Last week I took part in the worst radio interview. Ever.
A couple of days earlier, an American journalist who had just seen my TED speech on work/life balance emailed me, saying he wanted to interview me on his drive-time radio show about men taking career breaks.
Given that I’m currently on my third career break and have just had a book published (Fit, Fifty and Fired-Up) about that very subject, I quickly agreed.
Cut to the day itself: “We welcome Nigel Marsh from Australia to the show. Thanks for getting up so early, Nigel. Let’s get straight to it: why do you advise our male listeners to take a career break to stay at home?”
“Err… I wouldn’t. I don’t know any and in many cases I’m sure leaving their job to stay at home would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.”
I waited for him to ask me to elaborate on my views. Instead, after a buttock–clenchingly awkward silence, he cut to a commercial break and we proceeded to have an argument off-air, after which he wouldn’t let me back on air. Oh well, maybe I’ll conquer America next year.
There’s a serious point to the story. I continually meet people who want me to parrot a simple “all men should take a year off” mantra. I refuse, as I believe the issue is a complex one and warrants a more thorough and thoughtful analysis.
So this is what I intended to say if he had continued the interview with a “please explain” question.
Most people can ill afford to take time off from their work. Even if they can afford it in the short term, it can have a seriously negative impact on their future career prospects and earning potential.
If the financial side of things is covered, I still advise caution. Many men who talk to me have a tendency to romanticise the wonderful life they could live if they didn’t have to go the office.
I describe the frequent loneliness, uncertainty, lack of structure, fall in status and never-ending domestic tasks that can be a real shock to a man who has only ever ploughed the corporate path.
Even if all the above doesn’t put you off, I still don’t recommend anyone does it unless they have got to the bottom of what their partner feels about it. And I don’t mean what they say has to be supportive; I mean it has to be what they truly feel in their heart.
The effect on your wife
Every case is different, so it is impossible to generalise for readers and listeners. But assume for a moment one of them is a married man who up until now has been the breadwinner while his partner has taken on responsibility for bringing up the kids and running the home.
I would be at pains to warn him of the devastating effect taking a career break could have on his wife. She may be enormously uncomfortable with having her space at home invaded by a newly SAHD, or stay-at-home dad.
Indeed, one mum told me it felt like she had been fired from her job when her husband was fired from his. If the unwritten agreement was that he would earn the money, it’s not unreasonable that his partner might not appreciate him reneging on the deal without properly consulting her.
While the decision to break free from the joyless grind of the hamster wheel could be invigorating and life affirming for him, it could be depressing and frustrating for her.
There is also one other sensitive topic, and there’s no gentle way to put this. It is entirely possible that his partner won’t be as attracted to him if he stops work. I’m not talking here about the tiny unrepresentative minority of women who view their husbands as walking wallets and run for the hills when things go wrong. I’m talking about real, rounded, loving, intelligent people.
If the person they fell for 20 years ago was a thrusting corporate warrior, it can take a bit of adjustment to feel the same way about him once he’s turned into bread-baking, school run-organising homebody.
Some people, however subconsciously, need to see their partners striding out of the door, masterfully carrying a laptop case, to find them appealing. (It’s not by chance that the lead character in 50 Shades of Grey is written as a CEO not a SAHD.) And I’m not blaming them. Everyone is different.
While I like to believe that in the real world people grow in love rather than fall in love and change is a good thing, not everyone does. Nor should they. The bottom line is, however much you might want a break, your partner might not want you at home.
That’s not to say you should stay in a soul destroying job for the next ten years just so you can get your leg over. But it is to say that your partner’s perspective needs to be thoroughly examined before you do anything drastic.
Having said all that, if you still want to make the leap, I truly believe it can be the best, most joyous, decision you ever make, both for your soul and your relationship. But hey, I would say that wouldn’t I?
I humbly reckon that would have made a far better interview than the five-second version the people of Boston actually got.
Read part one of this article: Fat, fifty and fired up: how Nigel Marsh transformed himself
Watch Nigel’s TED talk: How to make work-life balance work