Last week, Boomer Esiason, former quarterback and current sports commentator, made some very incendiary comments about Major League Baseball player Patrick Murphy, who had recently taken three days paternity leave for the birth of his son. Because babies don’t care what sport you play, Murphy’s son was born on opening day and as a result Murphy missed two games.
Esiason argued that Murphy should have forced his wife to schedule a c-section before the season started. Esiason’s comments immediately went viral and he apologized for his criticism of Murphy several days later. I’m not here to attack Boomer Esiason for a few comments he made on a talk radio show (not usually the mecca for rationality). By all accounts, Esiason is a dedicated family man himself. In fact, he was named Father of the Year in 2009 after starting a foundation to fund cystic fibrosis research after his own son Gunnar was diagnosed with the disease.
The truth is that while Esiason’s comments were extreme they represent an idea that has been part of the American philosophy for decades, especially among American men.
Work comes first. Family comes second.
Now, no one openly espouses this philosophy anymore. In doing so, you risk being called all the terrible things Boomer Esiason has been called over the last few days - a neanderthal, a misogynistic, an idiot. In the modern age, more and more people are looking for the ever elusive balance between work and family and saying your family comes first has become the accepted societal norm.
However, it is often in extreme situations that our true values become apparent. Boomer Esiason was openly attacked in the media and yet, in my personal conversations, I heard a little more doubt that what he had said was really that wrong. “He is a professional baseball player…” “He makes A LOT of money to do what he does…” People would say before quickly agreeing Esiason stepped over the line.
I’ve heard the same subtle undercurrent during past discussions of work/life choices in the media. When Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, returned to work only two weeks after giving birth to her first child, she was roundly criticized. However, there was also a begrudging admiration of her work ethic and several discussions of how the decision-making changes when there is that much money on the line. (Interesting update to the Mayer situation here.)
Personally, I experienced this same “work comes first, family second” ethic when my husband and I decided to give up our high-paying high-intensity careers in Washington, DC, to move back to Paducah. SO many people could not (and still cannot) understand why we would take huge pay cuts or give up careers all together so that we would be able to spend more time with our children. The fact that we were uprooting and rearranging our entire existences to put our families - not our jobs - first on the list is something I still have trouble explaining to people. Lots of people move for jobs but very few move for family.
What we are really saying is that family comes first … to an extent. What we are really saying when we talk about Daniel Murphy or Marissa Mayer is that time with our families is only worth so much. If there is enough money on the table, then it is acceptable to put your work first.
Now, for many families, this type of math is a matter of survival. As the gap between rich and poor grows wider and wider, many (too many) families have to make decisions about work that make affect whether or not their children will eat - not how much time they will spend with them. That is not the situation I’m talking about.
I’m talking about our attitudes about the very rich, the very elite, the people at the top. If we don’t hold those people to a higher standard when it comes to work and family, how will there ever be space for those of us at the bottom to make similar decisions? If we don't allow the decision-makers to put family first, how will they make decisions that allow ALL of us to put family first?
We all know how bad the statistics are for the United States. As much as we claim family comes first, we have no real societal structure in place to make that reality for families across the country. No paid parental leave. No real, affordable day care. No support for single parents, adoptive parents, working parents.
We have to start somewhere to change our work-first culture and the elites - be they in business or baseball - need to be examples. Not examples of the traditional “Work harder. Make sacrifices.” ethic that has been a part of our society for too long, but examples of how living a well-rounded life with time for work AND family makes you a happier - and more successful - person.
Examples like Daniel Murphy.