Juggling Moms – is there a Shangri-La to work and life?

The law does not mandate work-life balance,” nor does it “require companies to ignore and stop valuing ultimate dedication, however unhealthy that may be for family life,” said Judge Preska this summer regarding the Bloomberg discrimination against pregnant and working mothers case.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” Mr. Welch told the Society for Human Resource Management’s Conference a few years ago. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

“Once you get off the escalator, you don’t get back on,” said my investor relations professor in graduate school, to a room filled with 20-something women who were eager to achieve career success and planned on eventually having children. We all looked nervously at each other after hearing what this woman, a wildly successfully IR PR professional for a Fortune 500 company, a Northwestern University graduate school professor and mother, had to say to us so very bluntly. Could she be right, we all worried?

Each of these statements are harsh, unforgiving, blunt and brutal. But are they wrong? Among the world of Type A, educated, successful, intelligent women, in this eternal quest for “balance” and “juggling” – are we creating expectations that just aren’t realistic?

Please tell me that this isn't what I look like handling my life

Balance implies equal parts, right? Juggling, well aside from the fact that creepy circus clowns are the only people who actually juggle, isn’t the idea of juggling meant to be fun? You’ve mastered a sport, you are having fun, you are showing off your talents. Do any of these things sound remotely like what it is like to have a career and a family?

Not in my experience.

Welch might hail from an 80s-era business philosophy of good-old boys and face-time in the office, things that we are slowly chipping away at with time and technology but is his statement actually antiquated and incorrect? I don’t think so. We individually decided to have children knowing that it would change our lives forever and dramatically. And from my almost 6 years in, the biggest consequence is not the lack of sleep, the unwanted lines appearing on my face, the amount of time I’ve spent cleaning hynies or even having to say that word, or wasted hours watching the same “Backyardigans” episode on repeat. The biggest consequence is the fundamental change in my career.

But I don’t view it as a permanent one or that I’ve been victimized in the work place. I actually disagree with my grad school professor that once you get off the escalator you can’t get back on. But it would be naive for me to think I’d get back on in the same spot and continue on the same path. The thing is, if I wanted that, I wouldn’t have stepped off.

Ultimately, we can “mommy track” ourselves and have more time to see our kids after school, take them to playdates, get them to the doctors when they are sick, volunteer in class and all these other things that happen during the business day. What I don’t understand is why this is viewed as a bad thing instead of the reality of choosing to create more time for our kids, to the detriment of our career.

Or, we can remain on the upward trajectory of high-achieving business success, the kind that shatters glass ceilings. And in making that choice, we know that someone else will spend more time raising our children than we are. But that is our decision. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t disagree with Welch and I don’t disagree with Judge Preska. Ask someone without children how they feel about working parents getting promoted above them if the working parent spends fewer hours in the office, travels less, and comes in late more?  Those people don’t care about our reasons because we decided to have the family.

Doesn't she look confident and in charge?

The good news is I think that we don’t need to be making final and ultimate decisions right now. I think the work place has evolved into an arena where you can stay in the game, take on less, but in time, ramp back up. I think that instead of spending our time on this eternal quest for the shangri-la of motherhood, the ultimate in work-life balance, we need to do what we talked about a few weeks ago -see the whole picture – see that there are ebbs and flows to life and own our decisions, be proud of them, and be at peace with the consequences of them. So may of us have periods of work intensity but perhaps it can follow with a period that is more family focused, we can get promoted but then maybe we want to remain at that level for longer than our pre-children selves imagined we would. We can try to stay home, realize we don’t like it, and return to work with more vigor and dedication than we had before but with a peace of mind that we are proud of this decision because we’ve tried the other way. We step off the escalator and let our future selves worry about how and when we get back on, knowing the financial implications this brings to our household.

I firmly believe that what makes you “supermom” is owning your decision, recognizing the consequences and accepting the reality that you can’t give it all to both. “Balance” is for the birds, as my mom would say. Own it, be realistic about the consequences, realize life constantly changes and be proud of it.

What do you think? Is there such thing as work-life balance? Can you be wildly successful at work and also have “enough” time with your kids? Do you think you can step off the elevator and get back on?
One Response to Juggling Moms – is there a Shangri-La to work and life?
  1. Full Time Momma
    September 22, 2011 | 8:34 am

    I have been loving this week’s posts. I work full time for a company that has adapted to my growing family and offered more flexibility than traditional office hours because they value my expertise and work ethic. And you know what? They get more out of me — and I get to manage my time so that I am there for school drop-of/pick up, MOST soccer practices and some playdates. I am unapologetic for the choices that I have to make, because overall I am a better mom because I am passionate about my work, and attentive to my kids’ needs. Now, full disclosure, I have wonderful help in the form of a terrific nanny, a totally involved husband, and local family who all pitch in to make this “balance” work for us. And I still call it that… I am conscience when one side of my life is weighing heavier (like 4 straight nights of events that preclude me from our nighttime ritual) — but then make a point to take extra time during the day for a special trip to the park/farm/library with my boys. And vice versa, volunteer days at school mean midnight computer work for me. What I think/wonder about — in trying to do it all, have our cake and eat it to — what gives? well, my house is a wreck and i’m 20 lbs heavier (ok, 30) than i’d like to be, but to me, that’s what cleaners are for, and my husband doesn’t seem to care about the extra weight :)

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