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June 15, 2008

The Secret Language of (Corporate) Fathers

J0438598 My first few months back at work were a nightmare: I was deployed almost immediately on weekly business trips and forced to pump breast milk in airline lounges, manage a new nanny in hushed long-distance calls, and I even missed my son’s first steps.

It sucked.

I worked from home as often as I could, but even then the demands on my time kept me locked away from my family.

One day, in near frustration and exhaustion, I instant messaged my boss; “I think I need a demotion.”

Almost immediately my phone rang.

“What’s the problem?” he demanded.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I confided to the former Marine officer. “The responsibilities of this position against my family obligations…”

“What’s the problem?” he demanded, again.

“Uh, well, specifically today I’ve been called into that red team meeting with the VP for the same time I’m supposed to relieving my nanny.”

“Any wiggle room with the nanny?”

“Maybe a half an hour,” I sighed.

“Right, join the call and tell them you need to go first because you have a hard stop at 6PM".

“Tell the VP that I have a hard stop?” I repeated, confused.

“Yes. Don’t explain. Just say ‘hard stop’.” He hung up.

Sure it would open me to a world of inquisition, I beeped into the conference call as it started and immediately said, somewhat timidly, “Uh, I have to drop off at 6PM".

“This call is for…” the facilitator began to argue.

Taking a deep breath, I interrupted; “I have a hard stop.”

There was silence. And then the facilitator said; “All right, Elizabeth has a hard stop for 6pm. Are there any other agenda concerns before we begin…?”

It was like I’d been given a code word in the corporate world of parents. And it worked like a charm. I hoarded it, using it sparingly over the next few months. And reveled in the extra inch of freedom it gave me to balance my obligations.

Then the holidays came. We were out on a farm peering through the snow for the perfect tree. My son hopping in his new boots as my husband lugged the axe as we trailed up and down the rows.

My phone rang. “Where are you? In a blizzard?” The VP demanded.

“Uh, Christmas Tree farm,” I admitted. “Let me get to the car and I’ll be able to hear what you’re saying.”

“You’re on the schedule!” The VP roared over the wind.

“I know, sir,” I agreed, feeling terrible about having been caught off the reservation on my weekend to be on-call for any emergencies. I tensed, ready for the explosion.

“Why the hell didn’t you leave a notice in the project schedule that you’d be out of pocket?”

“Out of pocket?” I repeated, confused.

“Yes. Out. Of. Pocket.” I thought he was mad, but he was actually laughing. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have WiFi at the tree farm, York. I’ll tag the schedule for you. Sign back in when you get out of the weather.”

I’d learned another code. Another inch of flexibility. It was like breathing again after coming into air conditioning on a hot, humid day.

As a rare female in a nuts-and-bolts sector of the technology industry, it was the fathers over the next year who taught me to juggle. Who taught me the company’s keywords and boundaries. Who showed me the way, and gave me a hand up when I fell.

The father of 5 who had managed to coach each of his children’s soccer teams told me how to make a lunch hour work for all kinds of obligations. The father to many foster children talked to me about flexing my day onto West Coast or East Coast times so I could make appointments. The father of 2 grown girls confided in me about how he and his wife had outsourced almost everything, so they wouldn’t keep spending their weekends doing errands instead of spending time together as a family.

They never made the covers of any magazines. They were never the topic of any morning show segments.

Someone scoffingly once said to me “No one asks fathers how they are going to juggle babies and work!”

But someone should.

Because they do.

There’s an assumption that, somehow, corporate fathers are not clued into their families the way corporate mothers are. And maybe some aren’t. But not most of the ones I’ve known.

Corporate Fathers love their children, too. They feel the squeeze and the impossibleness of it all. They don’t do enough in one world, then find themselves falling short in the other, too. The bar is always a little out of reach, although maybe they don’t admit that so often.

If we truly believe in a world that should reach for equality, then we should be willing to acknowledge that women did not invent the world of working parents.

Fathers have built paths for making do.

Although their challenges are different than those of their female counterparts (no nursing bra disasters there), they have had the struggle of fighting uphill against expectations. The belief that somehow men are able to park their fatherhood for 9 or 10 hours a day, to be men of industry.

The ones I’ve known have invented code words and phrases and pockets of time in the bright of days. They’ve raced to little league games in suits, and carried Magic Treehouse novels and Sandra Boynton books in their briefcases to read at night over the phone from hotel rooms. They’ve taken sick days when it was their kids who were sick, and left early to pick them up from school. They have jiggered webcams on their laptops to wave from far away. They’ve perused gift shops in airports around the world, looking for the right gift that says “Sorry I missed your big game, I wish I’d been there.”

They taught me how, and though I stepped off the wheel a while back – I have not forgotten.

Thank you, to all the corporate fathers. To the one who helped raise me, to the one I’m married to, and to the rest who showed me – you can’t have it all. But you can have a lot of it, and it’s worth the struggle to try.

Happy Father’s Day.

This is an original post to Chicago Moms Blog.

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