A se­ries on any­thing that’s some­thing to talk about

WKND - - Points Of View - By Sush­mita Bose

Last week, Clare Holling­worth died. Aged 105. She was a jour­nal­ist — one who broke the news of World War II (The New York Times re­ferred to her as “the undis­puted doyenne of war cor­re­spon­dents”) — but I didn’t know about her ex­is­tence un­til I saw her (NYT) obituary posted on a friend’s Face­book wall. Some­thing stuck out. A quote she’d, re­port­edly, given to The Guardian in 2004: “When I’m on a story, I’m on a story — to hell with hus­band, fam­ily, any­one else.” (One of her two hus­bands had, in fact, di­vorced her on the grounds of “de­ser­tion” — she’d prob­a­bly been too busy with work and given him short shrift.)

The me­dia fra­ter­nity, the world over, no doubt doffed its col­lec­tive cap/hat at her pass­ing, at yet an­other ‘end of an era’, but, for a few min­utes, I thought that lit­tle gem sounded a lit­tle off. Do you need to be so caught up with work that your “life” can be by­passed? What­ever hap­pened to that great ‘oxy­moron’ of mod­ern times — work-life bal­ance?

The Guardian (in its own obit) went on to quote Clare’s great nephew, Pa­trick Gar­rett — the au­thor of her biog­ra­phy Of For­tune and War: Clare Holling­worth, First of the Fe­male War Cor­re­spon­dents — as say­ing: “Her en­tire life has been de­fined by her work. To her, break­ing news is all that re­ally mat­ters.”

That made me won­der, on be­half of us all, the non-doyenne sort of work­ing pro­fes­sion­als who also (al­legedly) have a “life”, if it comes to a toss-up, which comes first: work or life? The phrase it­self — work-life — puts work ahead of life. It’s not life­work. Okay, I’m split­ting hairs, but se­ri­ously, what mat­ters more?

I re­mem­ber one of my pre­vi­ous bosses telling some­one who had an ail­ing fam­ily mem­ber at home that she should shelve work pronto and head back to take care of said pa­tient. “Your life, your fam­ily comes first,” he’d said, while she nod­ded grate­fully. “Work can wait… it’s only a job.”

But can it? What if the na­ture of that work doesn’t lend it­self to a rain cheque? What if you were se­ri­ously com­pro­mis­ing on your sta­tus of be­ing a good pro­fes­sional by choos­ing to be a bet­ter fam­ily mem­ber? I’m con­fused. If you flip the logic, it would read some­thing like this: if you don’t have that job, would you have a life in the reg­u­lar sense (un­less you are leech­ing off an­ces­tral wealth) with no monthly wages (to pay the bills), home rent al­lowance, com­pany-backed health in­sur­ance, ex­pense ac­counts and an­nual pas­sage mon­eys?

Last year, the year that slipped through our fin­gers like quick­sand just a few weeks ago, many coun­tries — like Ger­many — ac­tu­ally put in place a reg­u­la­tion stip­u­lat­ing “no work” over week­ends. Or­gan­i­sa­tions may be li­able to pros­e­cu­tion if em­ploy­ees are “forced” to even read work mails on off­days. This is be­ing hailed as a proac­tive wel­fare move. But what if one is told, as a corol­lary, that while you work, you should sim­i­larly not en­ter­tain “dis­trac­tions” that life may throw at you ev­ery now and then. “Hey, it’s your son’s PTA meet­ing, can you take an hour out of work and at­tend it?” “No, I can’t, I’m work­ing, I’m banned from think­ing of any­thing out­side its ken.” Kind of ridic, right? So why is it not sim­i­larly ridic to not ban work thoughts while you’re liv­ing it up (say, on week­ends)?

I’m not with the late (and, as I’ve now dis­cov­ered, great) Clare Holling­worth on her ver­sion of work-life im­bal­ance, but I to­tally I get it when a friend told me about her acute dis­com­fort re­gard­ing a “new mother” at her work­place. “See, it’s lovely she’s had a kid — con­grat­u­la­tions and all that… But ever since she’s re­turned to work, she’s caught up with baby is­sues the whole time. She needs to leave early, she’s con­stantly on the phone with the nanny, her work is suf­fer­ing… Why should I pick up the slack be­cause some­one’s had a kid? Not fair! And I can’t say any­thing to her… I so want to tell her, ‘Take a sab­bat­i­cal, and fo­cus on your kid, this half­way thing at work is not work­ing’… But if I do, there will be a tremen­dous back­lash. You know, the work-life bal­ance bit… ev­ery­one takes it so se­ri­ously these days. Prob­lem is, work is suf­fer­ing be­cause life is al­ways tak­ing over in some way or the other. There needs to be a bal­ance!”


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