Monday, September 1, 2008

Balancing Work and Family: Some Labor Day Thoughts

I've written before that homeschooled kids tackle adult life with great gusto. At least that's been my experience. My adult kids have eagerly embraced their schooling and/or work. In today's world, that means lots of work hours and steady commitment to the job.

My son and his wife both have jobs that they love and in which they're successful. Work takes up enough of their lives that they have to commit to spending time together. It doesn't just happen. This is a lesson we all learn sooner or later, but they're learning it right now; so far they appear to be keeping up with the balancing act.

But at some point they're going to want children, and that's when the balancing act becomes more complex. Men in particular feel the need to excel at their jobs in order to feed, clothe and shelter their growing families. But sometimes they can become so involved with their jobs that work takes priority over their families, and they can't see it.

That's what happened to Sir Richard Attenborough, the acclaimed British actor and director. Over the course of his life, he achieved fame and fortune while staying married to one woman (for over 60 years!) with whom he had three children.

While on vacation in 2004, his daughter and granddaughter died in the tsunami that hit the areas around the Indian Ocean. This tragedy forced Sir Richard to reassess the way he spent his life (as excerpted from his recently released autobiography):

When I look back, I see the whole of my adult life crammed with ceaseless activity. But in all my roles as actor, director, producer, charity fundraiser, chairman of this, president of that, I've always been aware that it was Sheila, not me, who held us together as a family.

Yet, eternally optimistic and, to a degree, selfish and egocentric, I always believed in a future when I would make it up to the children. In determining the allotment of my time between public and private, work always took precedence.

Supposedly, weekends were set aside for the family. But not as conscientiously as I would now wish. If it needed a Saturday morning to conclude some business, then I took it.

When we lost Ginny - my nickname for Jane - and Luce, that opportunity was gone, never to be recovered. And that has changed my relationship with those who are left to the extent that I will do anything to be with them and we spend much more time together.

I can talk to people about Jane now, although sometimes I can't get the words out. I can also see her. I can feel her touch. I can hear her coming into a room. She comes in laughing or excited or determined, but always full of commitment. That was the very essence of Jane - commitment.

And music. After they died, I started to hear music in my head all the time. Handel is Jane; Puccini is Lucy. I can no longer turn on the radio or listen to CDs because they clash with their music in my head.

Just thinking about Jane now, I am listening to the Messiah: I know that my redeemer liveth. How about that? Me, an agnostic.

I have, I know, been one of the privileged creatures on this Earth, not just slightly but hugely privileged. Even as early as my mid-20s, I was aware of leading a charmed life.

I won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Then, unlike many of my contemporaries, I survived the war unscathed and went on to marry the most wonderful girl in the world.

My career blossomed in so many different areas. I had fame, fortune and good friends.

I became a knight, an ambassador, a president, a commandeur and a chevalier, several kinds of chairman, a university chancellor and latterly a lord. And although I now have hearing aids in both ears and my heart is ticking courtesy of a pacemaker, I have made it to my mid-80s.

Before the tsunami, I had always thought of myself as a sort of ridiculous male Mary Poppins, the eternal optimist whose glass is always half full. But, after the loss of my daughter and granddaughter, nothing would ever be the same again.

In case you're wondering, yes, I did send this to my son :) And as a side note, isn't it interesting that Sir Richard hears "The Messiah" in his do you suppose that got there?


Renae said...

When I look back, I see the whole of my adult life crammed with ceaseless activity.

I don't want that statement to be true about me, but often it is. Thank you for sharing this poignant reminder of what is truly important in this life.

Kristi Holl said...

What a wonderful post! And what a heart-breaking way to learn this lesson. I can well imagine that it was his wife holding the family together all those years. We seem to be good at being the glue. 8-) It was a job I always loved too.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid

Barbara Frank said...

Renae, I think it's true for most of us at various points in our lives. We can change, but it's not easy, is it?

Kristi, I've read other excerpts and he does give his wife the credit for that. I do think it's our job as moms to "be the glue."