Insights from a Boomer mom—Part 1
Recently, I got a request from an industry conference group. They asked if I had any topics that would be interesting to cover for their new women’s professional group. And would I be a presenter for this session. Without hesitation, I suggested one of the topics I know I’ve struggled with for 40 years: work-life balance. They agreed immediately, so I needed to prepare a presentation and work with three younger women who would be on the panel.
Interestingly, all three women, who were ages 50, 40, and 28 are struggling with the same challenges. Whether they had children or not, they had the same questions. What is work-life balance? And how do women get it?
In 2013, I did a photo shoot for a magazine, including this photo of Lindsay and me in our kitchen. I think this clearly shows the struggle of every mom who also works outside the home. You get home exhausted, but it’s time to help with homework, make dinner, check your email, plan tomorrow, etc. No time to even change before putting on that apron!
In search of that elusive work-life balance goal
I hadn’t thought about my journey for some time. What did I have to share with younger women about building professional careers and motherhood? The audience would span four generations.
All I have is my story. And this is just fine. So, I started thinking about the early years.
My 40th college reunion is next year. Wow. Just doesn’t seem possible that all those years lay between college—the start of my independence—and today. It’s crazy that my generation of Boomer women have now built careers, raised kids, and are at the point of contemplating retirement. We did so without a lot of technology, very little vacation time, and an environment we we’re prepared for. All the while, we were trying to achieve this thing called work-life balance.
It’s an elusive goal. One that women have been trying to achieve for hundreds of years.
My conclusion is stark. It isn’t what younger women want to hear. But understand it and try to make changes: There is no such thing as work-life balance.
At least not in the short-term. And definitely not when you’re doing double duty of building a career while raising kids.
With decades in my rearview mirror, I can also conclude—importantly—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But some improvements would be helpful.
Why I know work-life balance isn’t a real thing: 61, 43, 39, 1, 2
I know work-life balance isn’t achievable based on my personal numbers. I turned 61 in July. Thankfully, that’s a lot of years already on the planet. My first non-babysitting job was the summer of 1979. A whopping 43 years ago. The path to building a professional career started at the University of Minnesota bookstore in 1983. Ah, a short 39 years ago. And, I’ve had one husband and two children. For more than three decades, I’ve had all of that happening at the same time.
There’s a lot of mileage in those years and millions of activities and decisions I’ve navigated. Sitting here in my empty nest, I think back to my younger years with wonder. How on earth did I manage to do everything when the frenzy was unrelenting? I watch my nieces and nephews swim in the choppy waters of motherhood/fatherhood while climbing their ladders. It’s a flashback to how challenging the days, weeks, and months are when trying to have it all.
Building Survival Skills
I’m now into my fifth decade of being an outside-of-the-home-career-woman and mom. I’ve had a lot of time wrestling with the idea of work-life balance. I wasn’t a failure at it. It’s simply not achievable. Turns out, what I was building all along were important survival skills.
I’ve achieved hard-earned professional successes—along with more than my fair share of knockdowns. I also see how my two daughters are successfully making their way as independent women in this more complicated world. And my husband and I still like each other! Can anyone really ask for more?
So, the two warring sides of my adult journey are looking quite good. But only now can I say that. With 43 years in the rearview mirror. It was looking awfully harrowing for many of those years.
“I Don’t Know How She Does It”
In 2003, my darling daughters were 12 and 7. I had been working in big Corporate America in a big city for more than a decade. Advancing up the ladder, taking on more and more responsibility, and traveling. A book hit the bookstores (back when we had bookstores) called I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson.
Every woman on the train was reading it. All my co-workers were engrossed in it. It was a huge best seller at that time. And hit a chord with so many mothers who were working outside the home.
When I finally got a chance to read it, I remember laughing hysterically at various parts. Some parts had me sobbing. I also criticized the lead character for trying to pass store-bought bakery goods off as homemade for her kid’s party. It was brutal staying up till two in the morning baking, but so much better than resorting to store-bought. That was so snobby of me.
I read this book late into the night over several evenings. The character “Kate” was more high-powered in her career than I was. But she was completely relatable. She was living my crazy, insane, highly unbalanced life. How did she solve the situation? How did she get some sort of balance between home life and work life? What was the magic for achieving work-life balance? We would have a new code to live by the end of the book. That’s why millions of women were reading this book, right?
Bitter Disappointment All These Years Later
Well, I was in for a rude surprise. The ending was bitterly disappointing.
Spoiler alert: “Kate” quit her job. The main character solved her work-life balance problem by quitting her job.
After years of sacrifice to build a successful career, the balls she was juggling came crashing to the floor. So, she up and quit. What the heck? She quit? I remember being beside myself. I was so angry that she couldn’t help me find a solution. So bitterly disappointed that she just threw in the towel.
Most women can’t just quit their jobs. I certainly fell in that majority of women. They would need a huge bucket of cash and other ready resources before they could give up a good-paying job.
I slammed the book shut. Went to bed too late and steaming mad. Got up the next morning in a mood. As usual, I hustled the girls to get ready for school. Raced to the train. And got to work on time. More determined than ever that I had to figure out a way to make it all happen. Women should be able to choose motherhood and a career. Damn it!
The Technology Evolution for Moms
When I think back to the 1980s and 1990s, I marvel at all the women holding on by a thread when handling two very full-time jobs. We were constantly on the lookout for anything that would help us keep more balls in the air. It seemed the answer was coming in the form of technology.
In reality, technology advancements are a blessing and a curse. Thanks to my very dear friend, Julie, I became a whiz at the 10-key adding machine in 1983. We worked together at the University of Minnesota bookstore. Initially, she was not impressed with my technology skills. Our job was to count millions of dollars flowing through the campus bookstore at the beginning of the semester. Every dollar had to be counted and accounted for. Then double-checked. Running a 10-key tape was mandatory. After a week, I was impressed how fast my fingers could fly. But I could never best Julie.
Right. There were no computers. No laptops. No I-pads or I-phones. We did everything by hand. With pencils and paper. And sturdy 10-key adding machines.
The Speed of Technology Accelerated with No Change to Work-Life Balance
Later in the 1980s car phones came onto the market. They were awesome. I was an early adopter of this modern technology. They were constructed as a big brick battery with several cords. The battery sat on the floor under the driver’s seat. The power cord plugged into the cigarette lighter. The receiver was attached to the brick between the front seats. You were tethered to the brick while talking on the phone.
Desktop computers entered the business world around 1985. They sat on our desks. In fact, they nearly took up the entire surface of the desk. Gigantic boxes contained the monitors. Floppy disks were inserted into the front of the machine. Without these disks, there was no way to save your work.
When laptops, known back then as “compact computers,” rolled out in the 1990s, they weighed about 30 pounds. My shoulders still hurt from that era.
Technology Keeping You on a Leash?
I share this with you because there was almost no flexibility for moms working outside the home while I was raising my girls. Unlike today, we were stuck in the office. It was hard to be away from the kids until late at night. For years on end. It was nearly impossible to leave early or take some time off in the middle of the day. Unless you scheduled a vacation day. But who can schedule a sick kid?
(When I found this photo, I stopped in my tracks. The woman is dressed almost identically to how I dressed for work in the 1990s. The desk and office almost identical. We were constantly on the unmovable phone, PC monitor is huge, papers everywhere. The only difference for me: replace the coffee cup with a can of Dr. Pepper!)
In the early 2000’s we entered what I call the “Blackberry Brouhaha” era. Working in a big firm, the company was buying Blackberries for many managers. I refused to have one. My boss was horribly invasive and respected no one’s boundaries. I’d come in every morning to a full voice mailbox. He left me ten to fifteen new voice mail messages. Every night after 10:00 p.m. Everything single thing was URGENT. It wasn’t.
When he also wanted to reach me day and night on an electronic leash, I flat out refused. It’s hard to take a stand sometimes, but I dug in my heels on this one. I let him know he had four other ways to reach me. Not the least of which: our offices were next to each other, and we shared a wall.
There have been many improvements since those years when my kids were little. However, my observation is that younger women are forced to be tethered to their tech. The electronic leash is not making their days any better than mine were. The difference is my long hours were spent in an office high-rise. Theirs is spent in every room of their own house without a break.
In the first half of my career journey, from 1983 to 2005, I worked for both small and large companies. Over those 26 years, I had 21 bosses. Then in 2005, I started my own business and became my own boss. I had no idea at the time it would stick.
I decided to go out on my own in large part because my bosses had been so bad. And it was impossible for me to be anywhere near my kids when they needed me.
A few points about having bosses stand out for me even now, all these years later. I only had three women bosses in 26 years. Two were moms; the other single, no kids. I had 18 male bosses.
Whether I was in an entry level position, mid-manager, or vice president, not one boss ever asked me what I wanted from my career. Or how things could be better for me in the pressure cooker that was, and is, Corporate America. They always assumed I wanted more money.
Sure, more money was part of my equation. But had they ever bothered to ask, I would have told them I wanted more time at home. That an occasional afternoon or morning off to do something with the girls would be greatly appreciated.
Instead, I found I was the one pushing the envelope to stand up for myself and my kids. We only had two weeks of vacation a year. It’s challenging to get time off to take your baby to the doctor. Or to go on a field trip with your elementary school kids. Let alone be a Girl Scout troop leader or attend soccer games at 3:30 in the afternoon.
If No One Asks, Just Tell Them
Since no one asked me what would make the job better, I took a different approach. I simply told them. I racked up long hours so I could duck out early for a kid thing. And made up a lot of work time on weekends and nights. So long as the job got done, and done really well, the managers tended to look the other way. And I occasionally could be the mom I wanted to be.
I’ll also note here that every one of the men I worked for, except one, were married with kids. Their wives were stay at-home moms. I always thought it was funny (in the not-really-funny way) that they never asked me about my at-home wife. How was she handling all the kid duties, dinner, and activities? They didn’t acknowledge or recognize the amazing contribution their own wives were making in their families. So of course, they’d have no clue about a working-outside-the-home wife and mother.
That situation alone accounts for the reality that there is no such thing as work-life balance. Like all moms, I worked more than full time, commuted, traveled, handled the kids, made dinner, and planned all the activities.
You just do it. Because it needs to be done.
Creating Your Own Golden Rules and Redefining Work-Life Balance
Women with children managed to be successful in a way they defined it. They had to figure out their own path for making it all happen. Most women do not aspire to be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Many don’t even care to get to the ranks of vice presidents. As I defined my success, my line in the sand was at the senior vice president level. In my era in Corporate America, I saw too many women sell their souls for money. It wasn’t something I was willing to do.
Changing my outlook and perspective about achieving less chaos and exhaustion was the better goal. Work-life balance was simply not in the cards.
Instead, I created my own golden rules that I lived by. Let me leave you with a few of the ways this Boomer found to try to juggle it all.
- Put in the extra effort and say yes to every new opportunity. Even when you don’t have the time. Even when you’re uncertain if you have the right stuff. Unknowingly, this strategy filled my tool bag faster and with many important business tools. That would pay off years later.
- Look in the mirror every morning. She’s the only one I was ever accountable to.
- Never compromise on your integrity. I saw a lot of bad stuff through the years. Women smoking cigars, going beyond flirting, skipping their kid’s birthday to try to fit in with the guys. That’s not who they really were. It’s what they thought they had to do to get ahead. No thank you.
- Only cry in the ladies’ room. This was a key rule and not always easy to live by. There is a tremendous amount of sheer meanness dished out daily in Corporate America. Pressures are enormous deadlines are ridiculously impossible. It’s ok to cry when you need to. Just make sure it’s in a stall!
- The door swings both ways. I found this to be my most important rule. Employers often hold the threat of layoffs over workers’ heads. Or the lure of a promotion that suddenly gets filled with a man. Don’t fall for it. You can quit any day you want. You are the one in control. If the job is not for you, find a new one. Or quit like “Kate” did in the book. HOWEVER, it’s critical to know how you’re going to feed your family before you walk out that door.
- Corporate America does not care about my kids. Get over it. When I wanted to leave early or had to call in sick because my kids were sick, there was no sympathy. No understanding. The deadlines couldn’t be missed. For a long time, I felt highly insulted about that. Until I realized that my kids were not my employer’s problem. I had to do better to solve the problems at home for them. So, I did. I quit and started my own business. I had been banking my bonuses for years to build an out for me. That day came in 2005.
What can modern women do to create more work-life balance?
That is a topic for Part 2 of this blog. I do have some ideas and will share a few visual graphics I’ve found helpful over the years. The biggest suggestion I have to offer you is that you must redefine the very definition of work-life balance.
Hint…it’s not a 50-50 day. Or a 50-50 year. Rather, it’s an acceptance that you only have so much time each day. Make those hours the best you can. And remember, you can never recapture your kids when they are little. You only get one shot at being the mom you want to be.