Leave work at 5:30

Sheryl Sandberg ... It is possible to run a company worth $100 billion while still leaving in time for dinner?

Sheryl Sandberg ... It is possible to run a company worth $100 billion while still leaving in time for dinner?

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to be at home with her children for dinner. There is something irresistible about this confession. We long for the intimate details of successful women's lives; how they manage and how they do not, and whether they make peace with it all. The only frustrating part of Sandberg's confession is that she did not confess enough. Much of modern motherhood is make-believe - it's a preoccupation with perfectionism and dogma and illusion. Sandberg is not our role model, her life is almost nothing like our own. But that’s not the point.

The significance of her revelation is that it draws back the mask of contemporary working mothers' lives. It is possible for a mother to disguise her family priorities sufficiently to climb the ladder to that height? And importantly, it is possible to run a company worth $100 billion while still leaving in time for dinner?

There was a time when it was very difficult to reconcile my working and mothering selves. I returned to paid work six years ago when my eldest was a toddler and I seemed to straddle a particularly savage divide. I arrived everywhere harried - to the train station in the early morning with my child, stroller, and our multitude of bags; to the daycare centre with my child in tears; to my desk with me in tears; and then back again in the evenings to the daycare centre and the train station and home. Rinse and repeat.

Inexperienced with the facade required for these dual roles, I found my credibility crumbling in both worlds. “Enjoy your long weekend!”,  my male colleagues would tease as I, a part-timer, packed up to leave mid-week.

But the days at home alone with a toddler were no less exhausting, and they did not feel like a 'holiday'. Then I would read somewhere that stay-at-home mothers are described as 'full-time mothers', which left me as -- what, a 'part-time mother'? Except it did not feel part-time when I spent my working day fielding calls from the daycare centre because my daughter was too distressed to be there. I willed us both through those days. Just one more hour, little one. Caught between the demands of work and family I experienced a choking sense of guilt. I would try to alleviate it by endlessly examining it but it was pure economic necessity that got me over the line. Our family needed the money.

I no longer experience significant guilt in leaving work at 5.30 for my children. I am more confident about my decisions, but also, my partner and I have arranged our careers to better accommodate this juggling and to share the load more fairly between us. Like Sandberg, I have seen that the world does not end when you leave in time for dinner.

Besides, the stern disapproval of carers left hanging with your children when you are late to collect them is more fearsome than that of most employers. I come home for dinner because the urgency of my bond with the children feels particularly strong at that hour. The dinner and bedtime hours are when children fold back into their tiny, young selves. They are fragile and open; peeling back the layers of their day. They disclose their hidden concerns, burst into tears readily and want to be held in your arms. By the time they are asleep in their beds they resemble themselves as babies.

The problem is, as a society, we still have not imagined a way of organising work that accommodates the truth of our lives. We work in jobs that often don't produce tangible things and the proxies for performance have become long hours in the workplace. In a toxic climate of individualism we see children, and in fact any form of dependence, as some abhorrent condition that must be hidden from view. It is this absurd compulsion to reduce all the complexities of humanity to 'choices' that prevents the conversation from going forward.

It took quite some time in the position of COO before Sandberg felt safe enough to make her confession. A woman in men's clothing confessing that she is still a woman. But we will know the revolution has truly begun when men in men's clothing make these same confessions, and not for a pat on the back, but because they want to acknowledge that to shut off half of their lives is to die in slow, painful increments.

Regardless of whether you are a parent or not, if you are not being recompensed for work after your 'day' is done you probably should not be there. You have other things to do, you have a life. My priorities and work flow will shift several times over my lifetime, not because I am a woman but because I am human. Yours will, too.  There may be serious illness, there may be elderly parents to care for, there may be divorce and falling in love with someone new.

This is what it is to be human. Becoming a parent only sharpened my realisation of that fact. Perhaps parents will be the workers who humanise the workplace for everyone. After all, the problem is not children, the problem is the tyranny of workplaces that behave like you are theirs 24/7.

 

Andie Fox blogs at bluemilk.wordpress.com.

36 comments so far

  • "The only frustrating part of Sandberg's confession is that she did not confess enough." Correct. She didn't confess the part about how once the kids are in bed she boots up her laptop and does another 5 hours of work. Now THAT is the reality of many successful people who leave work to make it home in time for dinner with the kids.

    Commenter
    *whatever*
    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 8:54AM
    • Now in my mid 30's, I see the value in finding balance between work life and personal life. Previously, I'd work all sorts of hours just to get things done because the world has changed so much that we no longer employ enough people to do the work required in a day. Now, I know that my wellbeing is more important than being seen to be working hard. I am efficient and proud of that fact! I work hard during my day and leave on time more often than not.

      I am not a mother yet, though I long to be, but I think this is a cultural shift that is long overdue.

      Commenter
      Here here!
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 9:00AM
      • As a dad with young kids the main reason I work is to provide for my family. I have a corporate job, but my colleagues know never to book anything with me after 4 pm. I start work at 7 am every morning and work after the kids are in bed, but that 4:30 to 7 pm is time to make sure my sons know they have a father. Work get their 50 hours a week, but my family get the time they need too.

        Commenter
        JasonW
        Location
        Perth
        Date and time
        May 02, 2012, 9:05AM
        • This is a great way to manage it. I'm sure your sons will be grateful for having their Dad around.

          Commenter
          Kate
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 02, 2012, 1:03PM
      • I'm not a parent but couldn't agree more.

        I question anyone who is not regularly leaving the office by 5.30 each day, exactly what they are doing that is so important that it MUST be done today.

        Sometimes I think people just don't know how to prioritise what "must" be done today, and what "could" be done today but also left for tomorrow if necessary.

        Once you finish your "must" pile for the day, you start working on your "could" items. Its not rocket science.

        "But what if your 'must' pile takes all day or longer, every day?"

        Then you need to have an open and frank discussion with your boss about your workload, and whether you will be paid overtime or whether they will bring on additional help.

        "But what if your boss says no or is an @sshole about it"

        Find a new job, I say - the organisation/your boss obviously does not value you but sees you rather as a machine to be used until you break down.

        Commenter
        Adrian
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 02, 2012, 9:17AM
        • I'm finding that a lot of my successful friends (aged between 30 - 45), male and female, are increasingly finishing work at a reasonable time and putting a priority on being home for dinner with their family - sometimes even to pick-up/attend their children's after school activities.

          Admittedly, a lot of these people either own their own business or are in position high enough to have some freedom. However, they work as hard, if not harder that their employees as they tend to stay 'turned on' throughout the night if they need to tend to work issues from home.

          These people would prefer to be home for the 'important' part of the night, then dabble in work around that as best they can, or do a few last minute things after kids go to bed and before they get some down time with their partner. This is even the case for a single relative with a dog.

          Commenter
          Life Balance
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 02, 2012, 9:17AM
          • I am not a working mother. I am a working father so forgive me for being impertinent by relating my story.

            I leave work at 5.15 every day. Without fail. I have a 12 month old daughter and it is my most important job of the day to feed her dinner and giver her her bath. I am a line Manager in the IT department of a global logistics company, so I have a reasonable level of responsibility to my organisation and our customers. Once I have handed my daughter to her mum for a quick feed (more of a chew these days), we read her some stories and put her to bed together. I cook dinner and let the missus relax. We talk about our days and after dinner i jump on the computer for an hour or so to wrap up any thing i may not have finalised before leaving.
            I hope the ease at which i came to this arrangement with my employer had nothing to do with the fact that I am male. I hope it is because I am good at my job and my contribution is valued. I hope that any mother who is working and has young children (any children really) is afforded the opportunity to put her family before work at the end of the day. Any employed worth their salt knows the value of happy, assured and balanced employees.

            Commenter
            SamDavisJr
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            May 02, 2012, 9:18AM
            • So very much this.
              I had the good fortune to work from home for most of my daughters' early lives, but I still knock off at 4.30 every afternoon to get home and cook dinner for the family. It's not just for women. Too many men hardly get to see their kids, and that's a great loss to bear.

              Commenter
              Luke
              Location
              Nunawading
              Date and time
              May 02, 2012, 1:45PM
          • I happen to be a working mum and this article reasonates on so many levels with mel.

            However, regardless of whether you have children or not we should always strive for balance, Our corporate culture has on some many ways has actually become counter productive. Ask yourself two questions 1) i'm in the office longer than 8-9 hours for appearance sake from my fellow colleagues/supervisors 2) I'm I really being efficient and effective with my 8 hours - could I have re-organised myself better to produce the same outcome in 8 rather than working 10 hours

            Commenter
            Western Sydney
            Date and time
            May 02, 2012, 9:24AM
            • Thank you for this article. I remember when I first returned to work after having our first - I had never experienced such guilt. Guilt that I was leaving at 6pm, even though I was in the office before 8. Guilt that my child would get home from day care and then be put straight to bed. Guilt that I wasn't cooking enough, cleaning enough, doing a good enough job at work etc....

              As you can imagine I burnt out after 12 months and left my profession for a period of about four years.

              At the time, there were no other working mothers of young children in the firm I worked at - I wonder why!!! There were fathers, however, who were lucky enough to have the support of stay-at-home partners. As for our friends - we were the first to have kids also. I had no role models as to how it should be done and was consequently very naive about how much my husband and I could achieve as a unit. And this was only eight years ago.

              Fast forward a few years and I think that things have been much easier the second time around. Attitudes are changing.

              Commenter
              Working Mum
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              May 02, 2012, 9:31AM

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