Episode 86: Work and Intimacy (part 1)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time we re-visit a guest some of you first met three years ago. She is eloquent on a topic most of us don’t discuss – and you certainly won’t read about it in books or articles on professional women…

“Yes we’ve gained ground, and yes we have more important positions and we’re more influential. But the price is that we are working more and many of us are working for less money, and that takes a toll on people’s self-practices including paying attention to their intimate lives.”

Yup – Evelyn Resh is back to talk about the negative affect our work culture can have on our relationships, and what we can do about it.

So if you didn’t hear my original show with sexuality counselor and author Evelyn Resh I’m actually going suggest you hit pause on this show and go and download or play that original show first – it’s number 19, I repeated it as show 38, and it’s called Women, Work, and Sex. It’s a great introduction to Evelyn to why I wanted to talk about sex in the context of a podcast like this one.

But the thing with this show is it’s not just about our working lives, it’s about our lives. And work affects so many aspects of life – including our sex lives. And for the more reticent among you, no, this isn’t about to turn into the Dan Savage sex podcast. Evelyn is a nurse-midwife and she comes at this from her position as someone who cares deeply about women’s health and also women’s ability to take pleasure in life. All types of pleasure. And she says our 24/7 culture has pretty much eroded our relationship to slow enjoyment of everyday things, something as simple as sitting with your coffee rather than grabbing it on the go.

We had a long conversation and what I’m doing is dividing it into two shows. So I’ll release the next part of our discussion next week so you won’t have to wait a full two weeks for that one.

And just to let you know I spoke to Evelyn by phone which isn’t my usual practice because the quality isn’t great. Evelyn lives in a rural part of Massachusetts and there’s no cell service so she didn’t have an iPhone to tape her end of the conversation, we tried Skype a few times but there was a ringing on the line that would have driven you mad. So in the end we used her landline.

I started off by asking her to describe her work. It has changed a bit since I last spoke to her. She recently got her second master’s degree in nursing education. And these days she’s taking care of pregnant women and women needing gynecological care. And quite a few of them have drug problems.

“I have a very large percentage of people, actually 30%, who are opioid addicted and need an enormous amount of health education – and that’s just from my maternity caseload, not even from my gynecological case load. So I’m doing a lot of addiction medicine, a lot of primary care, a lot of health education, every single day on a myriad of subjects. And sexual health is tied into just all of it. And then the remainder of my practice is very mixed between professional people, working class clientele and a working poor.”

She commutes an hour each way by car. And she is pretty wiped out when she gets home. So she does understand how much work can take out of you. I reminded her of what we’d discussed last time – the fact that a lot women give too much to our work…

AM-T: “...and you talked about their sense of obligation to their jobs…and how we could all feel less responsible to work and probably not be fired, but then I know you yourself have fallen into that trap in recent years, right?”

“Yes, it’s been very stressful. And it’s been interesting to live the experience of women who’ve come to see me for care…and then write about it from my own perspective as well as have it seasoned and sprinkled and adorned by their own experience. I feel what’s happening in the workplace for professional women is yes we’ve gained ground, yes we have more important positions and are more influential…but there’s a price to be paid with that. And the price is we are working more and many of us are working for less money, even if our status has shifted and gotten higher, and that takes a toll on people’s self-care practices…including paying attention to their intimate lives. Because what women will do is prune and snip and take away from that seat of power which is their primary relationship, their loving relationship. Because they’ll feel often – and sometimes this is true but after a certain point it isn’t – that with that sturdy seat of power, they can afford to do that. But if they do it for too long and they do it too often their sense of gravity starts to shift.”   

AM-T: “Yeah, I re-listened to the show we did a few years ago and it’s still so fresh. Everything you talked about is so true and I’m sure it’s true of a lot of people listening who perhaps have jobs, and kids, and a partner, and as you said in that show, the partner gets less, they end up putting the partner last.”

“They do, and what’s interesting about this and difficult is that it impacts the quality of life across the board for women. One of the things that also gets interfered with consistently are self-care practices and I see their intimate life as an aspect of self-care. Because generally speaking women will say to me you know when we are intimate I feel so much better and ask myself over and over again why don’t we do this more often…I feel good the next day, reenergized, connected, they go off and they feel more positive, and then more and more days go by and it becomes a month and it becomes six week and people haven’t tended to their intimate lives, and the cycle starts all over again.”

AM-T: “And then – for instance, OK, I know somebody who has said…'I just, sex, it’s the last thing on my list.' She has a really busy job here in New York. She has a husband, she has two below the age of ten children, and she’s like, 'yep, I can’t be bothered, I don’t want it.'”

“I hear this from people often, then they’ll come to me, they’ll want some sort of magic bullet about how do I resurrect this, how do I want this more, how do I engage more? And I say in order to do this, you have to prioritize it. And it’s a disciplined practice. Just like your exercise schedule is or paying attention to having a sound diet or getting to bed early enough or turning off your communication device – you have to decide how important is it to you…and then they say oh, it’s very important, but it’s not as important as they identified it as being. And then they wonder 2 or 3 years afterwards why has their relationship fallen to pieces. They say oh, I had no idea, I didn’t see this coming – and I say, yeah, you did, you came to me 3 years ago, you knew this was an important piece. And this isn’t to say – in any relationship whether same sex or heterosexual – I’ll often hear from heterosexual women well that’s all he wants, he’s constantly coming after me. And I have worked with too many men to believe that’s the case for most men. Most men I have worked with who are heterosexual deeply love their partner, are not chasing them down like wild dogs, what they’re doing is saying I really miss you, I miss this contact…and I want you to pay more attention to me than you’re paying to work, to our children, to your girlfriends, to your family and oh, postscript, your mate.”

AM-T: “And I suppose I should say or we should say that for instance after the last show ran I got a comment from a guy saying, you should know it’s not just women who feel this way because of work.”

“Oh, I think that’s true and the other factor that’s involved in this since you and I first spoke is I too am older I’m 57, I’m really feeling it, and my age-match peers who are professional people are feeling it, and we often talk about how at the end of the day all we have anything left for is to come home, think about what do we want to put on our toast for dinner and then decide what we need to zone out on for an hour and a half of TV before we go to sleep and start all over again. And men are absolutely feeling this way. But what has happened in the American culture is work has taken such a central stage and the second stage is children, that American couples are living in sexless marriages everywhere. And my feeling is it’s not good for families, it’s not good for children and it’s definitely not good in terms of how we perceive our work. Because what ends up happening is people crack and they say I can’t do this any more. And you lose an entire pool of talented people because the system that they’re trying to function in is really not a system that is health promoting or joyful. It’s productivity promoting, it’s focused on getting the job done, but that’s not the only thing that’s happening in people’s lives. And when they start taking these hits at the end of the day when they come home or when they start the day and they leave the house after they’ve had so much bickering or some big blowup, it doesn’t make for a very productive worker.”

AM-T: “Right, and you know as you were talking and talking about America in particular, I have quite a lot of listeners in other countries, I mean I wonder if my listeners in Sweden have sexier marriages than American couples for instance, because of course work cultures are different in different parts of the world and they’re not as intense in France and some of the Scandinavian countries that have shorter work days and more of an emphasis on family life.”           

“Well and what’s interesting is not only do they have shorter work day and more time for holiday time, they also have more productivity. So what’s fascinating to me is we have so much research-based evidence to confirm that workers are more productive when they have more time off and shorter work weeks, and yet in the American system of work we see people put in 12, 14, 15 hour days. And because I work in the ob/gyn world and clinical medicine in general, I’m very familiar with people needing to take call.”

Meaning being on call.

“And I took call for years. And what comes on call is catastrophic, and I see my ob/gyn colleagues working incredibly hard, making life and death decisions when they’re on call. It’s very serious work, and they’re exhausted. And they do get more time off than I do because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function at all. But even if you’re not on call and you’re working 10-15 hours a day every day and you only get 3 weeks off a year, that’s just plain wrong, and it’s unhealthy. So it’s a curious thing that goes on in the Unites States, because we have lots of good evidence from other parts of the world that productivity would improve, and family life would improve, and yet we persist with this two or three weeks off a year and people working long days and long hours.”

That discussion about European attitudes led us down a side route, talking about how much more evolved countries like the Netherlands are in educating their young about sex – the result is many fewer teenage pregnancies compared to the US. And she says that lack of sex education in America – it raises its head even when she’s working with middle-aged patients…

“These are professional women I’ll work with sometimes who are CEOs of companies, and my population is quite diversified, I still actually work at work at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, which is a destination wellness spa, a very elite population, very upper class, these people are very bright, well educated, and they’ll have conversations with me that are positively confounding. I’ll think to myself how is it you’ve had your whole life to learn this and still at 52 you have no idea really of what you’re talking about?”

AM-T: “Can you give me an example?”

“OK, so I’ll give you a perfect example. I had a woman who was the CEO of a very large company, she had a very demanding, serious job. She had been recently divorced and had reentered the dating scene and she had multiple partners now, she was taking a more recreational approach to her sexual activity than she had when she was married and earlier in life. And she was not post-menopausal so she absolutely needed contraception still and she wasn’t using a condom and she asked me well, why would I do that. And I said, well your risk of being exposed to sexually transmitted infections is significantly higher, and you could get pregnant. And she said, well I’m not gonna get pregnant, I’m 50. And I said well, that is actually not the case, and this could be a crisis for you, in terms of your heath, your wellness and the stability of your life. And she had absolutely no idea. And in that regard in terms of condom use I see a lot more wisdom amongst my teenagers than I do amongst my middle aged women who are professional people.”

And that discussion about knowledge and planning reminded her of something else…

“And you know this leads us down a different tributary around women and work and I think you’ll get considerable pushback from this statement I’m about to make but I feel really compelled to make it, because it’s really a women’s health issue and it affects work dramatically. And that is that we have more and more women who are delaying their reproductive lives, who are starting their pregnancies, first pregnancies, at 38, 39, 41 which is very complicated, and puts them at significantly higher risk. And now what I’m doing in my work is something I never imagined. Which is I’m saying to women in their 20s, what are your plans for having a family?” 

They respond, oh, I’m not gonna be thinking about that for ages. And Evelyn pushes back…

“Because I need you to consider starting your family in your mid-twenties, so a) you have time for child spacing…”

b) you can be sure your fertility is at its best…

 “And c) you’re not so exhausted. You need your stamina. And they’re absolutely stunned. And the reason I say this is that I work with professional women who have very demanding jobs, they have their first baby at 34 and they’re ready to fall over in a heap, between dealing with the responsibilities of their children, dealing with the demands of their job and trying to attend to their marriages. So there’s a planning problem here that people aren’t recognizing, because they say, well, I want to get really established in my career. And while I’m sensitive to that I also know that people can be established in their career or be reestablished in their career at pretty much any point in their lives. But they cannot rely on their eggs nor their stamina at any point in their lives.”

I’m not sure how easy it is to reestablish yourself in a career, actually – and I think that’s why so many women wait.

Now I have to admit I was squirming when Evelyn was talking about this. Not because of the career part but because not all of us have partners when we’re in our twenties. Or even in our thirties. How many of us have been in that situation where you thought perhaps you could see family life on the horizon and then…something happens, and you break up.

AM-T: “I always say this, we don’t all have neat and tidy lives that fit into this pretty box where everything’s done and dusted when you’re 29. I certainly never wanted to put off having a kid but life happens to some of us and you don’t have the opportunity to have children when you’re even 34.”

“Oh, it’s absolutely true and this is the complexity of raising this issue when I see them. But this has become a cultural shift in terms of priority also. The priority has been in educated women becoming increasingly educated and focusing more and more on their professions and less and less on motherhood or on marriages, and I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m saying one of the consequences of that is what I’m talking about. Which is I’m seeing women at 34, or 35 who are starting their families and up against an enormous constellation of risk factors. And it’s an interesting tradeoff.

At 57 I so remember when Ms. Magazine first hit the newsstand, and the feminist movement was gaining ground. You know, what I heard from the feminist movement was not that I needed to everything I wanted to do, but that now I had a choice to do what I wanted to do. And I think what’s happened for a lot of women is the message they’ve gotten is well, you can do it all, you can do everything, and my contention is, not really, and be able to maintain the most important pieces and parts. Because it’s too splitting to us. And our work environment in the United States doesn’t help us do many things except for work. So women are faced with a really complex choice.”

I’m going to let you give the feedback on that. I’m curious to hear from people who did have children later about how that’s working out – and especially how much you and your partner divide all the kid and home responsibilities. That’s something else Evelyn and I touched on last time.

Next time, things get personal. Evelyn’s work has been intense lately, and she has not been taking her own advice about tending to her relationship. She still sends out a regular email blast to her followers about all things sexual, but her spouse is not impressed…

“Sometimes she’ll say to me really, how honest are you gonna be with them? It’s been five weeks - and you’re gonna be writing something about sex as if you’re an expert?”

That’s next time on The Broad Experience. Along with a lot of other stuff.

Evelyn is the author of two books – the Secret Lives of Teen Girls and Women, Sex, Power and Pleasure.

She and I will be back next week.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you then.