Epiphany In London
In the late seventies I became a management consultant, and with that decision, I began to travel frenetically. At the time I thought of consulting as a temporary job.
A lot has happened in the thirty years since, mostly good, but I never lost the feeling that it was just a temporary job. It certainly wasn’t a career. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many rewarding aspects to the work. I’ve seen the world on consulting assignments. Sometimes the money has been good. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on the planet on consulting projects.
Nonetheless, consulting requires travel away from home a minimum of five days a week, every week. Sometimes, like the recent gig I signed up for in London, you must commit to being away from home and family for a month.
Regular readers will know that early last week I flew to London for just that job, leaving my wife and two young kids behind. But the London project did not work out for me, and I’m back. Why I am back may be worth knowing to you if you travel constantly, as I have for three decades, especially if you have a family at home and care about them.
I arrived in London last Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning I had not slept since Sunday night due to worry and concern over being away from my family exacerbated by jetlag. I suddenly became aware that I was excruciatingly unhappy.
Had I known that I would be so miserable being away from my family, I would never have accepted the gig, of course. In earlier years before my wife and I had children, I wouldn’t have given such an extended absence from home (27 days) a second thought.
Suffering from severe sleep deprivation, I discussed the situation with my lead colleague on Wednesday morning early. We both agreed that it would not work for him or for me, and it wasn’t best for the client. Though we had client intro and fact-gathering meetings scheduled last week, the analysis didn’t officially begin until Monday the 11th, and there was time to replace me.
I have always loved consulting work per se, and I still do. But suddenly I realized while sleepless in that London Hilton room that I just can’t be away from my kids for a month without going home.
I didn’t know how strongly I felt about that until I got to London and could not sleep. If you read my blog often, you will remember my post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Dread.” The dread I felt was about more than subjecting myself again to being beat up in the travel system; it was especially about being away from my kids.
The consulting firm I’d contracted with also muddied the waters the week previous to my travels when they called me out of the blue with a second offer—and then suddenly withdrew it—to lead a consulting project for a new railroad client in Florida. When they offered it, I expressed my strong interest, citing my expertise in rail and deep experience with white collar reorganizations, which is that company’s issue.
I also emphasized my strong preference to remain in the United States so that I could be home every weekend with my family. The U.K. work was strictly business process mapping, and while I do have lots of that experience, so do many others. The rail/reorg experience combo, however, was a much different and rarer requirement. I therefore agreed to the London gig reluctantly, which I realize now—too late—didn't help matters.
I’m not making excuses or pleading for forgiveness. I made a commitment to go work in London for a month, and I backed out once I got there. The politest thing I can say about my action is that it was “inconvenient” that I experienced the epiphany once there, instead of before I left, that being with my kids is more important to me than being absent from them for a month.
It was certainly inconvenient for them to have to scramble for a sudden replacement, and it was an extremely costly decision for me, since the consulting firm will not now reimburse me for any of my substantial expenses to get there, to reside in London at a Hilton, and to get home.
Be that as it may, last week’s extraordinary experience is a life-changing turning point. I don’t want to be away from my family that long ever again. This is a revelation to me. It may seem obvious to others, but it wasn’t to me, until now.
I am completely at peace with my decision last week to come home. Even in immediate hindsight, I recognize that it was foolish of me to think I could be away that long. Old habits die hard. I thought I could do what I’d been doing for thirty years, and I can’t, not any more. Having my kids has changed everything.
A little background is in order to put this into sharper perspective: I took off about half of 2007 because I could afford it (for awhile). I wanted to see what life would be like at home every week. Honestly, I didn’t know.
I found the adjustment to being at home difficult at first last year. Though my wife and I have a strong bond, I frequently felt like a stranger in the house. Her frantic routines to balance her professional career as a research sociologist and our two kids’ school and extracurricular activities were constructed of the necessity to act as a single parent during the five days each week that I had been gone for years. Frankly, from Monday to Friday each week I was in the way and unappreciated for the first few months.
Gradually, my wife and I retooled child responsibilities such as after-school activities (soccer, basketball, swim team, piano lessons, Chinese lessons, etc.); meal preparation for breakfasts and dinners; doctor appointments and emergency response to child sickness; homework monitoring and assistance; and coaching the kids in their own daily chores (bed-making, garbage-emptying, table-setting, dishwashing, pet feeding and pet care, yard work, etc.). I took over the myriad of tiny but persistent headaches, like keeping the vehicles licensed, inspected, maintained and filled with fuel. Home repairs and upkeep also fell to me. And so on.
Over time my wife became far happier, and so did I! I found the rhythms of our new routines suited me, to my great surprise.
I have especially enjoyed the immense amount of time spent with both my kids. Our son is in the third grade (age 9), and our daughter starts Kindergarten in the fall (age 4). I love every minute I am with them! They fight to have me lie down with them each night and to talk before they drift off to sleep. Their sleep problems and behavior issues, while low-grade, have all but disappeared with me home. My wife is not over-stressed and grouchy any more; she is, instead, happy. Two weeks ago I was here when we taught our daughter to ride her bike without training wheels.
I’d been missing all these things, and many more, by being away all week, every week. But just exactly what I was missing was abstract to me until I stayed home and immersed myself in my family’s lives. I could justify being away, despite my own persistent stress and a nagging feeling that I was missing something important, because it wasn’t concrete for me until I became involved.
Why I didn’t see that the last six months of 2007 had changed me I don’t know. It seems obvious now.
Thus I should not have agreed to take the gig in London because of the long absence. I had become much more “normal” than I realized during my time at home last year, and it took a kick in the teeth like going to London and facing four weeks without them to come to grips with it.
Even though I will keep my hat in the consulting ring (for stateside travel only), I intend now, with the sharpened focus of my needs gained suddenly from the experience this week, to look hard for something interesting locally.
I’ve written often since I began this blog about my desire to stop flying so much, because the whole experience can be so difficult these days. Looking back on every post now, I can see my blog was borne of this need, and I am just reaching the point in my journey where the end may be in sight.
This blog’s header, lamenting how airlines routinely rob us of it, says, “Time is all we have… .” I finally grasped last week in London that I want to spend more of the time I have remaining on this rock with my family rather than alone in some hotel room. That knowledge was worth the price.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The Cost of Commitment
The "Hallmark Holiday" is tomorrow. My condolences to you (guys especially) who must fall to the god of manufactured expectations.
Sorry if I'm restating the obvious, but the schoolyard rhyme reminds us that after love comes marriage, and then comes baby in the baby carriage. And with the wife and kids come responsibility.
Will Allen is a blogger, mostly about issues of business travel. His latest entry is something altogether different, though, and really highlights the importance of choosing a job and career wisely. Will your career and lifestyle choices now lead to regrets later? Allen's blog entry is a little long, though highly readable, and I'm pasting the entire thing below. I have no kids (or wife, for that matter), but if I did, I'd want to have his perspective: