Why I’ll never take another breakfast meeting

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I don’t usually waste this space commenting on other workplace columnists’ work, but Lisa Belkin’s piece in this Sunday’s New York Times got under my skin. Not that I disagreed with it. Titled “Oh, Joy! Breakfast With the Boss,” she begins,

PLEASE do not invite me to breakfast.

It’s not that I don’t like breakfast. To the contrary, I could happily eat eggs or cereal at every meal. But I write about life-work balance, and it feels a little contradictory to conduct an interview, or attend a conference, or give a speech, when everyone involved had to sacrifice sleep to attend.

I haven’t taken a breakfast meeting in–I think the last time was in 2002, when I’d just come back from assignment in Tokyo and wanted desperately to have a sit-down with my new boss, TIME’s then editor Jim Kelly. I’d been trying without result to get on his docket for weeks, so when his assistant asked if I would have a meal with him before work, I jumped at the chance.

Of all the occasions in the day during which we break bread, I consider the morning meal the most sacred. It is dictated by ritual and habit, right down to the menu. I prepare my decaf with soy, my whole wheat toast slathered with some sort of non-butter product and marmalade, short glass of calcium-fortified OJ. I scan the headlines, listen to Morning Edition on NPR, exchange a few words on the day’s logistics with my spouse.

This, of course, was before I had a child. My own routine has remained much the same, except for the addition of another person’s meal preparation and a conversation conducted in kitty language. But the value of it to me has ballooned. It’s the one meal of the day I’m guaranteed to eat with my daughter. I still scan the headlines, but mostly I gaze at her like a dope, admiring her bed head and urging her to try another bite of scrambled eggs.

So back to that last breakfast meeting. I met my new boss at a restaurant on the Upper West Side, where he lived. It was one of those precious places preferred by women, specializing in a kind of pastry. It had teddy bears in the windows. I think my boss ordered yoghurt and granola, though I question my memory because he’s more of a rare steak kind of guy. I can’t remember what I ate, even though I was starving and, like Lisa Belkin, I could survive on carby breakfast foods.

It was the weirdest meeting. He was in a hurry to get to work, which of course I understood. I felt badly for taking up his time when I was sure he, like me, would prefer his granola sitting across from his young son. I was anxious because it was my first-ever meal with my boss, and I wanted to come across as smart, funny, worthy of continuing employment.

And then, to cap off this awkwardathon, we walked out to the curb where I’d parked my car. I’ve told you all before about my current ride, a stinky 1998 Camry that is a golden chariot compared to the bomb on wheels I drove back then. It was–get this–a Mercury Topaz that my husband’s dad had unloaded on us for free. The exterior was crusted with maple seed pods. The seats were sticky. And what did I do? I offered my new boss a ride.

He graciously accepted, and we sputtered toward Midtown. Do I have to tell you the air conditioner didn’t work, and that the hand-crank windows were stuck? After my 12th apology, my boss said, lightly, that he found women apologized too often. I retorted that any one of any gender of any species would apologize for this abomination.

I don’t know how or if my boss remembers that breakfast meeting. But I dare say both he and I would have been more comfortable over a nice plate of pasta at lunch at a restaurant within walking distance.

In the years since, I’ve been asked a number of times to meet with sources for breakfast. At times they were VIP sources, the kind difficult to access at other times of day. I see the argument of cornering an elusive client before the busyness of the day begins. I see the draws of a morning meal for executives who are up before dawn on the treadmill, and who have to take breakfast somewhere anyway. I like the general idea of somebody’s company paying for my fancy food.

But I always say no. Unlike Belkin, I don’t struggle with this decision, nor do I think it’s just about drawing clear boundaries between work time and family time. I think putting on a performance and being evaluated is a horrible way to start out a day. I just want my decaf and toast in the privacy of my home, admiring the crust in my little girl’s eyes.

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