Every guy with a family feels the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive. At least, sometimes.
A client told me that – a straight guy with kids. I don’t think it’s a straight thing, though. It might not be a guy thing, either. It can be a lawyer thing. Any lawyer with loans experiences the impulse to hit the highway.
When you’re “The Provider,” you do constant battle with the itch to hightail it out of town.
Who’s “The Provider”? It’s someone you morph into. A character from an Updike novel…or maybe it’s Cheever. Maybe it’s Mad Men. You become a cliché from 1950’s or early 60’s tv shows: Dad, who arrives home, pecks the wife on the cheek, tousles the kids’ hair, then collapses into a La-Z-Boy and reads the paper while the golden retriever fetches your bedroom slippers.
…Except it sucks bad enough that you’re feeling the urge to pack a bag, get in the car and drive.
I’m not saying getting married and having kids is terrible. That’s how you got into this mess – you want the wife and the kids. As one of my clients bemoaned, “I want to be a good father. I want to be a good husband. I just can’t pull it off with this job, and it’s killing me.”
The problem is trying to be a lawyer and The Provider at the same time. That’s the part that doesn’t work.
The basic principle, when you’re The Provider, is simple: you pay for everything. This has a certain seductive quality. Many lawyers get into this work because they want to be The Provider. Maybe your father didn’t earn much, and mom had to work and hated it. Or there simply wasn’t enough money to go around. Or you’re the first in your family to go to college or grad school – or earn six figures. It’s a thrill, making it up there, conquering a new plateau of stability and social achievement. You want to bring everyone else up with you.
Or maybe this is what everyone’s always expected of you because it’s what they expected of themselves. You’ll be like dad, or your father-in-law. They were The Providers in their day. They pulled it off. Why can’t you?
It’s easy to get sucked in. You’ll have a big house, a few kids – maybe some leftover cash to lavish on mom and dad. “Let me fill your tank,” you’ll offer, without a care. “You deserve it.”
The Provider wants to “have it all,” “live the dream.” That stuff.
If you try to be The Provider, you could wind up standing next to my client on the train platform at 7 am in a fat cat town like Greenwich or Stamford or Bronxville, clutching a briefcase, waiting for the express to Grand Central and your mid-town office.
That’s okay. You want that, too.
It’s later on, when things turn sour.
The partner drops a nightmare assignment on you, then takes off at 5 pm. Now you can’t go home. By 11 pm, you’re red-eyed and shaky in a mostly-empty office, fighting off a freak-out and trying to give that sonofabitch whatever it is he wants “on my desk tomorrow morning first thing.” The hours tick by. You ache for home, for bed – like a normal person. At that point, The Provider doesn’t care about the chunk of a purchase agreement that needs to be re-drafted, or that question about the indemnity provision that needs to be worked through. The Provider wants to collapse on the floor and sob.
When you call home to the wife to say you’re stuck at work, she sounds patient, but annoyed.
At some point, your dreams bifurcated. She still wants all the stuff you used to want together. But now she wants more of it. Another child. A bigger house. Private schools. A vacation with the family to the Bahamas. A Mercedes. Summer camp for the kids.
You want to sleep – and to quit this god-awful job. But you know you can’t. Ever.
This job, this miserable, thankless law firm job, makes her dream possible. This job makes The Provider possible. This job makes everything possible for everyone. Except you.
When you get home, you find himself yelling at the wife. She’s pregnant with another kid – the second or third – and you’re screaming at her that another kid was her idea and she doesn’t understand you can’t do it anymore and there isn’t enough money and you don’t want to go to your parents and ask for more money or let her parents pay for things because it makes you sick and why can’t she stop and think before she promises to buy the kid an iPad for his 8th birthday, you can’t afford it and why doesn’t she get that through her thick skull!?!?
Then you slink off, pop a Xanax and attempt to breathe. The bad feelings come – remorse for being someone you don’t want to be, the beast husband-father who screams and storms around the house and your little daughter looks scared of you, which hurts more than anything.
You fight the urge to pack a bag, get in the car, and drive.
You don’t respect the wife. Maybe that’s unfair. She keeps a clean house. She does the shopping. But there’s a housekeeper. You pay for the housekeeper. And the wife sits at home with the kids and does her little part-time job, but that’s it. When the weekend comes, she’s complaining she has the kids all week, so it’s your turn to take over. She needs to go out with her friends or she’ll lose her mind. Then, in the middle of the night, the baby’s squalling – and it’s the same fucking thing – she takes care of the baby all day and she needs a break, so you should get up and try to make it stop screaming. Like you don’t need a break? Like you get any fucking sleep? But that’s unfair. You need to cool down. You don’t know anymore. Is anything fair?
You have to stop yelling. That’s not you. Keep your cool.
Kids need and need – that’s what kids do, especially the baby. They can’t care for themselves. But she has to do a something more, doesn’t she? You’re at that damned, god-awful, fucking miserable lousy law firm all day and night and she doesn’t even know what that means. Why can’t she get it through her head you can’t take this anymore!
No one gets it.
How could anyone, who hasn’t been there, imagine the misery of big law? They think you’re being dramatic; it’s just a corporate job, right? The other husbands keep their cool. Why can’t you snap out of it and do what’s expected of you – what even you expected of you…
You tried lateraling into another firm. This job is the other firm. No one’s making partner. The new plan is to go in-house eventually, but they want 10th years (because they can) and you’re only a 7th year, and they want specialists (because they can) and you’ve changed “specialities” twice and at this point you know you’re kidding yourself: You want out of law. But you have no idea what you really want to do. You were a fucking Philosophy major, for Chrissake. Nothing else would earn this money, which pays for…everything.
You look into the wife’s eyes this morning and realize she thinks this is how it’s supposed to be. Her father took the train into the City every day and earned a good salary so they lived nicely – like everyone else in town. He never made it such an ordeal.
She’s keeping her end of the bargain. She puts up with you coming back after midnight and going in on weekends, stomping and snapping when you get home, refusing to do a simple thing like drive the kids to practice or get up when the baby cries – act like a father to your own kids.
The alliance is frayed. She’s living a dream that’s crumbled in your hands and run out between your fingers. You’re anxious. All the time. That’s the effect of a law firm.
You’re also angry, very, very angry. It’s supposed to be gratifying, being The Provider. But it’s like slogging through a swamp, covered in leaches. Every single god-damned cent gone before you earn it. Enough with the accusatory looks. No, I’m not accepting money from your god-damned parents.
The Provider fantasy doesn’t work – not for the lawyers I’ve met. Maybe an i-banker with fuck-you money can pull it off, or a rich doctor. A zillionaire partner. But they’re on their second wife by the time they’re forty. For most big firm lawyers, The Provider is a dead end. You stop wanting to do it, so you resent it. You want out of this box. Now.
You want to pack a bag, get in the car, and drive.
Re-frame your life as a series of conscious choices. Ask yourself if you want to be doing what you’re doing.
I know. You might have to scale things down. Your spouse might not like that. The kids might not like that.
You’re not a golden goose. You’re a person, not The Provider. If they don’t see that reality, and recognize the price you’re paying to protect them from the real world, then the Provider might actually pack a bag, hop in the car – and keep driving.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)