Insights from a Boomer mom – Part 2
It’s a never-ending quest to find something that feels like work-life balance. Women from the previous generation lay bricks toward progress on their journey. That way their children’s generation can step higher on the ladder. And get just that much closer to the goal.
Laying Bricks Is What We Do
Today’s moms with minor children who also work outside the home benefit from Boomer women’s sacrifices. Boomers fought long and hard to lay the next leg of the brick path. Advancing the possibilities. Younger women now lay their own bricks, pushing the agenda forward even faster. In turn, they keep the wheels of progress moving ever forward. So their own children will have it better.
But it is no easy climb up those brick stairs. You read in my last blog post (Part 1) some of my journey and how I pushed the envelope. In my own small way, I made the path a little easier for my daughters and nieces. While they haven’t found work-life balance either, the improvements I see today are remarkable.
In this Part 2 post, I’ll share some of my own learnings. Maybe something will help younger women trying to do it all. I’ll also show some simple graphics I used to help me stay grounded through decades of chaos.
Work-Life Balance Does Not Mean 50-50
Having kids and working is not for the weak. Whether you are an at-home mom, working for an employer, or running your own business, it’s never a 50-50 thing. When you are building a career or a business, you aren’t working 40 hours on the job. Then spending 40 hours with the kids. There is too much other stuff going on. Too much you don’t control.
No one I’ve ever met works only 40 hours each week. Or has enough time with their kids.
So, it’s a matter of resetting expectations. It’s ok to set the personal bar a tad bit lower. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Make it ok to not be perfect. Or to have a few bad days.
The Shock of Combining Motherhood and Career
I was shocked after my first daughter was born how little control I now had. And how much of my day was consumed caring for this beautiful infant. I had a very short maternity leave. Working for a small business doesn’t allow for much time off.
My wonderful staff of four women came to my house one week after the baby was born. And we started our planning for the fall campaign. I worked at home and went to the office at night, 3-week-old baby in tow, to finish up the day’s work.
That was 1991. It was a tad bit insane. All the ways I had previously defined success were blown to smithereens. I had to figure out a way to juggle it all and not feel like a failure on two critical fronts.
First Measures of Success: Set the Bar Lower
I quickly figured out nothing was going to be the same. And I wouldn’t be able to measure success as I had for the past 10 years. Pretty quickly, I figured out I had to make a tactical shift and created two measures of success for my days.
The first was a very low bar.
I showed up at work one morning and took off my coat. My right shoulder sported a burp cloth. Oh, good grief! I was in such a hurry that I fed the baby, burped her, then ran out to get to work on time.
Measure number one: arrive at work without any baby gear on my shoulder.
Years later I arrived for a video shoot with another woman, younger than me. She took off her coat and then noticed her baby had spit up on her shoulder. My colleague was so upset. It’s just more thing to derail an already stressful situation.
We went to the ladies’ room to take care of that shoulder. I shared with her how I now measure my days. We both laughed, it broke her stress, and the video turned out great.
My second measure for a successful day
Number two came from the era when women in financial services were not allowed to wear pants at work. Skirts and pantyhose only. I still remember like it was yesterday when a woman came into the office wearing a pants suit. That was 1995. We were sure she was going to be asked to go home. Shockingly, she wasn’t. Her one bold move opened closet doors for all of us.
It took quite a few years for most women to get comfortable wearing pants to the office on a routine basis. Hard to believe today. But back then, when the kids were little, I set my second measure in place. If I managed to get dressed and out the door without a run in my pantyhose, it was already a successful day!
When a boss was yelling for something impossible, I’d remind myself I was having a good day. Or when someone dumped a massive project on my desk at 4:30 p.m., I’d remember I had a good day. My pantyhose didn’t have a run in them!
I know, it sounds a little silly now. But those little wins, those new bars you set for your success can keep you from crying in the bathroom.
Tips for turning off the tech and working toward work-life balance
Fast forward now to the current era. The one filled with 24 x 7 tech. I know you can’t outright refuse to have an I-phone or Google phone as I did in 2004. But your boss can’t have all your waking hours either.
It’s a survival skill to turn off the tech. Your kids need your time and attention. Your spouse might want to talk to you or go for a walk. Perhaps you’d like to have dinner with friends. How about a weekend away to enjoy the beautiful fall?
Hard as it is, set your time boundaries and stick to them. It might be no email after 8 p.m. Or no work after 5:00 p.m. You are simply too busy doing stuff with and for your family to babysit your email all day and night.
Even now, I leave my office around 6 pm and rarely, if ever, check my work email. I can’t access my work email on my phone. I’ve spent 10 hours in business mode. Time to figure out dinner and say hi to my husband. Call the girls to check in.
Those unread emails will wait patiently till the morning. It’s not always possible but give it a try.
Know that You Are Keeping Family #1
Even though I worked way more than 40 hours a week in Corporate America, my family remained my number one focus. Then, when I started my own company, I worked even more hours. But my family was still top of my priority pole. But not in the way we try to look at and define work-life balance.
Work-life balance wasn’t about spending an equal number of hours at work and with the kids. It was first about making sure I did a good job at work. Doing well at work meant I could feed my family. My girls never had to worry about a roof over their heads. And I could sometimes afford more than the basics for them. We forget sometimes just how critical those accomplishments are.
Second, work-life balance was about being there for the girls when they needed to have mom around. It never coincided with the corporate clock. I always fought for more flexibility during the workday.
Maybe most important, it’s about feeling I wasn’t getting cheated out of being a good mom. Work can zap all your enthusiasm for the day. Add in a stressful commute and you don’t have any nice left for your family.
3 Life Lessons from a Boomer Mom
So, I came to embrace the following three life lessons as I struggled to do it all. They came to me over time and when the girls were at various ages. I found they helped me stay focused and moving forward one day at a time. Without a lot of regret along the journey.
1. I’m raising adults, not children.
Hard as it is to admit, the kids don’t need parents as much as we think they do. Mine just need me at 2:00 p.m. after school and 10:00 p.m. when the fear of facing another tomorrow is too much for them. Leave them to explore and try on their own. They are smart and capable. And the job of a parent is to make sure they are successful adults.
2. The train waits for no one.
For more than a decade, I took the commuter train into Boston. Trains run on a schedule. A non-negotiable schedule. When the departure time is 6:59 a.m. that does not mean 7:00 a.m. I frequently had to run out my front door. I’d leave behind a sobbing toddler or an elementary school daughter who needed a few more minutes. To make the train on time. Gut-wrenching? Absolutely. Guilt-ridden? Yes, for years. Making my kids a little more independent and capable? You betcha!
3. Putting food on the table makes family #1.
There are mothers who work three jobs to keep food on the table. I didn’t have to do that. But I sure did work a lot to stay in the good graces of employers and then clients. The most important way you can provide for your kids is to put food on the table. And lunch money in their pockets. It really doesn’t hurt them to see what hard work and getting rewards look like.
Speaking of Mom-Guilt…
Moms carry a whole lot of guilt. When we’re at work, we’re rarely 100% there, always on alert for the school nurse to call. Or so much worse: getting that text that read:
“we r ok. in lockdown. in gym. dont come yet.”
That was the day I learned to text. My younger daughter was in 8th grade and there was a reported gunman near the middle school.
When we’re home, we constantly feel the pressure of mountains of work-work that didn’t get done. All the piles on our desks. The long list of to-dos. And that constant gnaw that there’s no way we’re ever going to get it all done.
Right. You’re not. It’s not reasonable to think you will get it all done. On time. With no help. And with perfection. That is not the goal.
Setting Better, More Realistic Goals
The goal is to do it well enough. Whatever “it” is. Get things done incrementally. And stop feeling guilty about everything else swirling in your sphere that didn’t get done.
Can you get rid of the guilt of never being the perfect wife, mother, and worker you so diligently strive for? No.
Is the guilt at least somewhat motivating? Yes. Definitely keeps you on your toes and getting out of bed even when you want to sleep in.
Does it damage your kids when you’re not there every second? Nope. In fact, it shows your kids what a work ethic really looks like.
Ask for Help
Women are amazing at so many things. Asking for help is not one of them. When you need to find a better work-life balance, ask for help. If you’re trying to fit in some time for yourself, ask for help. It’s especially important to ask for help when you need to push yourself harder for that promotion at work. Help is needed both at home and at work.
There may well be some tradeoffs you need to make. It’s ok. Make adjustments and shift priorities so you get some relief. Without blowing up your future.
Three examples to get the ideas started
- At home, can your budget be reorganized so you can afford additional babysitting, cleaners, or a cook? (I always wanted a cook!) Maybe it’s a couple of dinners out each week? Whatever tradeoff you can come up with to find a bit of relief is a win. However, the tradeoff should never be stop contributing to your 401(k) or 403(b). That will kick you in the behind decades later.
- Trade days with other families for where the kids will hang out after school. We underestimate the power of friends and neighbors. Reach out and ask other moms to set up some afternoon or evening trades. You’ll pick up the kids from ballet and feed them dinner on Tuesdays. Another mom picks up after school on Thursday.
- At work, it’s time to research your options. Start with what’s available in the HR/Benefits handbook. Can you cut back hours and not lose health insurance? Is there an option to job-share? With new work-from-home alternatives, can you renegotiate to work more from home? Or do you want an entirely different job with less stress? Map out a plan that you think will work, then run it by a senior manager you trust. You may be pleasantly surprised by the support you get from those in higher positions.
Work-Life Balance Takes Decades
You will be juggling work and kids for 20 to 30 years. You’ll make decisions and take advantage of unexpected opportunities over those years. Accept that there is never enough time, never enough resources. Realize trying to find work-life balance is a marathon. Enjoy the craziness around you that is your life.
One tool I used to acknowledge how my nutty life was a simple 4-box grid. Using only one side of a sheet of paper, I’d draw four boxes. They started out equal in size, but didn’t stay that way for long. As soon as I started mapping out where I spent my time, it was easy to see there was no work-life balance.
But as you look back over the years, you see the ebb and flow of your time. For a long time, there was no bandwidth for community projects or for myself. But I was building my career and keeping my girls alive! Both admiral feats.
Then, as they got older and after I took the reins of my career, things changed.
It’s a fascinating exercise to look back at your last ten or twenty years. Using the 4-box visual, where have you been spending your waking hours?
The other simple tool I still use today is “family milestones.” This is simply an arrow I made in PowerPoint with five boxes underneath. It shows my family high points for the next five years. I list one or two major events that one of us will have in each of the future years.
It might be a milestone birthday. Yep, 65 is not that far away for either Dan or me. It might be a graduation. Or hopes for an international trip.
I hang this on the wall in my office as a clear and visual reminder of why I work. It is for my family. The four of us have our own successes. We’ll have big birthdays to celebrate. If things work out the way I hope, we’ll get some memorable travel in the near future.
I’ve used this framework for the last two decades. It’s less about work-life balance and more about all the good things that come from hard work. And my own definition of success. I look at it often and marvel at the roads we’ve taken. The miles we’ve walked together as a family. Individual successes. We are so fortunate.
Last Piece of Advice: Lose the Idea of Work-Life Balance…
…and replace it with “life.” This is life. It’s challenging, not easy, but also not one-sided. Unless you are wildly wealthy, work is in the picture. Kids are in the picture. Once you have ‘em, ya gotta feed ‘em!
So, I’ll leave you with something that has always worked for me. Pick your head up and find your horizon. Always know where you are heading…even if it will take 40-some-odd years to get there. When you arrive, (and believe me, you’ll arrive faster than you can even believe) look back over the decades.
You’ll see that you didn’t have work-life balance each day. Rather, over long periods of time, your journey was balanced for your life. Crazy with kid stuff for a whole bunch of years. Overworked many other years. Wondering how you juggled it all.
Then all’s quiet on the home front when your newly minted young adults take flight. And you can celebrate all your successes big and small.
Time to plan for the next part of the journey. The rest of your own life journey.
I shared in Part 1 of the Work-Life Balance posts about a book that was all the rage twenty years ago. So funny that now the author, Allison Pearson, has written the sequel. I just got my copy and am starting to read HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
The main character, Kate, is about to turn 50 and her kids are now teenagers. My expectations are low for a fictional character to solve my work-life balance problems. So far, I’m quite enjoying this turn of events for the mom portrayed in the new book.