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Gone are the days when a bread-earning husband could work a forty hour week, come home to a leisurely hot dinner, followed by warm slippers, a smoking pipe and time to dandle his kids on his knee.

That was the Stay-At-Home-Mom (SAHM) package they sold you in the 1950s, wasn’t it? Even old June Cleaver had a few minutes to starch up a dress and slap on some lip gloss before having metaphysical dialogues with Wally and Beaver over the morning pancakes.

The new millennium, coupled with the euphemistically described “economic downturn” (which, in fact, went south faster than a speeding bullet), has made Oliver Twist’s workhouse look like a family holiday at Sanderlings.

Employers are now making offers a bread-earner can’t refuse—like the “two-for-one” package. It means the employee works eighty hour weeks at the office and the wife gets to work overtime at home for free.

And we didn’t even go to the interview.

The corporate cutbacks beggar anything witnessed in my previous incarnation in a 1990s Laura Ashley business suit. And, as over-40 moms, we tend to be pretty savvy about the pound of human flesh demanded in the corporate grind.

Now, however, employers have gone from the reasonable to the outright ridiculous, wringing every last quark of resource out of their humans.

Working for a technology company in Silicon Valley, Frank doesn’t just go to the office. He is swallowed by it.

Here is a real telephone conversation that took place as I was wheeling 3-year-old Lizzie through Staples shopping for Alex’s elementary school supplies:

“Hi, honey, how’s it going?” is the cheerful salvo.

“Terrible, I’ve got two conference calls on the go at the same time.” (Subtext: So, what the hell do you want?)

“Ok, well, you asked me to call at this time. Need to discuss some logistics. What’s the next best window?”

“Try three pm”, his voice is eager with the lure of escape as he checks his electronic calendar, flashing like a console on the USS Enterprise.  “Yeah, I should only be on one call then.”

“Ok. I’ll call you at three.” (Resigned)

But it wasn’t his fault. I knew things were tough at work. Frank was bringing home strange, haunting stories. Apparently there was talk of asking employees to flush the toilet on every second visit to the lavatory, just to save another quark…

At 2.45pm, however, he surprised me by returning my call instead. There was a strange, hollow echo in the background.

“Where are you?” I asked, baffled.

“I’m in the bathroom” was the sharp retort.

“What are you doing there?”

“What do you think?”

“Why are you calling me from there?”

“Why do you think?” (Glibly)

“It was the only chance you could get to call me?”

“Bingo! Give her a prize! So, what did you want?”  (Cheerful condescension)

Then, in the background, there was the unmistakable sound of a urinal flushing.

I wanted to kill him. No, I wanted to slap him first. Then kill him.

Suddenly, I look up and my little Lizzie is eyeing me intently with a compassionate gaze, framed by bouncy blond curls.

Clasping an imaginary telephone to her ear, she says: “Hello Daddy? How are you?”

She looks at me meaningfully and follows this with a deliberate pause. And then:

“Ok. I’ll talk to you again when your thumbs are sticking out.”

I recover from my sense-of-humor-failure. I don’t need to kill Frank.

I don’t need to kill him because they are doing it. Last week, a watershed CNN article (http://www NULL.cnn NULL.com/2009/HEALTH/10/06/work NULL.death/index NULL.html) revealed that the exacting nature of global corporate life in today’s apocalyptic economy is either killing people or inspiring them to whack themselves instead and save the corporate bean counters the trouble.

It’s happening all over America too. And here, we like to make things bigger and better—we’ve taken the Japanese invention of karōshi (death from overwork) and supersized it.

Karōshi, American Style.

My husband is in the front line, in the trenches facing the corporate tsunami. And he is the sole person carting the yoke for the lives of his family. There is no “Exit, stage left”.

Even though that often leaves me isolated at home doing a 14-hour-long shift of childcare on my own, I don’t want to be him. In fact, at 49, I don’t think I could ever go back to the toxic tank of corporate life.

Especially now, in the workhouses of our brave new America.

So, when Frank is late, tired, miserable and snappy (which is not his ambient nature), I attempt cure him with a dose of black humor by amending the title to the theme of the 1970s  TV show, Love American Style (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=uNHuI0Pw0m8) and singing along with a Mike Myers bop.

He usually responds to treatment and his good nature peeks out like sunbeam from behind a black cloud.

However, there is a bitter truth—a caveat emptor—that lurks beneath the laughter on the employment package being peddled by the new industrial regime.  If “make love not war” was the clarion call of the sixties—“karaoke (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Karaoke) not karōshi” may well be the swan song of today’s beleaguered work-force.

Kudos, gratitude, and love (family style) to you, Frank.

One Response to Karōshi , American Style

  1. Annie (http://newtomum NULL.blogspot NULL.com/) says:

    Hi, I found your blog through In Season Mom and am so glad I did. I am on the journey of trying to become a Flower Power Mom. It is great to find support and resources through the net.

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