Talking about the medium chill and leaving work early … but still paying the bills

I am always tempted to complain, because it is hard to admit that you have it almost perfect, but my work/life balance is almost perfect.  I work short days, with fairly interesting projects at my day job, and hours with my wife and kids and time to write at night.  Oh, and I get paid enough not to worry about repo men and foreclosure.

Thank you Sweden.  Now if only you would learn how to smile …

The medium chill: This is a story from Grist last year, and I love it.  It goes into all the difficulties humans have with stepping off the fast track, eliminating possibilities and walking away from prestige and money.  And it praises relationships and time with family, while being realistic about the annoyances of being a little short of cash.  Even here in Sweden, E and I reach for the medium chill – small apartment, summer cottage with no water, no car, old stroller, not working 100 percent.  And we gain so much.  A quote:

That’s what consumer culture forever tells us: more money/stuff/status means fewer constraints, more freedom, more choices, thus more happiness. The entire economy runs on spending and debt, and for that to work everyone needs to think they’re not happy but could be happy if they just had more sh*t or a better job or a better house. Every “consumer” needs to be running on the treadmill, working toward the next thing.

But social psychologists tell a different story. They point out that there’s very little evidence that, once a certain base level of material security is achieved, more money and stuff make us happier. Gilbert offers one explanation: having fewer choices is often more conducive to synthetic happiness.

Her Key to Efficiency, Arrive Late, Leave Early:  This story tells an expat tale from Paris of a woman who discovered that she was more efficient with shorter work days.  Yes!  Having only six hours to get my job done means I leave very little time for screwing around.  Of course, it puts the pressure on too, but I’ll take that if I can unwind in the sun with my kids every afternoon.  Plus, there was this interesting tidbit about Dads. Once again, I find I am not unique:

More interestingly, she found a third category of men, who were successful in terms of performance evaluations and compensation, but who actually worked fewer hours and were unavailable for the office on evenings, weekends and vacations. These men subtly and skillfully chose the projects and clients that would allow more flexibility – and surrounded themselves with kindred spirits who would cover for one another. But they had also learned that it was better for their careers to remain discreet about their strategy, and so they weren’t role models for the rest.

Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek:  From Alternet, via Salon, this is a look at why we had the 40-hour workweek to begin with.  And guess what? It was not just labor being lazy.  It was business figuring out that workers work best when they have shorter days.  In the short run, we only get a little more done in hours 40-60, and over the long run, it’s a disaster. :

American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

Money Is the Root of All Parenting:  But don’t get poor!  Which seems obvious, but is perhaps a good message in the face of all these earthy work less links.  Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post talks about reports that show that parents lose it more when they are stressed and angry (of course).  And how to avoid that?  Don’t lose sleep about the car repair bill.  Don’t get frantic about bank overdraft fees.

Hard to pull that off if you are poor.  So how to help the poor, or more specifically, their children?

What, then, is the alternative? They start with a few suggestions: “stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be, they allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.”

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dreaming of bread, roses and joe hill in the stockholm subway

When we moved to Sweden three years ago, I stared every morning at a quote etched in the floor at the Näckrösen subway stop.  It was by Joe Hill, who I knew nothing about, but it was beautiful.  In English it goes something like this, “Give us not only bread, but roses too.”

It summed up everything I liked about Sweden, about the welfare state, about the reasons we more or less fled the New York City exurbs for a land of paid parental leave and universal healthcare.  I’ve meant to write about that quote for three years.  And yesterday I finally did at The Faster Times, where I am the news and politics editor and write the Big News column.

Here is the lede:

“Ninety-five years ago last week, the government of Utah murdered Joe Hill, lining him up and shooting him for a murder he might or might not have committed.

Hill was a labor activist and song writer, an immigrant with a checkered past, a fighter willing to dedicate his life to a cause – the kind of man the American left does not produce anymore, or if it does, the kind of man the American left ignores.

This is important with the rise of the passionate Tea Party and with the lack of a counterweight to the organized American right, with a president who wants to get things done, but seems to need to be led by the people, not to lead them.

Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, which happens to be my wife’s hometown.  His birthplace there is a museum, with a twisted tortured statue outside.  I visited the house years ago on a frigid February day, wracked with the flu on a failed travel book tryout.  The museum was closed, so I did not read then about the hard knock misery of 19th century Sweden, the kind of poverty that drove a quarter of the country to the United States.

But a Swedish February day was not a bad time to go – it helped me understand in a more visceral way why a man like Hill would wander into the American desert, fleeing all the darkness and illness that still drop like a veil over the country in the winter … with the world class safety net still decades away …”

You can finish the story here.

maximizing my childbirth vocabulary

In preparation for the birth of our second child, I learned lots of new words. Pregnancy words.  Labor words.

You know – umbilical cord, placenta, contraction, fetus.

Now our little boy is out sleeping (what a miracle) and eating and burping.

Not much use for those words, right?

Wrong.  I have too limited a vocabulary.  I must use everything.

There must be a way I can tastefully work them into my everday life.

Short of becoming a midwife, I am not sure how.

But I am going to try.

So if you are behind an American in the line at the store, and he seems to be working the word “cervix” into the conversation, that’s me.

Or if your consultant in Kista starts prattling on in a meeting about amniotic fluid, that’s me.

Or if you hear someone talking to another dad at the playground about placentas, well, that’s me.

In fact, anybody want to know what navel strang, livmoder and lustgas mean?

Just ask.  I am the expert.

it’s a boy!

So I am now a father of two!! E gave birth to a baby boy on January 26, and we are all home from the hospital and feeling fine.

Some impressions.

— From the family of no car — we actually took the bus to the hospital for our first visit, then had to run to catch it when going home. We took a taxi the second time around. Going home, we wanted to take the cab, but nobody had an infant car seat. And we didn’t want to wait to call around.

So we took the bus home. One day after birth. And then we went and got pizza on the way home.

E is my hero.

— From the bilingual family — I rode a wave of adrenaline and followed all the medical Swedish until after the birth. Then I zoned out and could not understand simple greetings. I now have even more respect for E giving birth in America and speaking English for four days of hell.

— From the country of equality — I would guess we had some contact with maybe 30 to 40 medical personnel through the whole birth process. And only three were men. I know OB/GYN is female-dominated in the US now too. But to this degree?

— From a couple a little traumatized by the care during E’s first labor — the staff was great. They usually have 16-17 births a day. On Tuesday it was 28. And we never noticed; they were so caring and professional. We had one midwife we didn’t like. I asked for a new one. We got a new one. Who was amazing.

— From parents worried about their toddler’s reaction to a new baby — we were prepared for NK to hate her new baby brother. But all she can do is tuck him in and hug him. She only gets mad when he can not play with her.

But there are limits. When E got up last night with the baby, NK woke up and looked over, seemed to think she had to take care of her little brother, and said:

“Too tired. Want bapu (her pacificer).”

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labor with a bad doctor in a bad hospital

E is in week 39 of her second pregnancy and careful not to slip on the icy streets of Stockholm.  In week 39 of her first pregnancy, it was summer in Port Jervis, New York.  It was hot, and we were excited and hopeful.

Now I am again excited and hopeful. But that has been a long journey, and, perhaps my greatest relief is that in week 39, we areI not in Port Jervis, that E’s doctor is not Tanya Paul and that she is not giving birth at Bon Secours Community Health Center.

With each day here in Sweden, we come to a deeper realization that E’s 75 hours of labor were not a nightmarish act of God but an act of negligence and incompetence and callousness by the medical professionals supposed to take care of us.

In general, America has a more medical attitude towards birth than Sweden, at least in the mainstream. And the mainstream mattered in Port Jervis.  We had no chance to hire a midwife or go to an earthy birthing center – there was not a midwife or birthing center in all of Orange County, New York – and E did not drive.

So we chose Bon Secours, the local hospital. Of course, nobody we heard of went there.  All fled somewhere else – Middletown, New Jersey, anywhere.  But we valued the walkability, that sense of access. We were being earthy in that sense, I guess.

So we went with Dr. Paul, who was one of two OB/GYNs in town. She was condescending during the pregnancy, if not overbearing, and showed no sensitivity to the fact that E was giving birth in a new country, in a new system. 

But, hey, she was new in town and from Brooklyn! She had worked in Syracuse! This was the level of our hope, our justifications. So we overlooked the problems and did what you are supposed to do – take birth classes at the hospital, do Lamaze, simply assume a moderate level of suburban care (except we were in the exurbs, or, really, in rural upstate — ahh, the miscalcuations).

After labor started, we heard nothing from Dr. Paul as early labor stretched from hours into days. After 24 hours of hard early labor, we showed up at the hospital only to be met by surly nurses and dark rooms. They looked at us with disbelief, not compassion. They told us nothing, shrugging their shoulders at best. The cycle of fear and tension had begun.

Over the following days, and three trips to the hospital, Iza received no basic medical care, no information and no support.

At some point Dr. Paul went off call, and, on our final hospital visit, we got a doctor we had never met before and who was brutal and angry. The details of the final hours get too personal but it was a horror.

Finally, after the birth, three different doctors did not tell us whether we had a girl or boy. E spent an hour thinking she had a son. 

Before the birth, we created a birth plan with the head nurse. We said the most important thing was that E hold the baby after birth. Then I had to order the doctors to let Iza touch the baby. And even this turned into a momentary drive-by, the briefest glance of finger on cheek.

They did not bring NK to E for another three-and-a-half hours. They told us NK was sick, but their paperwork, which we got when we moved, says that NK was not sick. It explicitly says this wait is standard procedure, like something out of the Stone Age.

It was 75 hours of trauma. For a long time, we thought we were unlucky, doomed by a combination of both bad care and a bad medical situation. Now we know better. Now we know that if the doctors and nurses had been clear, engaged and warm … well, then the whole labor might have been different.

As it was, those days were redeemed only by the wonder and glow of meeting NK, who stared into our eyes and transfixed us with love.

And, hey, the special meal we got two days later.  That was wonderful.  And the room had a wonderful view over the Delaware River. Props to Bon Secours!!

Here in Sweden, we talk to person after person, make our wishes known, set our conditions over and over again.

And, yes, I am well aware that the Swedish system has its weak points.  And I know that if you find the right doctor or midwife or doula, childbirth in the US can be wonderful.

But we did not live in the right place or near the right doctor. We lived in Port Jervis in Orange County in the State of New York. Our doctor was Tanya Paul (who has since built a mini-empire in western Orange County) and our hospital was Bon Secours.

So, as we work through our past, and face our immediate future, we repeat a mantra we hear from all the midwives and staff.

Things are better here.

It can not be as bad as last time.