor are all women, and thank goodness for that! So, the idea that all men should act in a certain way is simply ludicrous.

On that note, I have been going over the proofs for my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In this week. I don’t have an exact publication date yet, but it will be some time during the summer. In my book I write in-depth about all this, about men and the expectations placed on them; about how that plays out and the impact it has on their lives and life decisions; and what it is they want and need and how they go about creating meaningful lives. I will keep you posted!  

Introverts mostly among women? No, I don’t think so.

I participated in an online seminar last week about introversion and leadership. I’ve been interested in the topic of introversion and work ever since I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For me, reading Quiet was a huge eye-opening experience. There was so much in the book that I recognized and for the first time I realized that I myself am a bit of an introvert. I say a bit because I had never thought of myself as introverted before. I can be very talkative and I have always been told what a social person I am. But reading Cain’s book, I realized that it was not about sociability but more about how you interact with others, how you work, and where you get your energy from. Growing up, I liked spending time with friends, like most kids do, but I also found that after being with friends for a while I was often quite tired and just wanted to go home. To be honest, I thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to continue hanging out and having fun like everyone else? Why did I want to be alone? This continued to be true as I grew up. As a student at university, I just didn’t have the same stamina as my other friends did when it came to parties and social activities. I just didn’t want to be together all the time and I was starting to wonder whether I was just not a very good friend.

Well, when I read Cain’s book I realized that no, there is nothing wrong with me, that up to 40% of the world’s population is, in fact, quite like me. The problem is that especially Western culture revolves around extraverted values and ways of being. The same goes for workplaces. Workplaces and work ideals are organized according to extraverted behavioral norms. The standard is already set in business schools where courses are structured so that extraverted behavior gives more points and better grades. 

It needs to be noted, however, that extraverted does not necessarily mean better, and being outspoken, social, and talkative does not guarantee good results. On the contrary, research has found that stopping, reflecting, and thinking before speaking and acting may actually be better for the bottom line. 

The reason I originally became interested in this professionally, is that through my opting out research I have met and interviewed many people who have not felt that they have been able to be themselves in the workplaces they opted out of. It has been one of the factors that has added to a difficulty to create a coherent narrative of work (which we need to be able to do for our well-being), which, in turn, is one of the main reasons why people opt out. This is true for both men and women. In fact, more of the men than the women I have interviewed have described themselves as introverts, and both the men and the women have talked about not wanting to work and pursue a career in the way that is expected.

So last week, when I was listening to the discussion in the seminar, I was surprised when it was suggested that more women than men are introverted. I don’t think that is true and nothing I have seen in my research suggests this. If you think about it, suggesting that women are more introverted is really quite a sweeping generalization and a bit of an essentialist view of what men and women are. It suggests that women essentially are a certain way and men, in turn, are another way, whereas in reality, research has shown that stereotypical generalizations like that just aren’t helpful. There are more differences within the sexes than between the sexes. What that means is, there are more difference among women and among men than there are between men and women. 

Women are socially conditioned to spend more time thinking about and being in touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. They are taught to talk about their feelings, whereas men are taught to pretty much ignore them and definitely not talk about them too much (although seriously, men have just as many feelings as women). As a result, women invariably tend to spend more time engaged in self-analysis, which is a reason they may be more likely to recognize themselves as introverts than men are.

And let’s not forget, girls are still in this day and age taught and expected to be more still and quiet, and less rowdy than boys.  

This does not mean that women have a greater tendency to be introverted than men. 

If you’re as interested in this as I am, here are the readings from the seminar last week. I, for one, am going to check these books out!

Creating Introvert Friendly Workplaces by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Quiet is a Superpower by Jill Chang

Introverted Leadership by Karolien Koolhof

So what is the difference between men and women then?

I have spent the last five years studying men and opting out. It was something I knew I wanted to do right from the start, when I started working on my research on women opting out. I was convinced that opting out was much more that the women’s issue it had been treated as, and now I can confirm this is indeed true. Opting out is a contemporary issue; it’s a societal and an organizational one. All kinds of people opt out, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, whether or not they have kids… They leave because the way they have been living and working just doesn’t work for them anymore and they can’t or won’t go on the way they have. 

I get asked a lot about the difference between men and women who opt out. Are there any differences? Do they opt out for different reasons? Do they experience it differently? The answer is yes and no. 

Their situations are a bit different. This is not because of biological differences or differences in character, traits or values. It is rather because of the different expectations we place on men and women in society.

Women are taught to be nurturers, men are taught to be fighters. Women are taught to be empathetic and emotional, men are taught to be strong and not to cry. Women are told that they can be anything they want to be (thank you feminism!), men are told they need to be able to support a family. 

This may sound archaic and stereotypical to you, by I assure you that today, year 2020, this remains to be true, even in my home country Finland, that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world. 

Opting out is harder for men because part of ‘being a man’ is making enough money to support a (real or hypothetical) family. It’s easier for women because being a good woman does not (according to societal norms) hinge on having a good career, but rather on how good a care taker (or mother) a woman is. 

So yes, there are differences, but my research has shown me that their reasons and experiences are still surprisingly similar.

Both the men and the women in my research have felt the environment and/or way of working that they opted out of was unsustainable. Many of them – both men and women – felt that they couldn’t really be themselves. Both felt they didn’t have enough time for loved ones and wanted lifestyles that allowed them to really be there for the people in their lives. Many of them started working in areas with more compassion, where they could work more closely with and help people. 

The men and women that I have interviewed all went through a similar process when they opted out and in, and they had similar hopes and dreams the futures.

So yes, although their experiences are somewhat different, they are also very much the same. The differences lie in social and societal expectations and norms; the similarity consists of their humanity.

At the end of the day men and women really are much more alike than we tend to think. After all, we’re all human.

Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!

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!

Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

Men are complicated

You know what always drives me a bit crazy? It’s when I hear men say that women are so complicated, so hard to understand. What triggered this rant is a picture I saw on Facebook. It was of a man and a woman dressed in Victorian clothes and the man says, “Women are so hard to read.” The women starts to say, “Well actually we just want…” but then the man interrupts and says, “Such complex creatures.” The woman tries to say, “If you just listen…” where after the man finishes with, “So mysterious.”

And you know what, I’ve been there. I’ve been that woman, without the Victorian getup, but still. Every now and then I hear how complicated and hard to understand women are. Well let me tell you this. Women are no more complicated than men. It is just that men, being well versed as they are in the male social and cultural codes, are just more used to understanding men. But it doesn’t mean that men are any less complicated.

I should know. I recently started researching men and as I embarked on my research project I realized that, being a woman, some things just aren’t going to be as intuitive to me as they were when I studied women opting out. Things like social expectations and what it means to be a man among men. Although it isn’t like I don’t know any men. I am the daughter of one, the mother of one (a young one but never the less), I married one, and I have male friends and colleagues, so I thought that I still knew quite a bit about men and what they go through. But as I started delving into the world of masculinities, let me tell you, I realized it was a completely different world. There are social codes out there that I had no idea of. And some of the codes that I’m uncovering are really quite surprising.

Take peeing for example. Yes, that’s right, peeing. In a book I read, a man remembers a peeing incident when he was in his 20’s (this is a true story). A friend of his had a new sports car and asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. This was an extremely cool car; he definitely wanted to and so they jumped in. A few minutes into the ride he realizes that he needs to pee. Well, I as a woman would have thought that saying, “hey dude, pull over I need to take a leak” would be quite a masculine not to mention a normal (and necessary) thing to do but no, it wasn’t. This guy could not tell his friend that he needed to pee. It was like a weakness or something to give in to his bodily needs in this situation of ultra coolness and apparently one cannot limit oneself by giving in to things like that. Like don’t let your body limit you, or something.

What?!

Well anyway, what happened was that he just couldn’t hold it anymore and he ended up peeing on the seat of the car. Well, this was mortifying of course. Much worse than telling his friend that he needed to pee. But then he never intended to have an accident in the first place. He and his friend never mentioned it, but after that he never saw him again either.

I really had a hard time relating to this, not to mention believing that this could even be true. So I conducted a small investigation of my own and asked some men who I know if this could possibly be true. Is this really a real male experience? Well, apparently it is. They all said that they could sort of relate, although none of them would have let it go so far as to pee on the seat. But surprisingly, it was not a completely alien notion to them.

So there you go. Women may be complicated, but so are men.

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.