I used to be an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson and lecture on entrepreneurship. One of my most popular anecdotes was something I entitled with only minimal exaggeration “My Mother Isn’t So Proud of Me Anymore.” It is a tale of ever-descending brand equity of my employers, from Morgan Stanley, to Wells Fargo, to Exodus (who?), to working for myself, and sliding on down to owning a share of a Five Guys burger franchise. My mother used to measure vacations by the quality of the motel (eventually hotel) rooms in which we stayed and how low she could crank the air conditioning. So, for her, my devoting time, money and energy to serving better French fries to a medium-sized county in Massachusetts was something less than a dream come true.
“You didn’t go to Duke and Stanford so that you could work in a hamburger restaurant,” she told me.
“Well, I’m an owner, that’s different,” I tried to explain.
She paused to consider this, trying to absorb that each person in line was about to make a very small contribution to our income. Then she asked me a question.
“But isn’t your office actually in the back of the restaurant?”
“So,” she pointed out, “you do work in a hamburger restaurant.”
I bring this up in a blog nominally about being a Sandwich Generation father because the balance of career and family is something that I have burned a lot of energy thinking about. It’s a new phenomenon that men even think about this; even millenials are considering it, although I’m sure in a “of course I can have it all” kind of way. More relevant to me is someone like Max Schireson, who was CEO of a tech company and quit because he felt he couldn’t do that and be a good father; his story is outlined in this great article in the New Republic.
Now that I am between full-time roles, I am considering this anew before I just jump into another extremely demanding executive role in a fast-growing business. My past job had so much about it I loved, but keeping things balanced was a high-wire act (see: The Juggling) that I am sure at times got the best of me. There are two main questions I am starting to really think about.
First, what does “career” even mean?
My father sometimes introduces me as “the ex-millionaire”. For a brief blip in time, my stock in my employer (Exodus – I know, “who?”) was worth over $6 million on paper. I still remember him calling me at work solely to inform me of that. Even then I knew that it would not last; before long, the Internet bubble burst and we were done in by too few customers and too much debt. Exodus actually went bankrupt twice, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Anyway, I did not cash in millions. Part of me wonders whether my father somehow enjoys that fact, as his professional path was completely different.
For decades, he made a living as a one-man consultant in the Cable TV industry. He would pile complex signal testing instrumentation into his faux wood paneled station wagon and drive hundreds or thousands of miles to television reception towers on the outskirts of small towns in Alabama or West Virginia or Michigan. Once he had a project in Guam. Then he would drive back home and with my mother’s help, quickly compile a lengthy report and FedEx it.
His worn and oversized office desk and chair now sit in his apartment; my brother and I couldn’t bear to move him without them. They define him.
If we are the products of our parents, I have these two people on either shoulder. Sandwiched between them, if you will. One is saying “get a nice safe job at a big company that puts you up in nice hotels”. The other is saying “screw it, you don’t need anybody, just be a one-man consultant.” They can’t both be right.
Then, there is the question of what “balance” means.
In the midst of that parental cacophony, I hear two other voices. The first voice, which sounds a lot like my own, says, “you should have achieved more by now. You’re 45 years old! Time is running out!” And then another voice, which sounds suspiciously like Nova’s, chimes in with “What are you talking about? Focus on what actually matters to you and make work fit into that.”
In other words, you cannot have it all. You cannot drive yourself to accept nothing less than complete devotion to company or career, and simultaneously be present for your family and your community. You have to choose. Specifically, I have to choose.
A few weeks ago, I got another surprising data point for this internal debate. I was helping my father do some math around his finances. The arithmetic was pretty shocking as it says that he is likely to outlive his money. This was a real jolt for him. He always has worried about money; he was raised in the Depression in Hungary after all. He and my mother had epic screaming matches about the quality of the roadside motels we’d spend our summer vacations in. That’s an argument he was going to win either way, if you get my meaning.
But this time, he paused briefly, and in a quieter tone than usual, he noted the irony of having money and suddenly not being able to go anywhere, do anything, or otherwise use it. I could almost see him cataloging the things my mother asked for that he’d said no to, that maybe he wished he hadn’t. Somewhere deep in his mind I think he was apologizing to her.
To me, he was saying that I should invest more time, and therefore more money, to make a thoughtful decision.
So I am lucky enough right now to have a first-world ex-millionaire situation: looking for my next venture or job that balances “career”, whatever that actually means beyond quieting restless Type A self-doubt, with my more meaningful obligations as a husband and a Sandwich Generation dad with 12 year-olds who still love me and a 91 year-old father who is still razor sharp. The clock is ticking on both of those, I know.
Maybe I could tweak my mother one last time beyond the grave by ditching the whole thing and becoming a full-time self-employed blogger. Stranger things have happened.
Now for an introduction to another Sandwich topic: being stuck between career and responsibilities at home. Or, as I think of it, the Dishwasher Manifesto.
Typically people use “Sandwich Generation” to refer to taking care of elderly parents and children, but to me, this seems limited. As I noted when I started off, I (and people like me) are squeezed between 2 sides in a number of ways.
Even longer than I have been trying to juggle my responsibilities to my father and to my children, I have been trying to execute on the child-raising strategy on which my wife Nova and I long ago agreed. It flows naturally from our basic philosophies and our aspirations about ourselves.
The main tenets are:
(1) We both want to work. In particular, Nova wants to work both because she is educated and motivated, and because we want Sophie and Lily to see her do that.
(2) We are not going to outsource raising our children.
(3) We love our kids, and ourselves, enough to want to part of their lives as much as possible.
(4) We want to be active volunteers in the community and model this for our kids.
This is pretty close to the ideal that Sheryl Sandberg talks about in Lean In. Or, the ideal she thinks she is talking about. Since she lives in a rarefied world of hopping corporate jets when she travels, has an army of nannies and assistants, and a lack of elderly parents to take care of (I think), her model isn’t something we can copy.
So, to illustrate how this works in real life, I give you a rough transcript of a dialogue we had one morning emptying the dishwasher (my least favorite chore, by the way):
Me: “It’s not exactly fair.”
Nova: “What’s not fair?”
Me: “You expect me to have a satisfying career and earn enough to be able to live in Wellesley and take nice vacations, while helping take care of the kids, do a bunch of chores, and be on call if something goes wrong.”
Nova (without looking up from the dishwasher, after a short pause): “Yes.”
Me (nodding as a growing self-awareness rises inside me): “OK.”
Hence, The Dishwasher Manifesto. Here’s how it, and the constraints it brings, translates into reality.
I am the primary breadwinner. I want work that is fulfilling and challenging. Who doesn’t? But I cannot take a job that requires very frequent traveling, consistently long hours, or unavoidable regular evening dinners or other events. I can do it for brief periods of time as needed, and as an entrepreneur and someone who works on deals I often do. But it can’t the norm.
This means that I need a robust capability to work from home, or work in an environment where “family first” is not a social media slogan, but a reality. I need a CEO who either has kids, or is caring for an elderly parent, or ideally, is a fellow Sandwich Generation Member. Or I need to be an entrepreneur trading certainty for being able to set my own culture.
I also have my specific roles that I “own”. I cook more frequently than Nova does and manage food and meal planning. I am also the CFO, manage the bill paying, and a lot of the administrative functions around the house. We share a lot of the weekend, social, activities and vacation planning. Nova has just about everything else.
When it’s necessary, which is often, we have to both figure out who’s going to be home to deal with the sick child/broken refrigerator/package delivery/carpool/whatever. Because it’s not always going to be her.
If you are not COO of Facebook, it also requires certain financial choices.
Private school tuition breaks this model, so it’s out of the question. Although if you live in Wellesley and are going to pay taxes to support my children’s schools anyway, I definitely think you should consider it.
We are fortunate to both have MBAs from Stanford, so our choices are not driven by financial need so much as constraints. But many of our friends earn a lot more than we do. It doesn’t matter though – we’re not optimizing for this.
So, having an impeccably decorated or landscaped house is not in the budget. Significant philanthropy, the kind that gets you the notoriety that actually running a non-profit like Nova does not, is out. (For more on this dichotomy, I recommend this excellent TED Talk on the subject. People who give money to non-profits are heroes, but those who run them should be willing to work for less money. Odd.).
Nova and I say all the time that we don’t believe in inherited wealth, so we aren’t concerned with building up a multi-million dollar fortune. It’s true. That’s the ONLY reason we aren’t doing it.
Weekends are filled with detailed meal planning, down to which dinners to cook early in the week so that there are leftovers the kids will consume for lunch.
Nova’s contention is the husband this requires is actually the person I am, so it’s not like asking me to live that way is forcing some kind of sacrifice. I am living out my aspirations. She is right, which as a man, I can tell you does not make it easy.
Frequently I remind myself of our organizing principles of getting the most out of the limited time we have with our 2 children. It’s actually close to the minimum possible since we have twins who were born in June. (Go ahead, take a second to do the math on why that is. I’ll wait.)
This is the right thing for us and for them. Being with my family is my passion. I love being an involved father and as I begin to see glimmers of my kids as young adults, I have a weird sensation that our strategy is working. “Yesterday Peter” did the hard work thinking this through, and as I have in past entries, I thank him today.
But I still feel caught in the middle, and sometimes envy people who are able to pour themselves completely into their careers and passions, kids or not. I am just wired differently. We all are. Sometimes you need your spouse to issue a Dishwasher Manifesto to remember it and appreciate that this is why she loves you, and you love her.