A Dad Learns to Thrive on the Mommy TrackSeptember 7th, 2009 at 16:06
In the 23 years since our kids were born, I have made a conscious choice to lead a more balanced life, including a primary focus on wearing my parent hat. This choice led to a strategy of trying to carefully choose my jobs and career path to minimize work hours and job stress, while attempting to also maximize the flexibility of my schedule. Based on the common nickname for this sort of work strategy, I was a male parent on the “Mommy track”.
When my partner Sally and I made the decision to have kids in 1985, and she was pregnant with our first, I was back in school getting my degree in computer science and Sally had the 8 to 5, five days a week job with the hour car commute on either side. Since her job had a good salary and came with the good benefits, including health, dental and vision and an eventual pension, it made sense to both of us that I would seek more flexible work, maybe even doable from home.
Many of the computer science majors at this time were going into entry-level corporate IT jobs working for the various aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area that were designing and building many of the weapons systems that were part of the Reagan administration’s military buildup during the 1980s. At the time these jobs were relatively plentiful, but generally involved fixed hours, good benefits (that Sally already had for our family) but only moderate pay.
Since neither Sally nor I bought into the patriarchal conventional wisdom that the man was necessarily the primary bread-winner and the woman the primary child-raiser, we discussed my employment prospects and agreed that I would try to avoid the corporate jobs in favor of a more informal and flexible job situation. This way I could be available to take care of our son Eric at home or shuttle him back and forth from day care. Putting this goal out their in the universe, we had the fortune of finding a very talented computer application designer who was looking for a junior partner. He and I had compatible personalities and complimentary skill sets, and he hired me to work for him, initially part time, at a fairly good hourly rate (more than I would have made hourly in an entry-level aerospace job), with the ability to do much of my work from home.
I’m not sure if I initially realized how much of a blessing it was for me as a male parent, to be able to spend so much time with my kids during their first years. If I had been the one with the conventional primary bread-winner “dad” job, seeing my kids during the week only for the last hour or so of their day, I don’t think I would have developed the depth of relationship with them that I was able to as their primary caretaker for these earliest years. By the time our two kids had toilet trained, I had probably changed something more than 5,000 diapers. Being male, I’m particularly proud of that statistic.
Eventually, the work with my collaborator dried up, and he and I had to go our separate ways and find work in the corporate Information Technology world. But having had the experience of working for five years doing interesting projects with high flexibility and low stress I was pretty determined to continue to make this my reality, as much as I could now that I had more of the 8 to 5 type job. Since getting my first corporate IT job in 1990, I have managed for the last 19 years to chart that sort of a course, finding generally interesting work, done for mostly caring and thoughtful supervisors, with a minimum of stress and a maximum of flexibility.
The particulars of successfully charting this work strategy have included…
1. Holding out for the right job with the right boss, even if that meant switching back and forth between contractor and employee and even being unemployed at times.
2. Avoiding working for people who “lived to work”, in favor of people (mostly parents like myself) that were looking for balanced lives and understood that I was as well.
3. Staying “off the radar” by avoiding high-profile job assignments with high expectations and high stress, including staying away from any sort of management job.
4. Looking for and taking advantage of every opportunity to get involved in projects where I could telecommute from home.
Along the way, I discovered that when I was working hourly as a contractor or consultant (rather than on salary as an employee), it was easier for me to negotiate flexibility in my work and in particular address items 3 and 4 above. Also, when I was paid hourly on a contract, they were much more likely to require that I only work forty hours a week in order to stay within the budget parameters of that contract. Of course, my working as a contractor was facilitated by my partner Sally getting our health insurance through her job (and even after she left that job as part of her retirement package).
Since my kids were born I have continued to look at my paid jobs not as an unfolding career but more as means to an end, and that my primary role was as a parent. I look back on these past 23 years and find that I am extremely happy and satisfied to have lived in that paradigm, rather than pursuing the ever more high-powered job opportunity as my primary goal.
When I meet people for the first time, particularly men, they ask me what I do, and generally expect me to respond with the paid work I do. I enjoy maybe surprising many of them by starting my reply saying I’m a parent and then go on to say that I work for so and so company too. I’m definitely all about keeping my priorities in that order.
Consistent with one of the most commonly stated new-age principles, when it comes to the jobs I have held, I have pretty much been able to “create my own reality” and have had a string of some dozen bosses, 10 of which have been a pleasure to work for. It has become what I expect out of each new position that I search for (as the need for a new job arises), and I can usually meet that expectation.
Now that I am in my 50s and my kids are grown up young adults, I guess I no longer need to stay “off the radar” and on the “mommy track”. I am at an age that is often the most profitable, statistically speaking, for men in the workforce. Now mostly beyond the bulk of work as a parent, I am now defining my “life’s work” in terms of continuing to advocate for youth, youth rights and more of a partnership relationship between adults and youth. Since I have not found a way yet to make a living pursuing these goals, I guess my paid work will continue to play second fiddle, a means to other ends.