A series on anything that’s something to talk about
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!”