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Work & Family
Hear the One about the Boss's Wife?
Work-Family Issues Are Finally Funny

by Sue Shellenbarger

Sometimes, work-family conflict is just plain funny.

Like years ago when I was a bureau chief and a reporter on my staff accidentally walked in on me pumping breast milk in the employee shower. He didn’t notice the “Occupied” sign.

Though the reporter, a polite, gentleman, gasped in horror at his faux pas, I laughed out loud and spent the next week trying to get him to look me in the eye again. I reassured him I regarded that particular collision between my work and family roles as hilarious.

In the past, such amusing moments were mostly private; generally people regarded work-family conflict as a dead-serious affair. Now, 30 years into women getting more involved at work and men getting more involved at home, and 11 years into writing this column, I’m noticing signs that we as a society are beginning to laugh at the conflicts.

New novels, cartoon trips, ads and TV shows poke fun at people who tip the scales toward work, making them less effective a home. In a new and still unsyndicated comic strip, “CEO Dad,” Tom Stern, a Los Angeles executive recruiter, lampoons his work-obsessed hero's clumsy attempts to relate to his family with authoritarian corner-office tactics.

In a painfully funny new British novel, “I Don’t Know How She Dies It’ by Allison Person, frazzled heroine Kate Reddy neglects her kids and nearly wrecks her marriage in her frenzy to succeed at her investment-management job. In another novel, “Moral Hazards” by Kate Jennings, the heroine takes a Wall Street job to pay for care for her Alzheimer’s ridden husband; her darkly funny narrative contrasts corporate infighting with the life-and-death realities she faces at home.

Work-family stress is at the heart of several new sitcoms. On ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” a dad struggles to become a hands-on parent after his wife returns to work. In “Life With Bonnie,” a talk-show host “creatively balances family commitments and career obligations using sincerity and humor,” ABC says in publicity materials.

A print-and-billboard ad campaign late last year for the Lycos Internet service poked fun at a multitasking expectant mom tapping busily on her laptop while sprawled on a birthing table, masked doctors hovering nearby. It’s hard to say why as a society we’re just starting to laugh about all this now. Perhaps work-family conflict seems less grave when compared to other worries of the day, like terrorism and snipers.

Perhaps it’s because work-family conflict has become so familiar that we aren’t defensive about it any more. “I don’t think we take it quite as seriously” as in the past, says Mary C. Hickey, an editor at Parents magazine who, as co-author of a very funny 1992 book, “A Working Mother’s Guilt Guide,” was ahead of the trend. “Nobody has anything to prove any more. We all feel like we’ve made our choices.”

Or perhaps it’s because our lives have skidded so far from the balance we seek that our efforts seem absurd, says C.W. Metcalf, a Fort Collins, Colo., trainer and consultant.

Mr. Metcalf, co-author of a classic book on humor, “Lighten Up,” offers three tips for divided parents on learning to laugh. First, cultivate the ability to see the absurdity in difficult situations. That’s often difficult, but he suggests realizing you’re not the center of the universe and that you can’t control everything that happens to you. That frees you to laugh about the silly or ridiculous aspects of your dilemma.

Loved ones can help you see the absurdity. The “CEO Dad” strip is born of Mr. Stern’s childhood perspective as the rebellious son of a powerful, work-focused executive. Over the years, his father’s businesslike demeanor became fodder for jokes at family gatherings, Mr. Stern says. Today, he and his father are close. “Humor became a form of real affection, and a symbol of our mutual understanding.”

Second, learn to take yourself lightly. Simply look in the mirror, advises Janie Jasin, a Minneapolis author and humorist. “Get out of the shower one day and take a look. Oh my word, ‘Even God’s design is funny.”

Though Allison Person’s heroine is blearily unconscious of the absurdity of her life, her most riveting moments come when she looks in the mirror. Only then does she see the spitup on her suit jacket, the mismatched bra and see-through blouse she put on in the dark while rushing around in the morning – clues to how overwrought her life has become.

Finally, Mr. Medcalf advises, cultivate a sense of joy in being alive. He carries a “Joy List,” a pocket notebook listing moments that made him smile or laugh.

He started his first Joy List after befriending a 13-year-old boy dying of lymphoma. One day the boy handed Mr. Metcalf a list of 113 memories of joyful, happy moments in his life, from Disneyland to camping. “Here, give this to my parents when I die,” Mr. Metcalf says the boy told him. “It’s all the fun I had I think my parents forgot.”

In their grieving, Mr. Metcalf says, the boy’s parents had focused on all he would miss. In his darkest time, the boy had wanted to remember the joy. That’s not a bad perspective for life in general.

© 2004 Stern Executive Search, Inc.