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Our Families’ Tales Can Speak Volumes About How We Work
April 1998 By Sue Shellenbarger
One sunny day in 1929, six-year-old William N. Sirois walked with his mother Martha to the gates of the Lewiston, Maine, mill where she worked. He watched as she crossed a footbridge to the door of the mill, turned and waved to him, smiling. Then she reported to her seven-day-a-week job spinning textiles.
It was the last time Mr. Sirois saw his mother. Hours later, she collapsed on the job and died of a ruptured appendix. She had ignored her warning pains because the company fired anyone who missed work for any reason. With the Depression beginning, Mrs. Sirois couldn’t afford to lose her job. That final image of his mother, smiling and waving in the sunshine, was one Mr. Sirois carried with him throughout his life.
Nearly 70 years later, Mr. Sirois’s son, William G. Sirois, still centers career on the issues raised by that family story. As chief operating officer of Circadian Technologies Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., shift-work consultant, he helps companies set up humane and effective workplaces. Though the younger Mr. Sirois didn’t think about his grandmother when he chose his life’s work, he says he suspects her experience was an unconscious factor.
Among all the ways family and work affect each other, the influence of family history on work-life choices is among the most interesting. Yet Americans rarely talk about it, seeing ourselves instead as free agents who can leave our families behind, if we choose, and get on with our lives on our own terms.
Family history helps shape our choices in relationships. Beth Sirull’s father encouraged her mother to pursue a career in law, an unusual stance for a man of his generation. Then her father supported her mother’s wish to enroll, at age 65, in a Yiddish Studies program at Oxford University in England. Similarly, Ms. Sirull’s own husband has supported her pursuit of her dreams, first to quit her job and start her own Oak Park, Ill., marketing firm, then to write a book.
The influence of family experiences can extend several generations. Debby Hall’s grandmother was one of the first telephone operators in the early 1900s. Her mother helped run a family poultry business and retired at 83. No wonder Ms. Hall, a vice president for Prudential Insurance Co. of America. says, “It never occurred to me not to work.”
Family history also explains some unconventional work-life choices. Former American Express Co. President Jeffrey Stiefler and Silicon Graphics Inc. co-founder and chief engineer Rocky Rhodes stunned acquaintances by abruptly resigning or sharply scaling back powerful careers at their peaks. Both men felt their time with their fathers had been cut short by premature death. Informed by the loss of their fathers, each acted to nail down more time with family, before it was too late.
The power of family history is explained in family systems theory, a psychological perspective developed by pioneering therapist Murray Bowen in the 1970s and popularized by author-therapist Monica McGoldrick in her 1995 book, “You Can Go Home Again.” This set of principles holds that people and their problems don’t exist in a vacuum, but as part of a broad family system. Like all systems, changes in one part of the family system affect other parts. Family patterns of working, relating and dealing with stress can reverberate through generations.
Understanding family systems theory isn’t just an exercise. It heeds George Santayana’s warning that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Dr. McGoldrick, director of the Family Institute of New Jersey, says understanding the past can free you to change your future. She encourages people to become researchers on family history. “Look for transformative stories” – instances when a family member reacted to a bad or traumatic event in a creative, constructive or healing way- “or ways to make stories into something transformative for yourself.”
Consciously or unconsciously, many people strive to transform family history. Evan Imber-Black, a Manhattan family therapist and author of “The Secret Life of Families,” tells of a man realized he became a policeman to address the sins of his grandfather, whose crime sprees had shamed the family..
Old family stories can explain the special meaning some people derive from their work. While the younger Mr. Sirois had other jobs, as an engineer and a consultant on productivity and ergonomics, “something just magically clicked” when he began shift-work consulting in 1992, he says. “It all made so much sense. It was about stopping building workplaces that hurt people.”
Reflecting on family experiences also can help solve what is for many, a puzzle: how to balance work and life. Valerie Young was commuting far to a corporate job she disliked when her mother, a university janitor, died of a heart attack at age 61 – just five months before her long-anticipated retirement. Four months later, Dr. Young quit her job. Now, she runs her own Montague, MAss., publishing, consulting and training firm. In that, she has gained a sense of control and fulfillment her mother never had, she says.
“She died with a million projects she was still going to do. In my attic I still have boxes of her recipes, pieces of quilts she was going to put together someday.” By reordering her life so she could enjoy it in the present, she says, “I feel like I honor my mother.”