Seasoning

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We are in the midst of spring here in Kansas City.  The up and down temperatures have somewhat dampened the new flowers and buds on our big, beautiful trees, but as I look outside, the sun is shining and the wind is no doubt carrying kites and seeds and birds to new destinations.  We celebrated the start of the baseball season with our world champion Kansas City Royals.  The Kansas City Symphony is performing Gershwin’s lively “An American in Paris” this weekend.  Conversations around town range from morel mushroom hunting and school field trips to patio weather and outdoor festivals.

I love the rhythms of this season.  I love the awakening of the earth, the smell of green.  I do not have my mother’s green thumb, but my favorite smell is of the earth after a spring shower.  I breathe in the musty, grassy, watery, elemental nature of it all.  I spent the afternoon yesterday at a local park that overlooks the mighty Missouri River, the “Big Muddy” water that flows through Missouri, near all the places I have lived in this state.  I watched the wind ripple the river’s surface.  I followed the whirlpools my grandfather warned me about as a kid as they roiled and boiled and raced downstream.  I saw the light of the sun break through the clouds only to hide again for a smattering of rain drops to fall.  I celebrated the renewal of life on the planet and gave thanks for the season to come.

The seasons are important in this part of the world.  At my family’s farm equipment business in rural Missouri, conversations at “the tractor store” often revolved around the conditions for planting, the winter snow and spring rains needed to carry the crops through the furnace of July and August, the hectic nature of harvest.  The external world determines, to a large degree, the fortunes of an agricultural community, and Kansas City by extension, as a city with a significant focus on agribusiness.

The seasons are important to me.  And yet, I live a lot of my days inside my head.  I think and ask questions and reason and write for a living.  I apply rules to facts and make conclusions and suggest remedies.  I am more connected to a computer than the earth most days.  Many of us are, in this knowledge economy.  Our jobs do not change with the seasons.  Humanity has not evolved to handle this well.  Part of us yearns for a return to that seasonal rhythm of life despite our love for consistent home temperatures and our favorite fruit no matter the time of year.

I am in the middle season of my life.  I find I am gaining an appreciation for all of the rhythms of the earth:  growth, decay, death, renewal.  I embrace Ecclesiastes 3:1-8’s promise of a season for everything under Heaven.  I am more concerned with preserving and restoring the Earth’s beauty and health and that of the people who live in it.  I am more aware of my own smallness.  I am grateful for my awareness of the beauty around me.  I am mindful of making sure my children notice it and rejoice.  I am drinking it in.

Happy Spring!!!  I am celebrating this weekend with my son’s soccer and some kite-flying.  You?  I hope you connect with nature in some way and share with me.

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I recently finished Jay Newton Small’s “Broad Influence,” a book about how achieving a critical mass of women in a variety of public and private institutions is not only good for women, but the customers or stakeholders of that institution.  I highly recommend picking it up, and she references a library of recent books on women’s role outside of the home (Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Unfinished Business,” Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men“), all of which I devoured almost as soon as they were released.  As a professional mom to two young children, I clearly care about this topic, but I wish more men would read these books as well, particularly the men who still dominate the upper echelons of leadership in the private sector, all three branches of government, and the military.

I’ll save you the book reviews but relate my personal experience to this.  Before Sheryl Sandberg advised women to seek a mate who would be fully supportive of their professional ambitions, I made that a top priority.  My husband and I balance careers, his in health information technology and mine in civil rights law, that involve travel expectations.  We are both incredibly passionate about our children and enjoy being actively engaged in their young lives and education.  We are committed to an equal partnership in life.  And yet, I find that outside institutions undermine us and other couples seeking this balance in unhealthy and frustrating ways.

First, the relentless emphasis on productivity from individual workers makes a 40 hour work week insufficient for too many jobs, professional and otherwise.  As Slaughter noted in her book, far too many organizations operate on the assumption that there is someone (aka a “wife”) taking care of the personal needs of the employee and his or her family.  Someone has to manage the household duties, children’s activities and education, and extended family and other social obligations.  Yet the extended work hours in too many positions means that one or both parents cannot fulfill all of the non-work duties.  The ones fortunate enough to afford it can outsource much of this work with house cleaners, financial planners, nannies, carpools, and tutors.  Some are lucky enough to have retired grandparents to help with child care, chauffeuring, tutoring, and household tasks.  The rest of us muddle through, paying bills late at night, letting the house go, and sacrificing time as a couple to make up for the time lost with kids.  Organizations in the private and public sector are offering more flexible and part-time options for working parents; however, in most cases, promotion potential is negatively affected because supervisory or executive level positions are not offered with flexible, part-time, or job-sharing options.  As Slaughter indicates, research indicates people are truly productive for a maximum of six hours per day, yet the corporate expectation is often at least 10.

In our family, Doug travels frequently and often for multiple overnights, often with little notice or flexibility, particularly around the end of the business quarter.  When he’s gone, I’m running kids to soccer practice, taking leave when a kid gets sick, and navigating homework, bath, and bedtime solo.   He does the same when I am gone, but I have far more flexibility in scheduling my travel, fortunately.  I have successfully negotiated reduced schedules in current and previous work positions so that one of us is able to take kids to practices and help minimize the craziness of the dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime routine.  In my experience, however, staying “part-time” is difficult if not well ingrained in the organization due to the ongoing pressure to do more with less, despite the evidence regarding productivity and overwork.  We are hanging on to this arrangement for now.  However, I have had several friends recently leave wonderful careers because despite their employers’ attempts at flexibility, it didn’t function well enough in reality for them to continue.  This is a tremendous and avoidable loss for their organizations.  As Rosin points out in her book, the “soft skills” attributed to women in communications, organization, and relationship-building are increasingly in demand in today’s information and services economy, and leadership in these areas are sorely needed.

Second, our antiquated school calendar creates complications for families with two parents working outside of the home.  The outdated agrarian school calendar with an extended summer means that families agonize over the extra expense of child care or a series of summer camps for several months.   Teachers often spend the first month in the fall catching up students after their “summer slide,” especially for students who are already behind educationally.  The typical school day also does not coincide with general business hours, meaning parents have to find before and after school child care or reduce their hours to drop off and pick up children.  Again, in a time when schools are cutting recess and physical education to cram in more instructional time, wouldn’t it make more sense to lengthen the school day and build that time back in?  It would certainly require more financial support for school systems but it would be a worthwhile investment.

We are again fortunate to live in a school district that offers four weeks of free summer school with low-cost before and after school care at the site, and a school-sponsored summer camp that covers all but two remaining weeks of the summer.  You better bet I sign up for the summer camp quickly because there are limited spaces and they go fast.  My son’s school doesn’t start until 8:45 a.m. and I need to get to work by 8:00 a.m.  As a result, before-school care is a necessity.  Although I am sometimes able to pick up my son by his 3:45 p.m. dismissal time, because my husband is not and I sometimes am traveling or working extra hours, we also pay for after-school care that we often do not need.  The reason I am writing at this moment is because I used a vacation day to care for my son, whose school is on spring break.  Parents in my neighborhood who have kids in different schools in the same district have to deal with start times for kids that are two hours apart, making it hard for parents to ensure kids get to school safely and also get to work on time.  Not all parents work a traditional business calendar.  However, increasing the availability of before- and after-school care at schools and lengthening the school day is a necessity for contemporary families.

There are many more ways institutions undermine working parents, and the two I raise primarily affect working professional parents.  The troubles with shift work positions offered by companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart are well-documented and mean that parents have trouble obtaining quality child care for their unpredictable and erratic work schedules.  Too many working parents work for employers who do not offer paid sick leave, meaning a child’s illness can lead to a parent’s termination or a loss of wages.  I could go on and on, but instead will encourage everyone to read the books I referenced at the beginning of this post, and think hard about the real economic, social, and personal costs we are incurring as a result of antiquated work policies that are based on a family model that is no longer the norm.  We can advocate as voters, employees, and leaders to make family-friendly institutional changes that will also improve work culture and, ultimately, institutional performance.  We can vote for and promote leaders who support these changes and actively work toward them.

 

 

 

I finally did it

So I’m finally creating a more personal blog.  I generally hate oversharing online.  I’m cautious by nature.  Why now?  I want my kids to read it someday and understand their impact on my life.  Also, while writing is a huge part of my daily professional life, it’s not the kind that gives you the freedom offered in this space.  I feel like I am supposed to do this now, to shine a light on these inner workings and see where they lead.  So here I go.

The title is a working title more than anything and inspired by my five year old son’s actions today.  It’s Thursday and my husband flew out very early, so I was taking both kids to school.  We’re almost to Alex’s school when he reminds me he was supposed to dress for “career day.”  I had forgotten.  He was wearing a nice sweater and jeans.  We’d planned earlier in the week for him to be an engineer or architect with a button down shirt, slacks, tie, and “blueprint.”  Feeling horrible that I’d let him down and not wanting him to go into school without a costume, I turned the car around to head home.  He asked if I would be late to work and I said yes but it would be fine.  He asked, “What was I going to be again?” I reminded him.  He said, “Well, I want to be a spy instead.”  Much more fun, and convenient, as I explained to him that as a spy he would need to blend in with his surroundings and look like a student.  I turned the car back around to return to school and said he was all set, but suggested he spend time in Kids Zone, the before school program, making a construction paper “watch” that included helpful spy tools like a recording device.  As we walked in, I questioned him about the change of mind.  Did he get the idea from another student?  Why the change?  He said it was because he knew he would not have to change clothes and I would not have to miss work.  I don’t really think he understood that when he suggested it, but maybe so.  Regardless, it brought me to tears that I managed to hold until I got back to the car.  This little guy, this big-hearted little man, showed me the grace I needed today.  I strive to be a professional mom who is very active in my children’s lives.  I successfully negotiated a reduced schedule at my job primarily because I desperately wanted to pick my son up from kindergarten and hear about his day before he forgets, as he tends to do. I wanted time in the evenings to review sight words and count by fives and tens and read and  color pictures and take walks and rake leaves and giggle.  We are doing all of those things and more!  But I forgot something important in his life today.  He was fine.  He showed me his “watch” as soon as he got in the car at pick-up and said the teacher loaned him a magnifying glass as an additional prop.  Completely fine.

Perhaps mom guilt serves some sort of evolutionary purpose but I’m trying not to let it overtake my parental journey.  Hold me accountable on that score, please?

As we said bedtime prayers tonight, I thanked Alex for how he handled me forgetting his career day and said it was an example of him showing me grace.  I explained that grace was when we showed kindness and love to someone who perhaps did not treat us in the best way or did not deserve it.  I explained that God shows us this grace every day because we all make mistakes and yet he forgives us and loves us deeply.  I think he may have drifted off to sleep before I finished.  Maybe the lesson wasn’t for him anyway.

Welcome to our journey!

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