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.