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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Guilt as a motivating force
December 18, 2008 - 2:48pm

Elizabeth Coffman posted a nice discussion on the guilt(s) associated with bicoastal marriages involving children. The "mommy guilt" and also the "carbon guilt". She's dealing with the latter, at least in part, by participating in a biodiesel generation and utilization project where she teaches (kudos, Elizabeth). But for the former, distraction seems to be the least-bad available option.

Let me say, right up front, that Coffman almost certainly has more time, money and effort invested in preparations for her career than I do. The prerequisites for faculty status are an order of magnitude higher than those for most staff positions, even the highly technical ones. So her cost/benefit calculation, in terms of career vs. family, will come out far different from mine. Still, let me say a little about how my calculation -- and I very consciously made one -- came out.

Through my kids' early childhoods, my lifestyle probably approximated Coffman's -- at least, in terms of time away from the family. I didn't have a full-time job on the opposite coast, but I traveled a lot. I was on the road 36 - 40 weeks a year, and annually collected premium-level frequent flier points on several different airlines. Being a "road warrior" was demanding, but also remunerative. I enjoyed what I did for a living, and I felt that the work was important. I presume that all those things are true for Coffman, as for most participants in bicoastal marriages.

What I slowly came to realize, though, was the cost to my family (mostly, my kids). As my children approached adolescence, the tenuousness of their relationships with me became increasingly evident. When I was home, I spent a great deal of time with them -- reading to them, preparing meals with them, going camping together, doing chores and school projects with them, attending their events, teaching them how to live on the farm and in the woods. But nothing I could do in the 25% of the year I was home could make up for my absence the other 75% of the time. So I made a decision, I did some planning, I found a job that let me stay local year-round, and I took a 40% hit to income. I never made a better decision in my life.

In a very real sense, my decision to prioritize family over career was an early step on my road to a sustainability career. Not just because it led to my employment at Greenback, but because it was based on a conscious decision about priorities. The decision about what's really important that I made at an individual level is, in many ways, similar to the decision about what's really important that our country and our society need to make if we're going to mitigate the impacts of climate disruption. It wasn't easy for me -- I probably won't ever get back to my road-warrior income level in real dollars -- and it will be far harder on a societal level. But I did it because I love my children. And I do what I do now, in large part, for the same reason.


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