I came across an old notebook recently. It was a small leather bound notebook, which I used to carry around in my work bag, during an earlier bout with my persistent "I should be a writer" daydream. I bought it to record ideas and observations. I never did anything with what I wrote... until now.
I was amused to come across an account of a conversation I had with a particularly annoying coworker. He was sure that my opinions on the topic would change once I had kids. In fact, they have not. Here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated September 19, 2005 (so I was married, only recently promoted into management, and had no kids yet):
I've been thinking a lot in the last few days about taking responsibility for our choices. A coworker's argument that scientists can't make a decent living started me thinking about this. I was startled when he made this argument- I think I make an excellent living. I don't think his argument is based on faulty numbers, because he referred derisively to a salary of $125k, which is more than I make. Rather, I think the problem comes from expectations that are perhaps unrealistic. The coworker has four children, ranging from teenager to toddler. He lives near the Connecticut coast- perhaps one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. He wants a house large enough for the kids to have rooms of their own and to have a backyard. He wants to live in a good school district. From his comments, I think he wants to do all of this on a single income. All of these are perfectly understandable and perhaps even admirable goals- but the combination is not realistic. He seemed to feel he had some sort of right to have all of these things, and of course, all of these things are hard to have on the "buck and a quarter" salary he correctly assumed mid-level scientist/managers make.
He argued that their was a problem attracting young people to be scientists and engineers because of this perceived mismatch. Perhaps, but I can't agree with his assumption that any professional career must be able to provide the extremely upper middle class lifestyle he wants. We all make choices and all decisions are tradeoffs. He has traded job satisfaction for all of those other things he wants, but it wasn't his only choice. No one forced him to have four children (and I couldn't help but wonder to myself what he says about poor families with four children). There is no requirement that he remain in coastal Connecticut. I know from personal experience and from that of many of my friends that a slightly worse school district will not destroy his kids' chance at happiness. And the list of options could go on and on.
We make choices. It would be nice if the tradeoffs were always easy, but that is not realistic. I am probably being unfair to my coworker, but I couldn't help but think- he needs to grow up. I hope that I will remember the fact that I will need to make similar choices when I have kids. In fact, I hope I can teach them about the need to accept that we can't always have everything we want, and that we need to analyze the tradeoffs, make our choices, and accept the results. The best way to teach this is by example.
As I said, I still agree with what I wrote back in 2005. I might be a little more sympathetic to my coworker now, though. I think that he ended up with four kids because the third pregnancy was twins, and those twins were toddlers at the time of the conversation. One toddler can drive me to the brink of insanity- or at least to whininess- so I imagine two could push a person even further. But I stand by my central point, that we make choices, choices have consequences, and living with those consequences is part of being a grown up.