I was sitting across from my new supervisor, Susan. She’d worked for the university for nearly 30 years. My previous supervisor left a week earlier for a new job, and things had been chaotic ever since.
At the time, I worked as an academic counselor in a program that served underrepresented students. Before my supervisor Jim left, there were two full-time employees and one part-time. Now I was the only full-time employee. When I told coworkers about Jim’s departure, they assumed that I was the new interim director.
However, I didn’t like that assumption because I didn’t know if I wanted the job.
I had a strong feeling that the reason Susan asked me into her office was to discuss the idea of a promotion, and as I sat across from her, I had a pit in my gut.
She leaned back in her chair for a moment, folded her arms, and then asked me to shut the door. "How do you feel about all of this?" she asked.
"About all of what?" I said. "Jim leaving? Well, I’m a little overwhelmed by all of it, I’ll be honest. And people keep asking me if I’m the new director, which is unexpected."
Susan raised her eyebrows and nodded, and I got the impression that she wanted to discuss that very subject. We chatted for a while about what needed to be done in the department, and I told her my ideas. Then she said, "I have to confirm a few things with the Department of Education, so I’m not offering you anything right now, but I’m feeling a lot better about making a decision."
As I left Susan’s office, I didn’t think about failure. I felt confident I could do the job. I thought about my wife, and our children Tristan (age 7), Norah (age 4), and our new baby, Aspen.
The main reason I liked my current job was because it provided an acceptable work-life balance. It wasn’t perfect, but I was content. Ever since I turned 30, I’ve wanted to be a father first, and an employee second.
I realized I was the logical choice for the promotion. I was the only full-time employee, and I knew the most about our current projects. But I also knew about the long hours the previous director spent away from his family, sitting in his office in the evening, writing reports and sending emails. We’d become close friends, and he often mentioned the stress he was under to satisfy both the university and the Department of Education.
But most importantly, I thought a lot about a man I hardly new. My father. He was a heating and air-conditioning contractor and business owner who spent most of my early childhood at work. To ease the stress of managing his own business, he turned to prescription painkillers and alcohol. He ended up plowing through four marriages and died at 49 years old. I think about my father a lot because I don’t want to become him. I don’t want to allow my job, my ambitions, to keep me from being a good father and husband.
After the kids were in bed, I sat on the sofa next to my wife, Mel. The baby was in her lap.
I was a wreck and I hadn’t even been offered the job yet. I felt confident that I would be offered it, though, and I’d have to make a decision. I told Mel about the conversation I had with Susan. I told her about my fears. She asked if the position would come with more money, and I told her that I assumed it would. We talked about how it would be an opportunity to grow professionally. And although we were getting by, more money always helps.
Then we talked about the logistics: How long would the position last? Due to the grant, most likely one year, maybe two. Would I be able to get my old job back once I was done? I didn’t know. Probably not. Could I become the director after the interim was up? It’s possible, but I’d have to reapply. That is...if I even wanted the job after doing it for a year.
"It seems like we’d be giving up a lot of security," Mel said. "And you’d probably be stressed out all the time, which I hate."
"I just don’t want to be in a position where I have to choose between our family and my job," I said. "I don’t know if I want the stress. And I don’t want to feel like I’ve lost more time with the kids. I already lost three years while in graduate school."
Much of my professional life has come down to choosing between an evening reading stories with my kids, and working late on a project; between taking my wife out for dinner, and meeting with colleagues at a pub to chat about a new project; between a Saturday dance recital, and getting ahead at the office. I think a lot about the tug-of-war between family and work, and in this moment, I decided to keep the rope on my family’s side of the pull.
"One of the main reasons that Jim left was because he wanted more time with his family," I said.
We sat in silence for a moment. Then I said, "I can’t take it. The job isn’t worth it."
Then, together, we put the baby down for the night.