I get about two hours with my daughters a day: one hour in the morning when we have breakfast and I take them to school, and after when I get home after work. When I don’t get back in time, I feel disconcerted and they get grumpy.
Author and academic Anne-Marie Slaughter might say my workplace was the problem. She argued in the New York Times this weekend that the uber-competitive workplace of 2015 benefits the young and the wealthy and leaves women, in particular, behind. They disproportionately drop out to care for their kids and their parents: “this model of winning at all costs reinforces a distinctive American pathology of not making room for caregiving. The result: We hemorrhage talent and hollow out our society.”
Slaughter is right (as she was in her blockbuster 2012 article) on why women still can’t have it all. We need more support. In Europe, women return to the workplace more because there is more of an institutional framework for them to do so (hello year-long maternity leave).
But what if a very-accommodating workplace isn’t enough?
I recently started working for Quartz in London with mostly young and kid-less colleagues. I already have some of the things Slaughter calls for: I can work from home. I work four days a week. I am pretty sure my colleagues don’t care if I file stories at 10 pm or 8 am, just as long as I file them.
And yet, as my younger, kid-less colleagues stay late at work to make more calls, write more posts and head for drinks together, my husband or I are racing through the routines of bedtime. Homework. Reading. Piano. Baths, cuddles, conversations. We are figuring out how to feed four people without poisoning them. We are mapping Venn diagrams with competing calendars. We are working, because we had to leave at 6pm.
Even the most accommodating office in the world can’t fix this. Take my first week at work:
“Do you want to get a drink after work?” a colleague asked.
It was a welcome invite and one I wanted to accept. It was my first day at my new job and what better way to break the ice then some after-hours gin?
But my 4-year-old had started at a new school that morning and there was a curriculum night at 6pm. Can’t miss that. Husband did the parent-teacher meeting for my other daughter that morning, so it was my turn. I left work at 5:15pm. On my first day.
Another colleague: “Do you want to get a drink?”
I am loving this. I apparently work in an office where people like each other enough to want to go drinking and spend more time together. I want to say yes. And more than wanting to say yes to the drinks, I want to stay at work and work. But it’s my daughter’s birthday and I promised to be home by 7pm. That means leaving at 6pm—before anyone else in the office—to get home in time to spend one hour with her before she goes to bed.
My daily schedule is so radically different than my younger colleagues it could be a comedy sketch (see here, where it is).
Colleagues discuss drinks from the night before. Sounds fun. Me? I made 24 cupcakes and mucked through the mind-numbing details of a birthday party (Bouncy castle, check. Invites check. Food for 27? WTF?)
“On Friday we have drinks in the office at the end of the day,” a colleague says. “Cool,” I replied.
But I don’t work Fridays. I have worked a four-day week for five years now. Friday is the day when I pick my kids up at school—the only time I get good info out of them—meet their friends, talk to teachers, maybe yell a little less. I don’t mention the four-day thing. I love my four-day work week. I am proud of it. But I am not about to broadcast it to my new, much-younger co-workers.
I am working on a story that requires that I talk to some psychologists in the US. The one I really want to talk with is available at 2pm EST, or 7pm my time. My husband is traveling for work. My nanny needs to leave at 7pm. I ask the psychologist’s assistant if we can do a bit later. I don’t say, “Can we do it after bedtime?” but that is what I am thinking.
Actually, this is what I am thinking: “Let’s chat after my kids have argued over who gets to wear the rainbow nightgown, who gets to sleep with the big stuffed dog, the younger complains for the 20 millionth time why she hates brushing her teeth, the older one gets tested on her spelling words (shit, when is the spelling test?), I have read enough bedtime stories, I have put in enough back-scratching time, and I have sung the lullabies they are still young enough to demand.”
“Sure, I am free at 5pm,” I say. (That’s 10pm my time).
I pass on the happy hour. Let’s be clear: I am lucky to be able to spend my Friday picking up my kids, forcing me to pass on the happy hour. But I wish I could go. I wish I could work later. I wish there were more hours in the day. But there are not. I can’t have it all.