Rethinking “Workaholism”

Working | Playing

Recently, Lauren wrote a really great piece on “The Balance Matrix” – a struggle many of us share, and something I’ve been working hard on my whole professional life. Reading it made me start to re-examine some of my childhood experience.

My parents were (are now really, despite being at least nominally semi-retired) workaholics – they worked, really, all the time. They got up early, went to work, came home, ate food, went back to work. I went to bed and still they’d work. They worked on weekends. They travelled for work. They worked when they travelled. Both my parents are phenomenally successful, and leaders in their respective fields – but boy did they ever work hard to get there.

At the back of our house was a sort of solarium, the sun room we called it. My dad, mostly, worked there. We had a glass-topped table and he would sit at, idly nibbling at the eraser of a yellow HB pencil or a gently pinching his lower lip between his thumb & fingers. He’d be hunched – either forwards, leaning over the table, or back, his right leg cross over his left. In either case, most of the time there’d be several piles of printed documents – journals, study results, his own data – spread over the table. To one side would be his dictaphone. But his focus was always on a lined yellow pad of paper. He’d furiously write away on that, turn a page. He never seemed to go back – he’d just write. I suspect he was constantly writing in his head prior. When he was satisfied, he’d dictate what he wanted to say and someone in the dictation pool at the hospital would later type it up. In more recent times, of course, much of  this would be replaced by his laptop. But not the yellow-lined pad of paper, nor the alternately leaning hunch.

My mother, by contrast, always hid herself away to work. Once my sister moved out, she took over her room and that became her office where she would while away the night, busy writing, researching, thinking, quietly muttering to herself. As a teenager, many a night would I carefully sneak home in the dead of night only to discover that my mum was still up working. Some of that may have been parental worry about her wayward young son, but she’d be up that late nights I was home too.

What’s curious is that although my father worked in a public spot, his work was much more mysterious to me than Mum’s – she would think out loud, talk about her work with us all – I suspect as much to help formulate her own thoughts as to share – while Dad was simply quietly efficient, back there in the sun room.

I swore, as I got older, that I would never be like them. I hated that they always worked, and I thought it a terrible life that I wanted nothing to do with. I loved the idea of indolent evenings spent with my family playing, sharing, living.

But a fun thing happened on the way to the coliseum….

I discovered that I have incredible work ethic – like my parents. I discovered that I too prefer to work in long, straight, deeply-focussed bouts – like my parents. I discovered that I too have immense ambition and drive to succeed – like my parents. I discovered that I too love what I do, and it’s not really work when you love it that much – like my parents.

But I still, even when I want to – try really hard to not bring work home, to not work evenings, to stop and truly experience my own children’s youth. And so I don’t work at home in the evenings. Liam, now in grade 3, is starting to have regular homework – somewhere between 30 & 60 minutes worth 3 days a week. And you know what? it’s a struggle to get him to do it. My sister, who shares many work traits with myself and my parents, doesn’t work at home either. And you know what? it’s a struggle for her to get her kids to do their homework. But, despite all my slacker tendencies at school (sat at the back, never took notes, etc), I always did my homework. It’s just what we did at home – we did our work.

And so, now, I look back at my parents long work hours and don’t just see workaholics chained to their desks. I see amazing parents who not only wanted to succeed, but wanted their children to succeed and modelled how to manage time, how to prioritize work – and most importantly, how to work. I see parents who showed their children how to have a career you love and children you love and work hard at both.

I don’t want to struggle to convince Liam to do his homework and whether he needs to do it – homework’s one of those stupid things that you have to do. But how fair is it, in his eyes, that he has to come home from a long, hard day at school and then do more work when both his parents are sitting on the couch, relaxing? He has no model to indicate that working at home is a normal part of life. And while yeah, I wish schools didn’t give homework and I doubt the utility of it, it happens. And so now, as we embark on this 8+year journey of nightly homework, I think back to how well my parents modelled getting stuff done at home and begin to think they weren’t, perhaps, just insane workaholics.

Perhaps, just maybe, they were teaching me something. And I could teach my children that too. And so, when my kids have homework, maybe I should have homework too. I’m a small business owner. There’s no shortage of things to do. I don’t want to spend my evening doing them, but then, Liam doesn’t want to spend his evening doing homework either. So maybe we should treat this as something of a team sport. We’re all in this together.

Miscellany: what’s up lately

Peekaboo Daddy!
Peekaboo Daddy!

I’ve been quiet around here of late, for a few reasons, only some of which are because I started to dick around with the design of the site, then got busy and so stopped and so now it sits in limbo, not yet finished. But some fun things from home:

  • Liam, who is dreaming of being a grown up, while everyday become more grown in my eyes as he plays chess and researches strategies and helps out with Kellan and generally shows signs of being a very interesting, if damnably distractable boy.
  • Liam recently wanted to be a detective when he grew up, and so magnifying glasses and forensic kits and books about detecting were bought, karate was taken, and everything we encountered was a clue to solving something else. It was a wonderful time that leant well to our mutual tendency to be lost in our heads dreaming of alternate futures.
  • Currently, Liam wants to be a bicycle-accessory inventor. He has described in such detail that I could never capture it his future shop, on Broadway, wherein the front of the shop people will buy bicycles and the accessories that he has made, such as an automatic rain-cover that detects the rain and creates mudflaps and booties for your feet; while in the back he and his team will work, in the open, so that everyone can see the craft that goes into his work
  • Craft & artisanship are a common theme with Liam. He’s very interested in the methods by which things are made, and cared for, and the seemingly inherent artistic-ness of watching something be made. He loves YouTube how-to videos, and he’s dead into arts & crafts and crafting, and dreaming of how things are made: not at a large-scale industrial way that you see on DiscoveryTV, but Brooklyn-hipster style, small-scale, hand-crafted. It is unfortunate that neither Leah nor I are crafty, at all, and I wish I knew of ways to let him explore this more. I wonder if I could get him involved in VanHackSpace, or carpentry camps, or cooking, or gardening in a way that is beyond my ken.
  • Kellan, in the last few days, has started addressing me as ‘Dadda/Daddy’ to get my attention, not just as a sound in the middle of a river of sounds. He’ll say DaddaDaddaDaddaDadda in the car, and when I look back, he’ll grin and  squawk “hi!”. He’s been pretty sick lately, and I’m so happy to have my crazy-non-stop-on-the-go-little-guy back again.


An Easter Vignette

The boy was tall for his age – he stood out more as the woman laid down the ground rules as dozens of younger, smaller children all milled around excitedly waiting for the whistle to be blown. And when it did the children surged forward, some led by parents, some tugging eagerly on their parents’ hands, some simply running full tilt to the furthest point. And there were eggs everywhere. On chairs, tables, bookshelves, keyboards, the floor, ledges, under hedges, in every nook and cranny. In many cases adults ran around picking up the eggs, dropping them into their child’s basket. And it started with such promise – almost immediately he found an egg, left alone after the crush had rushed through the opening.

But his luck turned. At every turn, he went to where the mob gathered, but he was a polite boy, and said “excuse me” and waited for his turn to look while the smaller children pushed him aside and pushed through and took the glory. The act was repeated over and over again – inside at the book shelves, outside in the hedgerow, on the playground, under the slide, amongst the rocks. At each instance, he came up empty-handed, while the smaller children filled their baskets.

But not all was lost, for he knew at home that he had his own basket, already full, awaiting him, that he did not have to compete for, that he had filled at his leisure that very morning. And the lone chocolate egg he had found was added to his bounty, then slowly, carefully savored over several minutes – letting it melt slowly in his mouth rather than simply chewing, reveling as the sun-softened chocolate melted in his hands, coating his lips and cheeks and chin.


Parenting: Rewarding Recycling

Liam is a big fan of recycling. He also has a pretty good idea of what kinds of items are returnable vs recyclable in the blue bin. At home, we have 2 bins: 1 where we collect everything that has a deposit attached to it, and is thus returnable, and the standard blue bin for everything else.

About once every 6-8 weeks, when we’ve got enough returnables, Liam and I load up the car with shopping bags full of tetra-paks, booze-bottles, pop bottles & cans, and head down to our nearest return-it depot to return all our stuff. On the way there, we get to hang out, talk about whatever (this is always a dad-and-Liam trip). Once there, Liam helps me separate all the returnables as directed by the staff there. Now that he can do math, we’ve added an extra step: We add up how much money we’re going to get before the staff does the math for us. It’s amazing how good Liam is at adding things by $0.05 & $0.10 these days, and keeping the numbers in his head these days – and useful shorthand knowledge that there are 4 quarters in a dollar, 20 nickels, etc – so he’ll now do things like count 1-20 in nickels, and know that equals a dollar.

The best part then comes when the staff gives us the money: We go shopping. Generally we’ve earned $5-10. Which is the perfect amount of money to then go to the toy store and buy a small toy. Liam puts the money in his pocket and as we drive over to the toy store we talk about what sort of a toy he wants to buy, why, and best of all, what we’re going to do with it when we get home.

At the store, Liam carefully goes around  choosing a toy that costs less (pre-tax) than what he got from the recycling. At the cash, Liam pays – he figures out which bills & coins to give the cashier (if tax brings the total over, I always cover that). His clear pride at being able to spend his own money, that he earned and counted is awesome. The surprise and genuinely happy response from the cashiers watching my kid do all this himself is pretty great too. Only once have I ever had a curmudgeonly cashier ask if I could “hurry this up”.

So are our trip net-green? Probably not. All the gas used, and packaging on the toy aren’t so great. But I now have a 6-year-old who can already separate returnables from recyclables, is jazzed about recycling, can do all sorts of useful coin-and-bill math and at the least the beginnings of an understanding of the relative worth of things, not to mention a great couple of hours where we get to hang out, just him and I. It’s all win.

Parenting & the ephemerality of possession

I struggle mightily with materialism. On one hand, I am an inveterate early-adopter gadget-hound. I want the latest, greatest, shiniest toy. On the other hand, I hate buying things. At some level I don’t even particularly like owning things. I’m all over eBooks for the same reason I very quickly embraced digital music (once I figured out I didn’t have to rip at 128k) – it reduces physical clutter, but allows me to still partake in a passion – discovering new music, new books.

aside: I’m not yet down with physical media-less video simply because the quality of a Blu-ray disc generally FAR exceeds anything I get online – sound, video, extra features. Give me all that in a digital-only download & I’ll switch in a heartbeat. Until then, I’ll keep renting & buying the physical media.

And so of course imparting this sort of internal struggle to Liam is important to me. I want him to cherish his possessions, recognize the value of them and derive happiness from receiving and interacting with them. At the same time, I don’t want to raise a hopeless materialist who only derives happiness from buying new things, and always wants new things. And I want him to understand how liberating and joyful it can be to get rid of possessions. I know some of this is just being a child, but a small part of me gets really unhappy that Liam looks longingly at the dollar toy-in-an-egg machines, that he’ll choose a kinder egg over other candy because it comes with a toy every time. And that if and when we get these toys, he’ll play with them for a little while – sometimes an hour, sometimes a day, and then they’re tossed in a toy-bucket never to be played with again. I feel very much to blame because we have been willing to buy him things if he asks for them.

aside #2: Liam has this thing which drives both Leah and I nuts where he’s incredibly passive about things and won’t come out and ask for them. He’ll say things like “I was thinking about a kinder egg” when what he means is “I would like a kinder egg”. It drives me up the wall. I’ve now taken to being flippant (if I’m in a good mood) or sarcastic (if not so much) in response to this. Liam doesn’t deal very well with rejection, it must be said, so I suspect that this is his defense mechanism – he’s not as disappointed if what he’s thinking about doesn’t happen compared to if what he’s asking for doesn’t happen.

So we’re working on the idea that a)we don’t buy everything we want just because we want it (about which I do admit to feeling quite hypocritical) b)that we cherish and value the things we have and take care of our possessions c)it’s a good thing to share with our friends and not be too possessive. So these are somewhat contradictory ideas that really, for the most part, Liam seems to be getting. I think. I’m not sure. He certainly gets the idea of delayed gratification, which is great. But I admit that we’re struggling with this and I do worry that I’m raising a materialist who always wants more stuff, regardless of if he actually wants the item, or just wants to satisfy the act of wanting….

Bleh. This post kind of went off in a different direction than I’d intended. Oh well.

The new bedtime routine

Since buying the iPad, Liam, of course, loves it. He loves the double-scaled iphone games that now have larger buttons that he finds it easier to press. He adores (and is astoundingly good at) Labyrinth 2 HD. He appears to prefer watching movies on the iPad to watching them on TV – again, because he can hold it in his hands, rotate it, zoom it in and out – all the fidgety things that kids like to do.

And now he’s discovered how awesome iBooks is. The past 4 nights, I’ve been reading to him chapters from Winnie the Pooh, the included book. We turn of all the lights in the bedroom, shut the door so it’s completely dark, and snuggle under the blanket on his bed. He generally leans his head on my chest for a pillow, and I lean the iPad on my legs. I read and he turns the pages. Sometimes we zoom in on words or pictures, or rotate the iPad for a few pages.

Then last night we tried out Alice in Wonderland (AKA the Alice App). He immediately loved the typography of it. But then we got to the page where the March Hare’s pocket-watch sways gently back and forth. And then Alice shrank and grew as we tilted the iPad around. It was a great, great experience. I currently only have the lite version, but we’ll be purchasing the full one shortly. And Liam wants us to find more kids books on the iPad, of course. Because reading, in the dark, purely by the light of the iPad is again, one of those minor, but somehow transformative experiences.

Parenting Aside: I love that I can tap a word to get the dictionary definition of that word. But you know what would be great? What would be so awesome for Liam, who is reading a fair number of simple words, and figuring out how to sound out longer ones? if from that same pop-up I had the option for the iBook to read me that word aloud. Or, more to the point, read that word aloud to Liam.

Liam, future popstar!

Yesterday, on our way home from swimming, Liam informed us that when he grows up, he wants to be a singer. Not only that, but h wrote 10 songs at school! We, of course, immediately asked him to sing for us. I managed to record 2 of his songs, now preserved here for all time:

  1. “I Love You Baby”
  2. “You’re not Building a House, You’re just Building a Bench”

So these were recorded on my iPhone, and thus are in m4a format, so I’ve no idea how this will work for various people on various platforms (they’re also pretty quiet for that matter). Nor do I have any embedded players – my apologies. If anyone has a recommendation for a lightweight plug-in, please let me know!

Liam certainly has the tropes down – lots of repetition, lots of “baby!” and “oh yeah!” in there.

Liam Reads me Bedtime Stories

On a lighter note, last night Liam decided that he wanted to read me bedtime stories, rather than the other way around. I, of course, took an iPhone video of him “reading” to me:

Story 1: 10 Halloween Trick or Treaters

Story 2: Curious George at the Chocolate Factory

I had asked for “Curious George and the puppies”, but this is what I got:

He’s going to be so mad at me when he’s a teenager, isn’t he…

Learning how to make Mistakes

Liam is a very cautious, meticulous child. Bright, but very sensitive. He’s, probably as a result, incredibly hard on himself. He internalizes everything. This has some interesting effects. For instance, Liam is not very good with change. Most kids aren’t of course, but with Liam, a sudden change in plans seems to mean, to him, that he did something wrong, it’s his fault. Suddenly decide to go to Costco before Safeway, rather than the other way around as originally discussed? Out will come the big, trembling lower lip, the downcast eyes, the fidgety fingers. It’s taken me a long time (really, until just recently) to realize that the reason for why he gets upset like this when faced with an unexpected change is that Liam believes he has made a mistake and is likely castigating himself, causing him to be so upset. It has been hard to piece out because Liam would never want to tell us what he was so upset about – in part, I believe, because he would then be upset about how he was over-reacting, so was now upset about being upset.

The clue, for me, came just recently when I finally got him to tell me that he was sorry that he didn’t put his shoes on when I asked him to. In his mind, apparently, the reason I was going to Costco before Safeway was because he took too long to put on his shoes, so for some reason that meant Safeway had to be after Costco (he likes Safeway because often shopping there entails him getting a treat, like a piece of a KitKat bar). So I turned off the radio and explained to him that the reason I was going to Costco first was that we needed to buy groceries from Safeway that had to remain cold – milk & ice cream, and that if we went to Safeway first, they might melt, but if we did it the other way around, they wouldn’t.  Then I explained about how cold things left in the car warm up, and getting warm is what causes the ice cream to melt. And I told him that it didn’t matter that he took a few minutes to put his shoes on – it wasn’t why we were doing things differently.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Liam has never had a tantrum. He’s never yelled “NO!” at us, or fallen down screaming and writhing. It just has never happened. I suspect this is because he internalizes things. Probably much like myself as a child (Leah might say as an adult), he doesn’t really understand how to properly experience anger, and often experiences anger as sadness or a weird longing for comfort (here I’m obviously projecting based on my memories of me as a child). And ends up blaming himself for whatever he should have been angry at.

At Daycare, most of the teachers tell us what a wonderful child Liam is – so friendly, never getting into trouble – but he cries a fair bit, and doesn’t deal well with criticism. This is true – because he’s incredibly hard on himself. When he makes a mistake, it’s the end of the world for him, and the standard “don’t worry about it” response that we as adults use to indicate that it’s not a big deal simply doesn’t work for Liam. I had suggested a couple of weeks ago to one of his teachers than when he gets upset because he’s done something wrong to, rather than say “it’s ok Liam”, to say “It’s not a big deal, we all make little mistakes. Do you remember when…” and tell Liam of when they made a mistake, and make light of that. Liam does really well when there’s an explanation for something, a solid reason for things. Today, a teacher at his school let me know that this seemed to have helped. Additionally, letting Liam help when other kids make mistakes – ask him what the other kid did wrong and whether he thought it was a big mistake or a little mistake was having nice results – Liam was starting to “try” things that he might get wrong. He was beginning to risk making mistakes. The very upset Liam when he was called out it was still there, but slowly but surely, Liam is starting to take some risks that might not work out for him. We laughed at the idea that a teacher at Daycare was teaching my son how to “act out”, but that’s essentially what we’re doing.

I suspect, much like the little clone of me that he often appears to be, that socially-expected reactions will be a challenge for a long time for him. Fortunately, Liam doesn’t appear to suffer from the same shyness that I did, and is quite popular at school – when I drop Liam off, kids make a point of coming up to him to say “hi”, and we hear from his teachers that virtually all the kids like playing with him, and invite him to play with them throughout the day. Hopefully he’ll be learn ways of not taking everything quite so personally. Or, if not that, learn some productive ways of processing that self-directed anger.

Parenting is hard.

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