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Vole, C’est Moi: What I’ve Learned from Working Alone

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Beth Anstandig

The prairie vole has become invaluable to certain scientists because the prairie vole appears to fall in love.   It’s the only rodent that does.  It’s one of about 5% all known species (per Smithsonian) that does. The prairie vole. And it’s so cute.

Because the prairie voles pair bond for life (unless one of them drinks more whiskey than the other), and because they’re apparently easy to catch (lure them with whiskey), scientists are able to actually study the biological effects of love.  Which is pretty amazing. For instance, they’ve used fMRI scans to capture evidence of the critters’ brains changing shape as they fall in love. Or something like that. The science eludes me as much as it fascinates me.

What fascinates my maudlin Morrissey-loving soul the most though is what happens to the vole when he is separated from his mate.  He goes to pieces. In one particularly cruel experiment, the vole is forcibly separated from his partner for an extended period of time.  Then, he is dropped in a bucket half-full of water. Unlike your average functional rodent who would swim in circles around the bucket until plucked to safety, the bereaved vole refused to swim.  He simply lost his will to live.

A few weeks back, my wife traveled to Paris.  She travels a fair amount for work so this should have been no big deal.  Except that it was. This trip would last longer than the others and she would be further away than at any time during our nearly twenty years as a couple.  Still, I’m an adult. I trust air travel and I had plenty to do to occupy me while she was gone. (Our daughter and ranch full of animals would see to that!)  Yet, still, on only the first day of her travel, I was kind of a wreck between my ears. I was foggy, rudderless, and bummed. I was floating in the bucket and I did not feel like swimming.

But don’t cry for me, dear readers, I got by.  I handled everything that needed to be handled. My daughter and I had some fun and watched a lot of cartoons.  It’s just, something was off. And I don’t want her to ever leave again.   When she returned, I told her about this and she said “you’re a vole” and then told me about those guys.  And it’s not that everything suddenly made sense, it’s just that everything felt a little more normal. I’m just a mammal who loves his mate and whose existence is pretty much entangled with hers.  

We are all mammals.  If you are reading this, you are a mammal.  If you are reading this, you’ve got some vole in you.  I haven’t worked in an office setting for a little while now but here are two things I remember:  I had some coworkers that I really enjoyed seeing from day to day and I had to spend a lot of time working alone.  Sometimes those coworkers took new jobs and left and I was always more sad than I thought I’d be when they did.  Sometimes I had to spend entire days without speaking to anyone.  And I was always more sad alone than I thought I’d be.  Why all of this inter-office drama? I’m a mammal. A vole.

I need to make connections with other humans and nurture those connections.  And so do you. And if you spend the majority of your life on your job, you need make connections there. And, what’s more, if you a supervisor of workers you need to do what you can to encourage them to make connections amongst themselves.  Don’t send one person off to do an 8 hour job alone, send 2 to do a 4 hour job. I’m not just talking about “team-building” but about assigning teamwork — even if one person could probably handle it on their own.   I remember the coworkers that made my days bearable. I miss them now that I work mostly alone. I believe you want your team to want to see each other, to be connected.  You want your team to miss each other when they’re not around.  Like mammals.  

The voles spend their days cuddling, eating, and raising babies together. They really do. They show up together for all of it. They trust each other. They share tasks. It’s a big world for a tiny rodent and it must be frightening. But they do it together. We can too.

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