Are men more vulnerable to burn out and career dissatisfaction without a biological imperative to slow down and reassess?
‘I actually wasn’t enjoying my job anyway,’ my friend confided to me a few weeks ago, as she tickled her one year old under the chin, ‘so really, it was an easy way out.’
‘I totally agree,’ another new mother told me recently over coffee, ‘I LOVE that I don’t need to explain why I’m not going back to work, but it was really getting me down.’ They echoed another female friend I saw a few months ago who admitted that she is considering a complete career change and is hoping to pursue a more creative vocation, something she has always wanted to try, when she returns to the workforce after having a baby. These conversations, along with yet another newspaper feature article about ‘mumprenuers’, got me thinking: is pregnancy the new exit strategy? Is giving birth perhaps one of the only legitimate ways to escape answering to the man and freeing oneself from the daily grind? Assuming you can afford it, is getting knocked up a means to opt out or trying something new without the risks and judgement typically associated with a new venture?
Unless you are an athlete or work in an industry where your talent has a shelf life, it can be hard to recognise burn out, career fatigue or the fact that you might simply have become out of sync with your industry. Often one of the only ways that you can get the perspective required for this type of realisation is by stepping outside of your daily work routine and taking some time to literally watch the world go by without you standing in the thick of it. Having a baby does, among many other things, provide this vantage point. But without the swell of a growing belly it can be difficult to admit to yourself, let alone anyone else, that you want some time out, a break from the crazy merry-go-round of working life. Or simply articulating that you want to swap law for yoga. Especially if you’ve got one hand grabbing for the next rung on that godforsaken corporate ladder.
So thinking about all this has made me worry for the men. That’s right, you heard: I am worried about all the working men. Of course there are females that fall into this category, too, but I would argue that they are still able to use child rearing as an acceptable reason to break from work and do a career 180. Even if a female is single and decides to take time off to have a baby on her own, no one will question this. In fact most people I know would be incredibly supportive. Whereas a male resigning to raise a child on his own whilst he launches a new baby clothing line? I doubt this would be greeted with as much enthusiasm.
It is true that more men than ever before are in part-time roles, indicating that more balance is being struck on the home front. There has been a considerable increase in part-time working dads over recent years which I think it a great thing. But part-time isn’t the same as time out; a hard and fast break and a forced review of your current situation and whether it’s something you want to return to. I expect that long service leave was originally introduced to serve this very need but with such high attrition rates these days it’s unlikely many people get to enjoy this benefit.
In the rightful fight for female equality, choice and leadership roles in the workplace, have we perhaps overlooked the fact that it’s the men that now only really have one option and that’s to bring home the bacon? Over the years, I’ve known a couple of men who have taken a sea change or taken some time out to figure out what they want to do or to reflect on whether their current role is making them happy. But I could count them on one hand. The only other time I’ve known a man to admit exhaustion or ambivalence regarding his career was retrospectively and following redundancy.
A lack of male ambition is rarely deemed to be okay. The guy that wants to leave early to catch the kinder play? Adorable. The guy that wants to quit his demanding job to be a full-time dad and make relish? Weird.
Men are essentially expected to work until retirement age with not too much complaining and minimal navel gazing. Whereas a female can, over the course of her career be all in, all out, or somewhere in between. And whilst there is definitely judgement felt regarding all of these options, they are all fundamentally acceptable for her to choose.
So I am a little worried for the guys. Of course I am worried for women too, they still have to deal with unequal pay, less superannuation, sexism in the workplace and expectations around doing it all (or not) but at least they have often chosen mum over manager or vice versa and have tried both so they know what they are missing. Perhaps a better way to tackle gender inequality in the workplace and even the issue of the pay gap, is to encourage more men to take career breaks. Make this a more acceptable part of a male career path. Possibly then the gender issues fade away and it becomes more about personal choices and the way each household chooses to make things work.
And time out might not always lead to a change of career. I was definitely feeling a little tired both times that I stood on the precipice of maternity leave and it did cross my mind that it wasn’t just the pregnancy. But a few uninterrupted months at home with each child was a great reality check and led me to realise that I really do enjoy working and that I love my job and want to continue being part of my industry. But would I have made this realisation if I hadn’t had the break? Would I right now instead be burned out, cursing my job, dreading every deadline and stressing as every Sunday comes to an end? Would I be wondering what if? Maybe. It’s obviously hard to say but I do know that essentially being forced to stop and evaluate my life was the only way I would have ever have taken a break from the crazy ride. I think a lot of career men would benefit from the same perspective. Who knows, they may even uncover some hidden talents and start baking some mean cupcakes. Or at the very least they might face the same judgement that women face regarding the choices they make.
This post was originally published on The Peach, and has been republished with full permission.
Image credit: Dell’s Official Flickr Page/Flickr