Nobody in the press wanted to call Rep. Bill Paxon a liar last month when he announced that he was quitting his day job (plotting and scheming against the House Republican leadership) to spend more time with his family--toddler Suby and wife Susan Molinari. Less than a year ago, Molinari left her seat in the House to become a TV anchor and, according to news reports, to spend more time with her family.
So reluctant were reporters to call Paxon a prevaricator that most of them waited a decent interval--a few paragraphs--before reporting the apparent reason for Paxon's resignation: His challenge to Majority Leader Dick Armey was doomed and he faced a career as a Republican backbencher, a fate the ambitious pol apparently couldn't face.
A Nexis dump indicates that at least twice a day somebody tells the press he or she has swapped the horrors of work for the bliss of family. In one recent week:
A Baptist minister in North Carolina (who was in hot water for performing a gay marriage ceremony) doffed his collar to spend more time with the missus.
The CFOs of both the New York Times Co. and Kaiser Permanente copped the family plea when they left their jobs--though a Kaiser Permanente spokesman felt it necessary to add that the resignation was unrelated to a $270 million loss in 1997.
Three coaches hung up their clipboards, one software CEO stored his last file, and a village board member cast her last vote because they allegedly wanted more time with their loved ones.
Obviously, I don't think all these fine individuals are lying about their motives. It's safe to say that in the course of a year, perhaps two or three people on the planet really do quit so they can watch their kids grow up. Another half-dozen or so may be deceiving themselves rather than us, individuals such as the mayor of Delray Beach, Fla., Tom Lynch. Lynch quit in 1996 because he wanted more time with his family and his business. Lynch has since learned that the sure cure for wanting to spend more time with your family is spending more time with your family: He's just thrown his hat in the ring for the Delray Beach School Board.
Many tender the family alibi because they're ashamed of having been fired, or embarrassed to admit that they've conceded defeat to the god of success (Paxon's case, I'm sure), or because they're going nuts on the job. By citing family, the worker neutralizes the stigma and efficiently blocks further questions. No responsible reporter will allege a firing if she can't prove it, because that would risk a libel suit. Besides, only a pit bull would continue to tear into the flesh of a foe that has rolled over on its back to signal surrender.
In Washington, the time-honored lie is to pair a new interest in one's family with a profound disgust for the system. Or to say that you want to get back to the "real people." Vin Weber left the House of Representatives in 1992 rather than face the "vicious, negative, and highly personal campaign" he saw looming. Today, Weber labors in the genial, positive, and highly impersonal business of lobbying, with clients like Microsoft, ITT, and Boeing. Then there's the Rev. Al Sharpton's variation: Last week he announced that he would not seek office this year because he wants to spend more time on civil rights issues.
(I fed the family alibi to the Washington Post when I quit my Washington job in 1994. I did, however, add that I had failed to acquire a family, and I hoped to secure a wife and two children as soon as possible so we could spend more time together.)
A nother indemnifying exit strategy is to claim that you're seeking "new opportunities," without naming them. This excuse usually appears in the form of a corporate press release, because nobody can keep a straight face when it's spoken out loud. In a more honest world, it wouldn't be tacky for titans of industry to say they're leaving to pursue a fully deployed golden parachute as they bail out.
The person who actually does quit to spend more time with the family may discover that paid work is almost always more rewarding than the "tedious work" of child rearing. Or so says Arlie Hochschild in The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. The modern home is like an assembly-line factory, with an endless stream of clothes to clean and kids to shuttle and broken windows to fix and meals to cook. Why not escape the noise and the pressure of being a Superadult for the rewards of the workplace, where supervisors are trained to understand you?
Let's call Paxon's bluff and see if he stays close to home to nurture Suby or takes another demanding job. Of course, I'm betting on the demanding job. During the farewell tour of his legislative district, Paxon indicated the depth of his enthusiasm in raising Suby when he let Molinari change the diaper as their plane touched down in Buffalo, N.Y. His technique is "too methodical and slow," she said.
My hero, though, is Richard Heseltine, the chairman of the Overseas Investment Trust, who resigned earlier this month in opposition to the business plan forced on him by his superiors. Heseltine declined to enumerate his disagreements with his bosses but said: "Put it this way, it's nothing to do with ill health, it's not to pursue other interests, it's not to spend more time with my family."