First Person - December 1, 1999

A wild ride on the swivel chair

Where work and life don't overlap so much as collide

by Lisa Belkin '82

I hear them before I see them--the eight-year-old, followed by the five-year-old--as they clomp up the stairs that lead to my office. They knock (when they remember), then in they come, dropping their backpacks at my feet like an offering. If I'm on the phone, they shush loudly at each other until I hang up. When I'm finally theirs, they fill my lap with a jumble of artwork and homework and memos from the PTA. I give hugs and praise and savor whatever nuggets they offer up about their day. All this serves to postpone, but never prevent, the final part of the ritual. The part where I notice the time, tell them I love them, then boot them out.

Being a working parent-in my case, a journalist-means having at least one moment of the day when you push your children away. Because guilt is an equal-opportunity companion, there is a version of that moment to suit any frenetic schedule: early on in the morning, when you tiptoe out before they even wake up; during the late-day phone call home, a call that you really don't have time for because your 4 o'clock meeting has begun; between dinner and bedtime (assuming you made it home for either) when you have to read a hefty brief instead of Harry Potter.

And then there are the business trips-the mother lodes (parent lodes?) of conflicted moments. I was quite the sight in the Philippines last winter, wandering among ramshackle jungle huts in search of a phone because it was 8 p.m. in New York and I had promised I would call in time to say good night. (I never did find one. I did penance with extra presents.) I topped that during one ugly moment in the Atlanta airport when the airline gave away my seat on the last flight out, meaning I would not have been home when my children woke up on Thanksgiving morning. (I threatened to walk through the security door to board the plane anyway; a seat was somehow found for me on another carrier.)

Five years ago, when I traded my job in the newsroom of The New York Times for one as a freelance writer in an office above my garage, I smugly thought I had eliminated all the "moments." I could be at work and be at home at the same time. My older son (who was two at the time) was giddy that first morning. Wow. He had his baby sitter and his Mommy. But when I glided off to my desk, coffee mug in hand, he was outraged. How to explain that I was his but only sometimes? That I was there but also out of reach? He stood and cried on his side of the office door. I stood and cried on mine.

Fact is, we can't be fully at home and fully at work at the same time-not if work is in a distant office tower and not even if work is in the next room. Work and life don't overlap so much as they collide or intersect, leaving us to sit in our ergonomically correct swivel chairs and pivot between the two. And each time we turn toward one, we are, in that moment, turning away from the other.

My moment comes most often at 3:45 in the afternoon when my boys rocket into my office. By 4 o'clock they have to leave. I have to work. I can't change that, but I can change what I tell them about it. For years I apologized: "I'd rather be with you, but if I don't write, there won't be any money for toys." Then one morning, I found my younger son in his booster seat, scribbling furiously with a pencil on a yellow legal pad. I asked what he wanted for breakfast and he shooed me away. "I can't talk, Mommy," he growled. "If I don't finish my article, my editor will be mad with me."

My message, I saw, had been that work was a mix of fear and drudgery, designed to keep me away from them. Though there are times when all that is true, bleak is not at the core of how I feel about my work and not how I hope my sons will one day feel about their own. I work because I have to. I do this work because I choose to. That makes me lucky, and that is the point: I want them to see the luck, the fulfillment, the fun.

I still show them the door, but I do it differently. Or I try to. On deadline days I can, I confess, be heard to threaten that there will be no more food, clothing, or shelter, or Nintendo-ever-unless they let me write. But in saner times I ask about their day and then tell them about mine. About my latest magazine assignment. Or about this new column, which might even mention them once in awhile. I use words like "exciting" and "interesting," and I promise them all the details. Later. The moment I turn off the computer, swivel that chair back around, and finish working. Finish working, that is, at least until they've gone to bed and to sleep.

©1999 by Lisa Belkin. Reprinted by permission of the author. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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