Paring knife

My sweet friend E flashed me her engagement ring last week. She and I were working alongside each other during the time she first met her sweetie, so it’s delightful to see how that seed has blossomed and flowered.

Plus I like to think an exchange E had with me and my boss back then added a boost of growth stimulant.

My then-boss and I have children about the same age—then in their late teens. We both worked during our kids’ growing up, though I shifted into the at-home-primary role starting in the late elementary years. (Laying the groundwork for middle school.) Our mutual tech industry roots completed our experience overlap.

During a shift into personal chat, E commented that she couldn’t see how she would be able to fit a (then hypothetical) spouse into her life, much less children, since she was working long and crazy hours. Her work consumed everything, so where would these other important things fit in?

Boss shrugged, as did I. Your priorities shift, we said. You gain a sharper eye for what’s important, and what matters to you. Children make your choices clearer, we said.

Having children hands you a paring knife for your life, I say now.

 

It was a visceral shift; that is, when I think about that early time, I remember it in my gut. See, I had dismissed much of the sweet and flowery things women said about the births of their children as so much sentimental twaddle—I like babies and think they’re interesting tiny individuals, but I’d hung out with too many babies from too young an age to think of caring for infants as anything other than a hard slog with few conversational opportunities. No doubt being seven years old when my profoundly ADHD sister was born burned the romance clean off. I also had a cousin who required even more than a village’s-worth of carrying to soothe her infant self; she grew up to be an opera singer, but anyway…

My first daughter was born at a crossroads in my career. My division was in the throes of a major reorganization; the ripples went into effect at my level on the day A was born. I returned to work after two months’ leave to a new, California-based boss who regularly extolled the saintliness of his AT-HOME wife. I was assigned the leftover work, installation documentation, in a workspace separated from the four major office buildings our company used at the time. In the abstract, having a computer lab tucked in a corner of wherever is not a big deal. But when that was where I sat, alone, for the bulk of my work-days it made a difference. Then there was the new guy—a amiable enough soul as a peer, but he clearly had the ear of our boss, and within weeks was functioning as my supervisor even as he and my boss denied I had a supervisor. I know a duck when it quacks like one. I’d worked to glowing reviews for three years on a flat-hierarchy team, and now I have to have a supervisor?!

During this time I learned that “seeing red” in anger is not, as you might think, metaphorical. One’s vision truly becomes clouded with blood. Also there is a level of anger even beyond that, where vision narrows to pinpricks in a field of black.

But even in the first days of my return, I had ballast in my belly: What would make the best long-term outcome for A? I’d met me, so staying home by myself with a non-verbal person wasn’t happening. (As you may have noticed, I have trouble staying home with my highly-verbal self-!) Besides, it was and is my belief that babies do well living in a world full of lots of loving arms. So going to work was good for me, and good for Baby. Done.

When I was with A and My Sweetie, I brought my full attention. When I went to the office, I brought my full attention…or quickly deployed things so I could bring my full attention back. If working is important, then I need to work. Shopping online for presents is not work, and will wait. Besides, knowing I was making a hard stop to my days hooked my internal value-proposition metrics: the firm will get good value from me, and I will pack that good value into when I’m at the office. No more, no less.

Answering email after I left the office? Not so much. If the message didn’t come over my pager, the issue wasn’t on fire enough that it couldn’t wait until morning. Or longer. Email backlog, shm-email backlog. The critical stuff will float to the surface, and everything else can be ignored.

Is this meeting a good value for the firm? Given my clearly limited time? No? I’m not going. Tactfully, but still not-there.

Pre-baby I had never had such firm boundaries. Once every choice carried the implicit background of, “…or I could spend time with my child,” it became much simpler to sort every day’s activities into “yes,” and “no.” And there was a heckuva lot of “no.”

At the December break, My Sweetie and I sat down with my three months’ experiences and “…or I could spend time with my child.” I was still strong that me-at-home was not a wise choice, but Baby’s mom so mad she was seeing red weekly? It was not for that I left each day for the office. And so we began to plan my exit for graduate school, carving the whole mess carefully away.

 

I miss that clarity now. I’m back to the squishy luxury of All the Time In the World, and a partner with whom I can negotiate trade-offs as needed. But sometimes I flex my belly memories, and slice through my days with my trusty paring knife once more.

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