It is 6.33am on a rainy Friday morning in Singapore. I am in the back of a taxi heading home after a 15 hour flight. As I look through my messages, I realise I will need to book flights quickly for another work trip the following week.
When I did this same flight a year ago, I raced home and slept until I woke up again naturally. Today my routine will be a bit different. About 5 months ago, our lives changed significantly. We made the decision to trade our carefree existence of champagne brunches, photography tours and museum exhibitions (ok ok, I mean Nandos, Netflix and salacious Daily Mail headlines) for breast pumps, teething rings and a constant stream of neon-yellow-poo-explosions.
When you have a new baby, you spend a lot of time being awake at ungodly hours. You are waiting for kettles to boil, washing cycles to spin and sphincters to stop doing their best impression of a contraband Chinese firework. If like me you have the attention span of a Ritalin-starved 5-year-old, your mind starts to question and hypothesize. When you are awake at 4am trying to prevent an errant phallus from destroying your soft furnishings for the nth time, you begin to question why any logical person would have children at all.
The first three months are tough. You have no clue what you are doing and you are as paranoid as a dictator with a high-speed internet connection. You have less time to do things like eat, sleep, shower and other stuff you like. You have less money for holidays, treats and other experiences you love. If people had the option to try being a parent before really committing to it, I wonder how many people would upgrade the one month free trial and sign up to the 18+ year commitment. Alas you don’t even get a free iPhone as a welcome gift!
But despite the change in lifestyle, the worst thing about being a new parent is not the “having to do new parental things”. After 3 months, you learn what to do and how to do it. The “new parental things” become a pleasure as your child develops and responds to your affection. The worst thing about being a new parent is the “doing the new parental things a lot and then suddenly not being able to do them for a while” part. Allow me to explain...
I see many of my peers transform very quickly from “single with no responsibilities” to “parent with lots of responsibilities”. In a short space of time, they take on bigger jobs, start families and suddenly have their own parents and other dependents to start taking care of. A big number of significant things happen in a small number of consecutive years. As every year passes from the early 30s to retirement, their responsibilities mount up exponentially. Free time becomes a scarce resource and is very carefully allocated.
As people progress in their career, work competes with family for time and attention. At the heart of this is a need for regular face-to-face interaction between people who live in different countries. The value of a productive worker in our information economy is less about the widgets they create and more about the decisions they make, the consensus they drive and the relationships they build. Technology has yet to remove the need for in-person discussions.
So if you go to any major airport on a Monday morning, you will see countless numbers of adults dressed in business casual attire tapping away furiously on smartphones and sipping on overpriced cappuccinos. Commonly known as “road-warriors”, this tribe spend a large part of their waking hours from Monday to Friday in a location away from their family. Each of them will have a story of a missed first smile, a postponed birthday party or a bruised knee that they could not kiss better. They will have made a deal with themselves to trade an inch of career progression for an inch of family harmony.
Yet despite the large number of people who maintain this lifestyle for months or years at a time, I’ve never heard anyone around me complain about it. It just seems to be a trade-off that people have made peace with. Like somehow it is logical to spend up to 70% of your week away from the people you love the most.
I casually interviewed a few people about this from both genders to check I wasn’t going mad. Each of these people shared a coping mechanism or some elaborate system to deal with the fact that their work would require them to be away from home. Some have enlisted a third-party to help run their household and help raise their children. Some have decided to divide and conquer responsibilities between partners. Some people maintain a very strict schedule so they can read a bedtime story via Facetime every night.
But no-one grabbed me by the shoulders and said “OMG, you are so right, how do people do this for years at a time? I thought I was the only one who was struggling with this!”. Secretly I was hoping one person would do that. Mostly so it would validate the feelings I find myself developing lately. As a new parent who will now travel a lot for work, this is a trade-off I never realized people had to make until I kissed my son goodbye and started the outbound journey of that 15 hour flight.
For many new parents, the feeling at the core of the trade-off is guilt. The guilt of leaving a partner to deal with issues at home. The guilt of not being there for bath-time. The guilt of not dealing with the crying + poo explosion combo at 3am. The guilt of missing the first smile or the first giggle.
A mentor of mine advised me to worry less about the guilt and focus more on the good example you can set to children when you demonstrate a strong work ethic and a determination to pursue a career passion. Good advice I guess; but probably relevant later on when baby becomes an impressionable child. Other advice included “taking the family along on some trips where possible” and organising “special coming-home activities” after every week away from home. These seem like very pragmatic ideas but are the exception rather than the norm. You cannot do these for every trip. I wonder if these efforts really help absolve the feeling of guilt many people feel as they kiss their kids goodbye and wheel their suitcase out of the house week after week.
I am curious to see how future generations will deal with this situation. I wonder if technology will make this trade-off more or less of a challenge? Imagine a world where teleporting and virtual reality removed the need to get on a plane and interact with customers and colleagues in person? Conversely one could foresee a world where technology further decreases the ability of humans to connect on a personal level. This would increases the need for more episodes of deliberate, distraction-free and in-person interaction.
I guess this feeling is yet another thing we learn about ourselves during the crazy experience of raising a newborn child. I guess the feelings change over time too. Everyday I have a hundred questions and I am sure my son has a hundred more. I don’t have any answers and am not necessarily looking for any but I think it is important for people to think through this trade-off carefully!