A Work/Life Legacy? Or Just A Prologue?

Last night I received a Work Life Legacy Award from the Families and Work Institute. The fact that I have the deepest admiration of the organization and its founder, Ellen Galinsky, coupled with the fact that my fellow recipients form the backbone of the life/work movement in this country, made it a humbling and exhilarating honor.

They included Sylvia Ann Hewlett, of the Center for Talent Innovation, who has long been my guide through this field; Brad Harrington, of the Center for Work & Family at Boston College, the place for data on the role of men in this revolution; Bradley Googins, who founded the center that Brad now runs; Rosalind Chiat Barnett, the sage of the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis; Ellen Bravo, an in-the-trenches dynamo at Family Values @ Work; Stephanie Coontz, a historian who makes the present state of marriage and family make sense by looking at the past; Arlene Johnson, there from the beginning, as were Stewart Friedman who taught a generation of leaders about balance at the Wharton School, and Deborah Stahl whose lens has always been on the children.

We were each asked to give a talk reflecting on our "legacy" and writing my remarks was a chance to look back on how much has changed since I began writing on the subject years ago. Below is what I said. It's been quite a journey.

Legacy. Now there’s a hefty word. It is sobering, the idea that I have left one. While preparing to speak here today I’ve spent more than a little time reflecting on what mine might actually be.

I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t left a legacy at all. To the contrary, I’ve been the recipient of one -- the beneficiary of a movement that has set as its goal nothing less than a reinvention of the working world. My job was to chronicle the path that so many were clearing ahead of and around me, to tell the story of how the work/life equation could, and should, be changed.

Yes, I believed such change could make life better for all humanity.

But also, frankly, for me.

I wrote about this topic because I lived it; I lived it as I wrote it. The reporter in me recognized it as a dynamite story, a transformation of the way we live and work that is as significant as anything since the dawn of the industrial age -- one with ramifications for the economy, gender rights, parenting, government, public health.

More than that, though, the young wife, new mother, recent graduate, ambitious employee -- all those parts of me just wanted answers. Ones I could fold into my own life. This was a story, a journalist’s beat, yes, but it was also deeply personal. And oh how my life has changed because of the work of the people who physically fill this room and who intellectually inhabit this life/work sphere.

Looking back at any journey leaves you with a mental album of snapshots; scrolling through mine I find more than a few befores and afters.

There is the before of my parents, my mother telling me I could be whatever I wanted, and, to be sure, she herself would have run the known universe had she been born a generation later. Instead, she did what traditional women do -- she was a teacher, and then a school counselor -- and then what modern women do -- she graduated from law school when I graduated from high school. But she knew she’d never become a partner, knew not even to try for a firm, because women, mothers, just didn’t do that then, right?

But, widen the shot, and there was my father, an orthodontist with a practice in what would otherwise have been the garage of our suburban house. He was the one I came home to lunch with every day during the school week, and with whom I checked in when I returned again at 3. He -- or, to be honest, his receptionist -- would bring me homework when I’d forgotten it, and chicken soup when I was out sick. Soon after my first son was born and I spent maternity leave scrambling to finish a book, I called my mother in tears. ‘How did you DO this,” I sobbed. “How did you work and parent at the same time?”

“Lisa.” she said in a tone that one uses when gently pointing out something obvious to someone oblivious. ‘Your father was home.”

So now, there’s the after photo, in which I grew up to be my father. Doing work that I love, using the tools available to build a life and career where I didn’t have to choose -- at least not every moment -- between the two.

There are so many more befores and afters.

An early shot of me with a cell phone, a huge brick which looked like something Radar O’Reilly used in MASH. I was one of the early adopters at the New York Times. Before then, the editing process went something like this: You submitted an article. You sat at your desk and waited for an editor to summon you. You calculated the trains you were missing while you waited. Eventually you and the editor sat side by side while you answered his questions (yes, he was almost always a he...) Finally, you got the “good night” from the desk, which was permission to go catch whatever the next train might be.

That cell phone, therefore, was freedom. True, it made me one of the first really annoying people on Metro-North to gab the entire way home. It also meant the difference between being home for bath time and bedtime, or not. Using technology as a tool with which to reclaim pieces of life would be a theme in my writing from then on.

Another snapshot, of me asking permission to write from home one day a week, to push these new tools -- modems! fax machines! -- and stretch the boundaries of work even further. “Okay, but don’t tell anyone,” was the answer. You bet that led to stories about the capriciousness with which the new rules of work were being applied.

Next to that, a snapshot of me officially leaving the New York Times and technically becoming a freelancer, a contractor-- keeping my regular byline and brand new Times email address, being expected to file on schedule. But trading my weekly paycheck for a monthly fee, giving up my benefits in exchange for the flexibility to work where I wished. Nothing like first-hand reporting to deepen your understanding of the compromises and trade-offs being made as a new way of work labored to be born.

Click, the early days of my column, Life’s Work, when I argued, more than once, and with more than a little smugness I am now embarrassed to admit, that this life/work dilemma was clearly more an issue for women than for men.

Click, and see me in more recent days, when I understand that as long as we think of this as a women’s issue, a mother’s issue, then we won’t get anywhere close to a workplace that works as it should.

Click, and I am writing a blog about parenting called Motherlode.

Click, and readers --who can now talk back in this new frontier called The Comments -- are making it clear that mothers are not the only ones who parent, thank you very much.

Click, I write a column called Parentry, from wherever I please, as long as the work gets done. And yes, in my new job I get full benefits.

Also, I tell everybody that I work best in coffee shops.

Move, finally, to a wide shot, of the remarkable staff I work with in this futuristic office -- a place that boasts of nap rooms and yoga classes, of foosball tables and organic snacks, but a place that also assumes that life and work are one and the same. Home and office ooze and merge into each other in this round-the-clock workplace. The tools that buy freedom also carry obligation.

Surrounded by 20-somethings, this is their Before and my After. I am one of few there who remember a day when an office was an actual place, when your flexibility extended only as far as the cord on your telephone could reach. A time when employees without kids had not yet come to resent the ability of employees with kids to leave early for the soccer game; they didn’t resent it, because they didn’t know about it. Employees with kids wouldn’t dare to mention that’s where they were going.

It has not been a linear journey from then until now. Like the lattice career path we preach, the path of the life/work movement has paused, retraced some steps, even retreated to more secure footing along the way.

It’s been ten years since I wondered, in an article titled “The Opt-Out Revolution” why 2003 looked so much like 1953, with women needing to choose between career and family. Today, Anne Marie Slaughter is still wondering.

It’s been decades since studies started proving that workers work best when they have control over their schedules, that flexibility is more important a to many than a raise, that telecommuting saves gasoline, improves health and productivity and morale. Yet I have still spent a lot of time this year writing about Marissa Mayer’s ban on working from home.

In a way, though, the Yahoo story too is an after-photo. The uproar that followed her announcement is a testament to how ingrained, how assumed, that right has become. A before shot would not have captured such anger.

It’s an evolution that I have spent all these years covering and living. It is still incomplete, as evolutions by definition are, but it is stunning in its potential. There are unfilled pages in my mental photo album -- it’s time, I suppose, to change my metaphorical album to an Instagram, no? Whatever the medium, the message is that we aren’t done here yet. I am still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up and how I can best weave together the personal and professional threads of my life.

I’m doing that for me, yes. But I am also doing it -- we in this movement are all doing it -- for more sweeping reasons as well. For my mother, who took that law degree and became in house counsel, then outside consultant, for several corporations before retiring and teaching business law classes on line -- so that she could travel and also work. For those electric 20-somethings at my office, all of them part of the generation that tells pollsters that they are determined to work flexibly and parent equally -- but also say that their jobs in this newest economy follow them around day and night.

The political, we know well, is personal, and that means I now have a new layer, a new lens, on my work. My son, the one that had me calling my mother sobbing and who got me asking for that cell phone so I could be there for bedtime, is now a brand new college graduate. He’s just started navigating his own life work landscape. So now I am writing for him, too.

Thank you all for creating the change for me to write about.