Wednesday, February 08, 2012

On "Big Careers" and Work-Life Balance

Something happened today that has finally made me decide to write about a work-life balance topic that has been languishing in my "posts to write" list for a long time. Let me apologize up front- it has been a hard day, I'm having a beer, and this post is going to be a bit stream of conscious-y. Those three things are probably related.

Anyway, it all started when I got mad at work- mad enough to need to get up and leave a meeting. A meeting that I was running. Now, this is rare. Really rare. So rare that no one in the room had ever seen me mad before, and there were people in the room who have worked with me for years, including my boss, who worried that I was about to quit and insisted on taking me out for tea to give me a chance to decompress and apologize for creating the conditions that made me mad.

So, you know, good times. Particularly since I, like many women, get teary-eyed when I get mad. I am over feeling bad about that- I agree with this quote from Tina Fey, in Bossypants:

"Some people say 'Never let them see you cry.' I say, if you're so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone."

But I felt bad about disrupting my meeting. And I felt bad about the fact that the hour or so I spent having tea with my boss just made me even more behind on the work that needs to get done. In short, I wasn't in the best of moods when I got an email from my husband saying he needed to run an errand tonight.

I wrote back that he could, but not during bathtime, because I needed him to do bath (it was his turn) so that I could get the kids' rooms ready for the cleaner, who is coming tomorrow. And I told him I'd just melted down in a meeting, and clearly needed to get some stress out of my life.

Being a good husband, he wrote back to ask me to lunch. On the way to lunch, he was trying to come up with how we could make more time for me to work. I told him that I did not, in fact, want or need more time to work. I am operating at my work limit. What I need is more mental space for work. I have a lot going on at work right now, and I need the mental space to think about it, and not think about, for instance, the fact that he had left his credit card (on a joint account) at a restaurant on Saturday and still not called them or gone to retrieve it. Or that Petunia needs new shoes. Or any number of other mundane things that I keep in my head or on my "home" to do list. I want him to step up and take on some more of the household memory tasks. He may or may not be able to do this- he's recently been promoted into management at work, and I suspect he also needs more mental space for work right now. So we'll probably solve this problem by optimizing our home processes a bit more. But that's not the point. The point is that his response to this made it blindingly obvious that he has no idea how much I'm juggling at work right now. He made a suggestion about how he keeps track of all the things he needs to do at work. I pointed out that (1) I'm already doing that, and (2) I'm keeping track of what 10-15 people need to do, on 5 or 6 projects.

And his jaw dropped. Literally. He had no idea that I had that many people working for me. But I do: I only have three direct reports and one "staff augmentation" type contractor (i.e., she's essentially a direct report), but I have roughly 10 other contractors working for me right now, many of them at full time or close to it. We have a lot going on. Of those 5 or 6 projects, at least two of them are very big, very high profile- as in, pretty much everyone in the company, right up to the CEO, will notice whether or not they succeed.

So what does all of this have to do with work-life balance? Well, it made me think about the fact that most people really have no idea what a big operation I run. I think that is because I downplay what I do. I should stop doing that for many reasons, one of which is that it makes people take my opinions about work-life balance less seriously.

I care deeply about work-life balance issues. I am passionate on the point that it is possible- enjoyable, even- to have a "big career" and also have a good home life and feel like a fully involved parent.  Sometimes I wonder if my career is maybe not "big" enough to qualify me as an example of that. I am not running a company. I am not a tenure track professor. I am not a high-powered consultant or lawyer, charging hundreds of dollars for my time (although, if I were a consultant, a fair rate for my time would be somewhere between $150 and $200 an hour).

But I am running my group, building the enterprise informatics infrastructure for a biotech company that now has ~150 people. I have multiple databases (many of which I've designed) and a portfolio of enterprise software to manage. I manage relations with vendors and other departments. As I mentioned above, at any given time, I have a team of 10-15 people who look to me to set priorities and balance timelines so that we can deliver projects on time. My department's budget is over $1 million, and I decide how to allocate that money in order to best meet our goals- which I set. And yes, sometimes I am the final arbiter scientific and/or technical decisions, although I prefer to build consensus within my team rather than issue edicts.

And I do all of this while working a 40-50 hour week- and while ensuring that my team can also work reasonable hours. We work weekend hours sometimes, because we are in IT, and we often need to do our work when the scientists we support are not working. But I explicitly tell my team to take comp time, and I will always rearrange our schedule around someone's home schedule. To me, that is just good management.

The point of writing all of this isn't to brag. It is to make the point that we are sometimes a bit too narrow in our focus when we talk about work-life balance and "big careers". No, I'm not Sheryl Sandberg -  but most men aren't Mark Zuckerberg, and I am not someone without responsibility and authority. I am also most certainly not alone. There are lots and lots of middle managers like me out there, in a wide variety of industries. Do our careers count as "big"? Does it matter? Why are we so invested in saying that there are some careers that are incompatible with having a family, and trying to find that subset of "big" careers that just won't work for mothers? I've heard people say that my schedule is all well and good for the sort of work that I do, but it wouldn't fly at a start up (shhh... don't tell, but I've worked at start ups, too, and kept essentially the same hours), or in XYZ industry.

Well, to be blunt, I think that is bullshit. If people have work limits, then they will have interests outside of work. Why should it matter so much if those interests are children? I do acknowledge that some companies and industries have cultures that do not accept that people have work limits- but I think that is short-sighted and frankly counter-productive. And there is nothing inevitable about those cultures. They are not dictated by some sort of natural law, like gravity. People made those cultures. We could change them if we wanted to, and I suspect that if we did, we'd actually get more done. So why don't we want to?

UPDATE: I wrote a couple of follow up posts. One has some thoughts about why this post angered my anonymous commenter, and the other is about stress and how I handle it


  1. re: the mental load thing... sounds like your family could benefit from hiring a personal assistant for a little bit. We did that once when DC was little and we were overwhelmed at home and once when we were overwhelmed with getting things ready for sabbatical. We wrote out a big list of all the errands that needed to be done and she just did them. Recycling to the center, goodwill to good will, information looked up, people called, paint spots filled in etc. Gone nagging mental load. Whew. Then we were back at a normal every day load and were better able to get back to balance. Of course... getting the personal assistant can add to the mental load (in each case one sort of fell into our laps, which made it easier).

    A famous woman economist from a previous generation (a rare one with a few kids) gave a talk in which she said something I remember well. Do children derail your career? No, children are a hobby. They derail your hobbies. If you're not allowed at least one hobby as an academic, then what's the point. Maybe she would have gotten one more paper written per child, but that's nothing compared to her cv as a whole.

  2. Sorry you had such a rough day. Hopefully your husband will understand your work-stress a bit more now and be able to help with the home-stress more!

  3. My comment was eaten! In short: you ARE "big" and awesome. Rock on.

  4. @nicoleandmaggie- that's an interesting idea. I'll have to think about whether that would help. My problem isn't so much doing the errands as remembering they need doing- but if we go a bunch cleared off, maybe that would help.

    I totally agree with the idea that children derail your hobbies more than your careers. I think I've ranted about that before... maybe I'll find the post later and put a link here. I definitely had more hobbies before kids- kickboxing (for real, not just in my garage), playing fiddle in an Irish session, baking, lots more reading....

    @Alyssa- thanks! I feel much better after my workout last night. Maybe the entire incident can actually be blamed on the rain on Tuesday night, which made me miss my workout.

  5. We're pretty selfish with the mental load thing too... DS has failed to bring things to school he was supposed to bring. Each time he asks, "Why didn't someone remember? Why didn't you remind me?" And I say, "Why didn't YOU remember?" Lucky for me I grew up with my mom's underlying belief that everything is a learning experience ("builds character")... we're just making him stronger. (Not that we would purposefully forget to remind him of something like one of our son's classmate's parents. I'm just happy to rationalize everything we do as having been good enough.)

    I'm irritated with the school for adding to the mental load with its "You must make a valentines day box at home for valentines. They will be judged." And volunteer to bring this or that or the other. And every Thursday you have to bring a dollar for Friday pizza... I just want to write one damn check at the beginning of the year and not think about things again.

    Before we hired a PA the first time, one thing we did was write a list on a piece of paper and tape it on the wall of our home office (so we could forget, but would be reminded). At the point we needed another sheet, we decided we needed help.

  6. Lisa F.8:39 AM

    yep, the unconscious running mental list of things to do soon, down the road, situations that need special attention...I just blew up at my husband for suggesting we go on a ski weekend w/a bunch of families Next Year! He just thought it would be "fun." And at first I couldn't identify why I was enraged but the more I tried to get to the root of it, it was part the additional mental load the trip would entail (buy snow wear for kid & possibly me, figure out meals + shopping for groceries, pack car, plan car entertainment, etc etc.) and some other stuff (I don't like the cold & I don't ski, one of the families has a 16 y.o. who plays v. roughly w/younger kids, e.g. shaking my 6 y.o like a whiplash commercial last time we were together, so I'd get stuck patrolling while husbands ski) ugh. it was so loaded & weird. but reading the term "mental load" has helped me further define the dynamic.

    You have a Big Job! And you sound really good at balancing things most of the time. Losing it at the meeting should be a sign that things are out of balance in some way. And OH do I hate crying when I'm mad, makes me feel so weak & vulnerable.

    I like the idea of a PA in some respects, might make offloading the list easier.

  7. @Lisa F. - I could have written the part of your comment about your strong feelings in response to your husband's idea for a ski weekend. Amen sister, it's a work in progress for us. Which reminds me, I'm really grateful to the marriage counselor we saw 2 years ago. Helped us to see the dynamic for what it really was. Worth every penny. A PA would have been amazingly helpful, too. I'm all about outsourcing.

  8. Anonymous9:23 AM

    interesting post. agree that you are certainly 'big' enough. and re: your comment about it all being due to a missed exercise session. don't downplay you're feelings :) if you are so stressed that missing a workout does that, then it isn't really an issue about workouts

  9. What I love most about this post is the clear distinction between needing time to work and needing mental space to work. I really struggle with this with my husband. You have given me some words that will hopefully make it more clear to him why working later in the day doesn't help unless he picks up the slack on the chores that don't get done because I'm not home.

  10. I think it is really easy to under-estimate the impact that 'mental space' (or lack thereof!) has on both work and home. It has been a recent bone of contention in our house. I'm not entirely sure how to address it, either. Part of the issue is that the work is unseen - so it's hard to quantify. And therefore, possibly even more importantly for me - difficult to express appreciation for.

  11. There was an NPR story a couple years ago (focused on Google) about mental load and how we can only make a certain number of decisions each day (which is why google takes care of chores like dry-cleaning for its employees).

    I got nothing done that day after listening to it in the morning. I was terrified of using up my mental load!

  12. Postdoc12:45 PM

    David Allen said it well when he said we all need a system for "capturing all the things that need to get done—now, later, someday, big, little, or in between—into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind". You've probably read "Getting Things Done", but if you haven't, he really stresses the importance of getting things off your mind and in to writing somewhere, so that your mind is at peace and free to focus on the task at hand, knowing that all these tasks are "captured" somewhere, and you no longer have to devote mental space/energy to remembering them. I liked his talk of "open loops": "You've probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them—big or little—is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes,” or “open loops,” which I define as anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is. Open loops can include anything from really big to-do items like “End world hunger” to the more modest “Hire new assistant” to the tiniest task such as “Replace electric pencil sharpener.”...In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and collect all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way, and then plan how to handle them... First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through." Really, really worth reading if you haven't already!

    My husband and I have a whiteboard on the fridge where we track/both add to/review our "house to-do list" - I'm definitely less stressed-out when I know I don't have to devote bandwidth to keeping these things in my memory, I see them every time I open the fridge. :) If you like something more high-tech, there's also the Cozi smart-phone app, where you can have a "family account" where you can both keep a family grocery list, to-do list, etc. Best of luck!! :)

  13. You definitely come across as very unassuming. I appreciate that you continue to write about your work life balance and include the details and progress and changes and successes and learning experiences.

  14. This is a very insightful post - thank you! I echo what several commenters said before me - you have verbalized what has been bugging me for a long time. The fact that all these little details need to constantly be kept in my head, that I constantly have to "refresh" in order not to forget them, that's quite a mental load. I think I carry most of the load regarding the family life -- scheduling playdates, filling out forms, taking everyone for checkups and teeth cleaning...

    Of course you have a big job! My research group is 8 people, that's less than what you manage, and I think it's a lot of work.

    I have decided that I am not good with lists, I don't trust them. Actually, I don't trust myself that I won't omit something, so in the back of my mind I always "refresh." I have tried a number of techniques to keep "to-do" lists (including Workflowy after someone mentioned you had mentioned it on Alyssa's blog) and they are OK, sort of. But they somehow never seem to capture what I would like... In my head, all these different tags that different errands and task carry are nicely visible, tasks are cross-referenced by completion date, urgency, enjoyability, etc. I have yet to find a tool that does it the way I like. I also don't do well with calendars -- electronic or paper...

    But i digress. Great post -- thank you! And best of luck finding a good way to mentally unload.

  15. Anonymous8:49 PM

    “Why are we so invested in saying that there are some careers that are incompatible with having a family, and trying to find that subset of "big" careers that just won't work for mothers?”

    Why do *you* seem so invested in arguing the opposite? Sorry, but when I detect a certain level of anxiety behind posts on this issue (whether arguing either for or against), a little warning bell goes off inside my head and I can’t help but be suspicious.

    Surely the answer to this question is a very personal one: some people may be happy/able to do the balancing act, while others … not so much. When I was thinking of going back to grad school, a friend of mine was just finishing up her PhD part-time. She encouraged me to do the same, telling me how she thought that I was so organized and ambitious that I’d be able to pull it off like she did. I had a feeling it wouldn’t work for me, but I tried it … and failed miserably at it, for all the reasons I thought I would. So I took a leave from my program, concentrated on work and saved up, and then returned as a full-time student. I graduated 3 yrs later as the top student in my department, with several job offers, including a post-doc, before I had even started looking.

    Was my friend as successful? No, all she wanted was the degree, which got her a promotion at her company but nothing else. The point is that everyone has different ideas and needs when it comes to feeling happy and successful. It’s all well and good to tell people your story. But there’s also nothing wrong with acknowledging that some people may find that they must choose between career and parenthood to be happy, and that this seems to happen more often in certain jobs than in others.

    As for children being “hobbies,” what a load of BS! My hobbies have *always* taken a back seat to my career – my children certainly not! People who think having kids is like taking up cycling should seriously reconsider their decision. Even a pet is oftentimes more of a commitment than a hobby.

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  17. Wow, @anonymous, that was a pretty confrontational comment. No one said children were hobbies. If you go back and read what Nicoleandmaggie and I said in our comments, we said that what got derailed by having children were our hobbies. I stand by that. I dropped most of my hobbies when I had kids, but I kept my career. Do my children come before my career? Most of the time. Do I sometimes not do exactly what my kids want because I need to do something for work? Of course. My kids are incredibly important to me. But they don't dictate my life. I am still a person, and I am allowed to have interests other than my children. My main interest happens to be my work. It is sort of insulting that people think I can't balance two important things. If push came to shove, and I had to make a choice, I'd choose my kids. But for most people, that choice is never actually required. It certainly has never been required for me.

    As for why I care that careers like mine are not seen as incompatible with kids... well, I'd think that would be sort of obvious. But I'll spell it out: I'm sick of being told that the life I'm happily living is "impossible". It is insulting, and comes with an implied judgement of my parenting, my work quality, or both.

    Frankly, I detect some defensiveness in you comment. I never said the things you think I said. I have in fact written many, many times about how I think the choice between working and staying at home with the kids is a personal one, and that different choices are right for different people, and nowhere in this post did I say that I thought my life was superior to anyone else's.

    @GMP- thanks for the nice comment. I'm glad you liked the post! I am a natural list lover, so I doubt I can offer advice on how to unload without using lists and calendars. In fact, I suspect the eventual solution for me will involve increasing the number of lists we have at home. We keep our shared home "to do" list on the computer, and I don't think that is working right now. But I need to think more about that.

  18. And I should say... thank you everyone else, for the nice comments. I think it is interesting that the "mental space" idea is what is resonating with most people. I feel compelled to give my husband a little more credit in this regard than I did in the main post- there are plenty of things he keeps in his mental space that I never think about- like whether or not we should turn the sprinklers off because it is about to rain, whether the lawn needs mowing, and many other things.

    On the exercise thing- I should write a whole post about this. One of the facts of living a life like mine is that there will be stress- and sometimes a lot of it. I'm OK with that. In fact, I sort of like a little stress. I think the trick is in how you handle the stress. Exercise is one of the ways I handle it- which is why I blamed the whole incident on missing that workout. I didn't get to apply my pressure release valve, so the pressure vented in a suboptimal way...

    Finally, here are some old posts that the second @anonymous might find offers more background on what I think about the working vs staying at home vs easing off the career a bit thing. (Spoiler alert- my opinion boils down to "different strokes for different folks, and all the folks are good people who are just as likely to be good parents).

    how I think the "this career isn't compatible with motherhood" explanation does a disservice to all mothers

    Why I hate the "the kids come first" trope

    And after much searching, I finally found the post in which I wrote about how motherhood led me to ditch my hobbies. I ditched them because they were not as important to me as other things. The post was mostly about guilt and why we shouldn't give in to it, which is why it eluded me for so long. I finally remembered that I said something about underwater basketweaving, and it is the only post in which I have done that!

  19. Anonymous10:30 PM

    “Wow, @anonymous, that was a pretty confrontational comment.”
    Well, it was a pretty confrontational post, wasn’t it? ;)

    "No one said children were hobbies."

    This is a quote from nicoleandmaggie’s 1st comment:

    “A famous woman economist from a previous generation (a rare one with a few kids) gave a talk in which she said something I remember well. Do children derail your career? No, children are a hobby.”

    You’ll note the last sentence. And the rest of that paragraph reads:

    “They derail your hobbies. If you're not allowed at least one hobby as an academic, then what's the point. Maybe she would have gotten one more paper written per child, but that's nothing compared to her cv as a whole.”

    So having a kid prevented her from writing one more paper?! I dunno … having kids has had a much bigger impact on my life and my career.

    And for me, yes, there was a time when I had to give up my job because it became no longer compatible with being the kind of parent that I wanted to be. I recovered, so I guess I didn’t give up on my career entirely, but I never would have quit a job over a hobby.

    As for: “I never said the things you think I said” – I don’t know what this refers to; some examples might help.

    “It is sort of insulting that people think I can't balance two important things…. I'm sick of being told that the life I'm happily living is "impossible"….”

    I’m sorry you feel this way – I certainly never said any of that. The people who think that your life is impossible are falling into the same trap that you are: they are putting themselves in your shoes—but with their needs and expectations—and making a judgment about whether *your* lifestyle would work for them. And that is a completely irrelevant question! Nevertheless, it makes you feel bad….

    Well, have you considered that when you keep repeating that the only thing that having kids derailed in your life were your hobbies, that the mothers (and fathers) for whom parenthood has extracted a higher price might feel looked down upon by you?

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be truthful about your situation to avoid making someone else feel bad. But a modicum of acknowledgement that not everyone is so fortunate would go a long way. I don’t see that in this post.

  20. Zenmoo10:48 PM

    I've been thinking a bit more about the 'mental space'/'mental load' issue, largely because it is so topical in my life right now. (I had, not an argument exactly, perhaps more of a vent, at my husband about this last weekend)

    The big problem for both of us with the mental load is that we have a mental load of very different stuff, his mostly work related/ mine mostly home related as per our relative overall workload split - which is currently based on having a toddler and wanting to make sure he gets through his med training as efficiently as possible. We don't let each other know what is occupying our mental space very well. We also have quite different personalities - I'm very list orientated and structured, he is not (although he does fit in with my structures when I've built them!)

    I'm tempted to try the 'whiteboard on the fridge' to maintain my list, as some one in the comments above does. That would make it more explicit and help both of us in terms of seeing a) if there are specific tasks one of use could do for the other & b) when our deadlines are.

    Hmm. A useful & thought provoking post!

  21. @anonymous- I don't think I should have to include a statement about how I think other choices are equally valid in every post I write about being a working mother.

    This post wasn't about the choice to work or stay home, or even the choice to keep prioritizing my career vs easing off a bit. It was about the fact that it is possible to work in a reasonably challenging career and still have a home life.

    The fact that some people (including, I guess, you?) found it not to be what they wanted to do has no bearing whatsoever on my original point, because WE ARE DIFFERENT PEOPLE. Living in different situations. We each made our choices to do what we think is best in our own lives. My post about my life was not an implied judgement on your life, or anyone else's. We can all have equally happy lives, deserving of respect, while doing completely different things.

    I don't go read the entire back catalog of any random blog post I come across either, so I don't blame you for not doing this before. But, really- go look at what else I've written on this subject. I don't think my choices are better than anyone else's.

    I never put myself in anyone else's shoes in this post. That was all in your interpretation, I'm afraid. Which is fine- once I write something, it is out there to be interpreted how anyone sees fit. But I was writing about a crappy day, how that led me to realize that my own husband (who is most definitely not an asshat) doesn't really know what I'm doing at work... and how maybe if I were a bit more direct about what my work entails, I wouldn't get slapped down as not really understanding what it is like to balance motherhood with a "big career".

    I'm sorry you feel looked down upon by me. That is not my intent, and honestly- that is not in my heart. Go read that "Anyway you do it, it is hard" post. I really, really think there is no easy way to be a parent.

    But if people like me are not allowed to write our truth without someone coming and raining on our parade- we just continue to disappear into the cultural shadows. And that doesn't do anyone any good.

    If we stop pushing the idea that some careers are incompatible with being a good mother, it does not follow that anyone who takes a career break to devote more time to being a mother is a failure as a person or even in their career. It just means that the career itself is not incompatible with being a good mother. Which, in the case of my career, I believe to be true, because some people do it- and not just me.

    And now I'm going to bed. I'm sorry my post made you feel bad. It wasn't my intent. But I also don't think I wrote anything that should make anyone feel bad.

  22. And really, @anonymous? You found this post confrontational? Wow. Do yourself a favor and stay away from feminist blogs. (And, for that matter, pretty much everything the NY Times writes about motherhood.) I'm a sweet, cuddly puppy in comparison.

  23. Anonymous11:53 PM

    “And really, @anonymous? You found this post confrontational? Wow. Do yourself a favor and stay away from feminist blogs….”

    Oh, I assure, I have no problem with confrontational! :-) In fact, I’ll take confrontational and thought-provoking over sweet but bland any day.

    Yes, you were clearly having a bad day and needed to vent. You said that in your original post and I pretty much ignored it – my bad! In that case, come back to my comments when you are feeling better – they were aimed at your head, not your heart.

    The one thing I did want to address is this:

    “But if people like me are not allowed to write our truth without someone coming and raining on our parade- we just continue to disappear into the cultural shadows.”

    So you feel that you are “disappearing into the shadows”? See, from where I sit, it’s not the women who successfully balance career and family that are marginalized – the Sheryl Sandberg’s of the world are celebrated. Rather, it’s the women who tried to “have it all” but found they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) that are being erased. And a lot of times, they are erasing themselves, because it’s much easier to admit to being successful than to admit to having failed. (Even if they are not really “failures”….)

  24. keep writing Cloud, just as you do. People who make different decisions will always be defensive when they read. It is a sad aspect of the "mommy wars"

    The "space" work occupies is huge, so huge i couldn't even bring myself to comment yesterday! I swear technology just makes it worse. Seems like we should be able to use tech more effectively to keep track of the rest, but I fall back on writing on my hand for the super impt stuff. My brain holds only a certain amount and after that anything else falls away

    I do find it hilarious that I had a PA when I had no kids, and now I don't. I feel badly about spending the money!

  25. I regularly get the "I don't know how you do it all" thing too. In fact, I got it last night from one of my peers that wors closely with both me and my husband. There is certainly judging involved in those statements like you said in one of your comments.

    I can also SO relate to the home to do list. My husband does a lot at home, but it's the routine stuff...baths, dishes, etc. and he always says our life is easy and manageable. But he doesn't do a lot of the random getting stuff when the kids outgrow them, or umpteen school related things or taxes or vacation planning, ...some of that stuff takes a lot of time and I think in a way, I do myself a disservice by doing a lot of it behind the scenes.

  26. Thanks so much for this. It resonated so much with my life.

    I agree that "we are sometimes a bit too narrow in our focus when we talk about work-life balance and "big careers""

    I may be wrong, but I feel like women with "big careers" often have it easier because they can hire a lot more people to help. I was asking my friend's boss about how she achieved the work-life balance thing (I am always asking successful women this) and she said "the key is having lots of people around you to support you." She then rattled through all the people she hires to help her. I was staggered. I mean, good for her, but I am not sure work-life balance is as much an issue for her as it is for parents like me who spend most of their income on child care and just simply cannot afford the additional nanny to pick them up from nursery and put them to bed, the cleaner, the personal assistant, the babysitter who babysits EVERY Saturday evening etc...

  27. @anonymous...

    1. Maybe your partner sucks as a true partner. Maybe you need to hire more help with other things. Maybe you're just not as organized or bright as the lady who gave the talk (after all, she is a top person in a male-dominated field). Maybe she had more hobbies pre-kids. Just because kids have had a bigger impact on your career than on a top person in her field doesn't mean that she's a bad mother. It could just mean she's a better worker or she has more support than you do. I can do a lot of what I do because my husband is the most awesome daddy and husband on the face of the planet. Most male partners are much more disengaged, especially when it comes to mental load.

    2. My kids don't come first. My FAMILY comes first. Kids who come first end up being entitled little pricks with helicopter parents who are PITA in the classroom and in life until they get beaten down when they're finally away from their parents. Our family is a team with all members equally important (based on need and so on) and all members pulling their weight. My family has produced generations of strong successful responsible middle-class working women and men who are proud of their parents and siblings with this strategy.

    You can try to guilt me into thinking I'm a terrible mother, but what I do worked for my mother and her mother and her mother before her and so on. I turned out perfect, as did my sister (as did my mom and aunts). My son is turning out perfect. If I changed anything, then we might move away from that optimum. My kid is strong and independent and loved and he's not going to be the one who is helpless at college when it comes to taking care of himself. He'll be the one showing other kids how to do their laundry or grocery shop and so on, just like I was. There's a satisfaction in being able to do things yourself rather than having mommy wait on you all your life. And he won't be expecting a woman to wait on him when he grows up either, which means I have a better chance of getting an awesome daughter-in-law should that be the direction he swings.

    And that is not to say that all SAHM are helicopter parents. They're not. Most of them have lives outside their children. Most of them know how to discipline their children so they don't try to brain other kids with tool-boxes. But the ones who try to lecture me on being a bad person because I don't have to work but I do anyway (or who were passive-aggressive at my mom growing up)-- IRL at least, their kids tend to be spoiled brats incapable of polite relations with society. We'd always say, "Man, that woman needs to get a job. Her kids would be so much better off." And it would be true.

    How's that for controversial?

  28. p.s. @Cloud

    Obviously you're just awesome.

  29. re: lists and lightening the mental load at home

    My mom had a calendar in the kitchen with everything listed on it for each day. We were all responsible for looking at it.

    Right now DH and I use our pocket calendars and we each have everything listed. We're both responsible for keeping track and sometimes we both forget, but since we both forgot, we can't blame each other. That isn't as efficient, but as we bumble our way through life it seems to work. Once #2 is here we may have to add that kitchen calendar.

    We also do paper lists and occasionally google docs as needed. Meal planning is our biggest mental load thing these days so we try to get that worked out on the weekend so we don't have to think about it during the week.

  30. ... thinking on it... I'd much rather have my children be a hobby than be work. Hobbies are fun. Work, not always. And, of course, nobody is paying me cash money for my kids, rather the opposite. Just like hobbies, I exchange time and money for happiness and a sense of accomplishment.

    Now, of course, it's a hobby you can't just drop, but why would anyone want to drop such a pleasant hobby?

    And anyone who argues that raising children is much too important to be merely a hobby...well, that's denigrating childless people whose hobbies fall into the "saving the world" category. There are a lot of things a person can do in their unpaid free time that make the world a better place.

  31. Anonymous5:28 AM

    the mean anon is just lame. ignore them.

  32. @jen, I hear what you're saying. There's a lot of privilege in being able to balance a "big" career and parenting - having a real partner (or a partner at all - not everyone does), having a job that pays enough for the extras, and/or having family nearby to help. The choices can become much harder & more complex the more a family struggles financially. At the same time, even in the middle-tier of careers (between some barely making ends meet and the Sharon whoevers) women struggle fiercely the push-and-pull. Even if I could outsource my entire life (nanny, cleaning, chef), I wager I would still have the "mental space" issue. It's hard.

    Anyway, I'm sorry, Cloud, I know that's a bit off-topic. Your post was about X and I imagine it can be frustrating when folks try to talk about Y (and then blame you for the post not being about Y, cf. anon).

    I am in true sympathy with your entire post. I'm also trying to have a "big" career and small children, and it takes a pretty big toll on me. I hear the mental space issue, and I have confess I shove a LOT of those things off onto my partner these days. But during the long chunks of time I'm alone with the kids, I'm just holding on by a thread just to keep the daily machine running, let alone little "extras" like doctor's appointments and bill paying.

  33. Hey folks, feel free to go off on tangents! They are fun to read.

    @anonymous who thinks I was belittling people who made a different choice, that goes for you, too. I am fine with opposing voices in my comments section as long as they are all respectful. And so far, they are.

    I can't write a long comment now, but I would say- go and really read the profiles of Sandberg. She's portrayed as being "lucky". I'm not sure she's being celebrated. There is a lot of implied judgement of her mothering in some of what I've read- the idea that she's not actually there for her kids. I don't know whether she is or not. But when our society says things like "a career in X is incompatible with motherhood"- and we DO say that about careers in science, btw, I've read it many places- then we are "disappearing" women like me. Or we are saying that women like me are probably either bad mothers or are short-changing their careers.

    When I say that I don't think I am doing any of that, it is not saying that I think that combing a career in science with motherhood is the right thing for every woman. I'm just saying that it is clearly not "impossible", because I'm doing it.

    Now, you could go write a post and say it was impossible FOR YOU, and that would be fine. But the things I've read that go on about how its impossible aren't personal blogs. They are articles in major publications and reports from groups trying to understand the gender gap in science.

  34. Hmm..I think I commented earlier but now I'm late to the conversation. I just wanted to add that I, too, suffer from the mental task overload so I enjoy reading your tips and the tips in the comments. For some reason, I tend to be the one that keeps the mental load and it does seem that most working women I know keep the mental load for social / family calendars.

    Anyway, I second what N&M said, FAMILY comes first and that is doing best for the whole family. If that means not going to every single one of your kid's baseball games, that's ok. (I would go to some of course but sometimes you want spouse time or alone time, or need to work!)

    I think your career is "big" enough and in fact, more relatable than the top CEOs who can afford tons of support/help and probably have more flexibility than the average worker bee.

  35. "My FAMILY comes first. Kids who come first end up being entitled little pricks with helicopter parents who are PITA in the classroom and in life until they get beaten down when they're finally away from their parents."

    So true. One of the things I love most about this blog is the honesty about the choices you have to make in life. I personally would have a sitter/nanny by now if I were Cloud but she (you) makes it work for her and her family.

    As an example, I love knowing that family dinner is a priority and hearing about the actual steps involved in making that happen and when other things get in the way or just become temporarily more important. Maybe it's because balance it important to me. Not "the perfect balance" but balance that I can work at achieve more often than not.

    And vacations with kids are not vacations unless planned properly. This was a revelation. And torture until I got a handle on it.

  36. @mom2boy

    I like to think of balance as standing in the middle of a teeter-totter. You don't have to get it straight in the middle, you just have to keep either end from hitting the ground.

    (That analogy may date me as I think teeter-totters may be considered too dangerous for playgrounds!)

  37. Somehow I missed this post :)

    That same justification people use to say "this career isn't compatible with motherhood" is the same kind of crap people use to deny requests for flexible work arrangements. There are *very* few jobs in my company/industry that couldn't accomodate a part-time schedule, or a compressed work week, or telecommuting, etc. We have all the tools and technology to make it work. But people are not yet ready to wrap their heads around that. I'm truly sad about it (and will hang on to my precious part-time gig for as long as I can...)

    I think everyone's work limit is different, everyone's idea of balance and priorities are different, so it makes no sense to pass judgment on others when you don't live in their lives.

    I don't get why @Cloud saying she likes working full time is somehow a denigration of someone else's choice to stay home or why she has to put in a disclaimer each time.

  38. the milliner1:34 PM

    Yes, yes and yes to everything in this post! Like others commented, the mental load thing is a huge one. I have realised recently on a few occasions that DH doesn't really know how much I am responsible for in a day at work. Which is manageable enough when things are running smoothly at home. But when everything runs amok at the same time, he's either perplexed about why I'm so stressed or less supportive than he could be. Gotta start giving him more details about work so he can help even the home mental load when things get awry at work.

    Quite frankly, the reverse happens too. I carry most of the mental load (as in remembering the things that have to get done) at home and especially for DS. Organization and remembering things are not naturally DH's strong suit (even before kids), so it's something that easily slips into my court. I don't (in general) mind doing the work, but when things get out of balance, I need the additional mental help from DH and he's not so quick to respond in that area. But it is getting better with practice.

    Two events on the topic stick out in my mind. And I think my blowing up about them kind of forced DH to face the fact that perhaps he didn't quite understand how much I was contributing on the mental side. One time while I was doing our quarterly finance review I wanted to review my findings and suggestions for improvement with DH. DH says casually "Oh, it's OK, I don't need to know the details... I trust you." And then mentions that he's happy to hand over his paycheck each week and I tell him how much $$ to deposit where, how much spending $$ he has etc. I totally lost it on him. There's no way in hell I want all of the mental load and stress of making all of our financial decisions (and the resulting benefits or consequences). I was so pissed. I think DH didn't think of it that way. He thought of it more as paying the bills and as task like things, but not mental energy or stress things. I think the intensity of my response woke him up on that subject.

    Another time, shortly after having DS, we were visiting friends (also with young kids) and the husband (an overall really great guy and engaged father) was saying how he couldn't understand how his wife would not go to take a shower when she had 5 free minutes. She'd just 'do nothing'. And he'd nag her to go take a shower (or do whatever errand it was that she mentioned wanting to get done).

    I remember speaking up at the time that OMG! Sometimes you need to just sit and reclaim your mental space. Especially when you have an infant/toddler. Your life at that point is SO dictated by their schedule that sometimes you just need to pull back from scheduling or doing something RIGHT NOW...even if you were dying for a shower. Sometimes mental space was just more important.

    I type this as I'm on a 5 day business trip. I was just thinking yesterday that it is the ultimate pleasure to not have to take care of anyone but myself. I miss DS, but this kind of break is really a treat. I'm hoping that DH is feeling at least part of the mental load I usually carry as he navigates daycare and full-time parenting for DS on the weekend.

  39. @Cloud- just read through all those comments. Phew! But back to the mental load bit. I know you've chosen day care as the situation that works for your family, but one of the benefits of hiring a nanny -- especially a very good, Mary Poppins-esque one -- is that she can handle a lot of the mental load stuff. Like remembering which week a kid is supposed to bring snack to school, that Wednesday is show-and-tell day, etc.

  40. What a fantastic post! I am an academic writing about the balance metaphor as it appears in pop culture right now, and I found this post through Mom 101. I particularly love your last paragraph. So nicely said and well-reasoned.

    I say I am writing, but most days? Don't have the mental space.

  41. Thanks, @Sarah! I'm glad you liked the post. I'd also recommend looking at oilandgarlic's post on balance- she writes from the standpoint of someone who is NOT a manager with a big salary, which is a perspective that I think gets overlooked a lot:

  42. Can a cri de coeur also be a tour de force? What an amazing post!

    I am, thank god, no longer an academic (retired, escaped), and thank god by the time my career kicked into gear my son was in college. And I was fortunate that when he was little, two older neighbor women were willing to take on the day-care role, since putting him in a daycare institution turned out to be a dangerous fiasco. But even under those best of conditions, it seemed that the job expanded to fill all corners of my life. And it was crazy-making. Matter of fact, a colleague discovered that at least one therapist in this city (more, apparently) specializes in Great Desert University employees.

    I loved your insight that, after all, everyone is expected to have outside interests and there's no reason an outside interest shouldn't be child-rearing. It works to shut up those childless colleagues who feel your family should go on the back burner or, as one of my graduate students was informed (by, we might add, a female senior scholar), you can't have an academic career and also be a mother.

    However, as a practical matter, a child is not a part-time interest, and bringing up a child is in fact a full-time job. Doesn't matter which parent takes on that full-time job, but the reality is that somebody needs to be available at all times over a period of 16 or 18 years to tend to the child's needs, concerns, and development. It means that at least one and probably both parents holding any kind of job will experience soul-killing conflicts; this is exaggerated when the adult holds a large, responsible job with extreme demands.

  43. I just found this blog through bluemilk and I'm loving it. But I'm procrastinating from doing some much needed work so I'm leaving you a comment instead of reading every other post you've ever written. I agree with you, there are a lot more full on jobs out there than Sheryl Sandberg's, many of which could be done in 40-50 hours, but aren't designed that way. If they were, it's very likely the world would be more (not less) productive.

    1. Welcome! Don't worry- the archives will be here later. I'm glad you're enjoying them.

  44. I suppose work-life balance is a very important topic for all people. You have very deep thouhts! I enjoy your article! I will take some thought to my essay I have to pass it next week.


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