Monday, May 11, 2015

Work/Life Satisfaction, Worry Work, and the Possibility of Change

I moderated a panel about "work/life satisfaction" over the weekend, and it will probably surprise no one that one of the questions from the audience was about whether one person in a couple has to step back from their career a bit to make parenthood work. I hear this question a lot, and there seems to be a real societal resistance to the idea that for some couples, the answer to that question is "no." I have ranted on this before (the infamous unicorn post!) and the venom around this topic has driven me to avoid it for long stretches of time.

The panelists had good answers- one talked about how her partner has an equally successful career but has more flexibility than she does, and so it works for them. Another, who was divorced, talked about not being a martyr, and asking your partner to step up, and how that was something she only learned to do after her marriage ended. She said that she and her ex-husband are now a very good team, and she wishes they had figured out how to do that while still married. (The other panelist did not have kids, so passed on this question.)

I chimed in with how Mr. Snarky and I both feel like we took a small step back for a little while- I stopped going to networking events for about five years, he leaves work earlier now (but often works the "split shift" at home)- but that mainly what we did was get a lot more organized. I said that a career is more like a jungle gym than a ladder (a metaphor I believe I stole from Sheryl Sandberg), and told the person asking the question to trust her future self and her future partner to be smart and able to solve problems.

There was sooooo much more I wanted to say, but I was just the moderator, and not a panelist, and I wanted to make sure we had time for other questions.

Luckily for me, I have a blog and can say what I wanted to say here.

I wanted to tell that young woman that those of us in the working parent trenches now sometimes have to emphasize the bad parts, because we need to bring about systemic change that will make things better for everyone, not just the privileged women like me and the person asking the question. And those bad parts are real, more so for some people and careers than others.

But they shouldn't stop her from trying, if that is what she wants, because sometimes it isn't bad. Sometimes, it is pretty damn good, really.

My life is not perfect, but it is pretty damn good. I love my children, and I feel like I (usually) have enough time with them. I love my husband, and I feel like I (usually) have enough time with him. I love my work, and while there is so much I want to do and sometimes I wish I had more time for it- realistically, I have as much time for it as it makes sense to give it. If I gave it much more time, I suspect I wouldn't love it quite so much.

There are hobbies I miss. I miss playing fiddle. As I prepare for our upcoming vacation in France (we leave Friday! YIKES) I wish I had more time to learn French. I have an ever-growing list of books I want to read. I wish I grew more food in our garden. I want to travel more.

But, life is always going to require some trade-offs, particularly for someone like me, who has so many different interests. I would bet a large sum of money that I would still have hobbies I miss even if I didn't have children or even if I had "stepped back" from my career.

So I would tell that young woman not to let the scary stories she reads put her off having children if she wants them. There will be room for them. She'll figure it out, and while there may be some trade offs she wishes she didn't have to make, chances are there will be some of those even if she doesn't have kids.

The current scary story floating around is about how women carry more of the "worry work" at home than men do. This is because of the NY Times, of course. There was an op-ed about it.

This is a perfect example of the "we need to emphasize the bad to make change happen" dynamic. I absolutely agree that society at large (and probably a depressing number of men) expect women to take on more of the worry work- i.e., tracking which clothes need replacing, which activities need to be registered for, when the next dentist's appointment is, and things like that. In fact, I am sure that an even more depressing number of men are not even aware that this work exists.

The thing is, it doesn't have to be that way. I know this not because Mr. Snarky and I have it all figured out, but because we don't, but we're always getting better.

Do you remember that post I wrote ages ago about needing the mental space for my "big career"? This is exactly what that post is about. It is absolutely true that absorbing too much of the "worry work" at home makes it hard to focus on your work. Things were out of whack, and we took steps to fix it. We upped our organizational game: this was when the fridge calendar and the fridge white board appeared. We also redistributed the worry work a bit.

Read that last bit again. We redistributed the worry work a bit. Too often, when we talk about this issue, we talk about it as if it is an immutable law of nature that women will do more of this work than men. That's bullshit. We know it is bullshit because single sex couple manage to have more equitable splits, statistically speaking. (I am too lazy to look up the reference for that right now. Sorry. I think it may be referenced in that NY Times article.)

I also know it is bullshit because Mr. Snarky and I regularly redistribute this work. Right now, he has dentist appointments and swim lesson registrations. I have doctor appointments and gymnastics registrations. Soccer registrations bounce back and forth. He did the most recent one, I did the one before that. We put things like "sort through clothes" and "buy new clothes for kids" on the to do list, and one of us picks up that task. He keeps track of the cars needing service, I keep track of the school schedule.

We don't have this perfectly distributed 50-50, but we have gotten so, so much better at speaking up when we're feeling overwhelmed, and asking the other person to step in on something.

I know that it isn't always easy to get your partner to work with you on this issue, just like you can't always easily fix the problem of who does more housework. I suspect the options to deal with that are the same as they were in the chores case. In both cases, I guess we can also add an option to make a stink about in the NY Times so that maybe we start to get the systemic changes we need, even if that scares the generation of women coming up behind us.

So, that's my big secret to work/life satisfaction: give it a go, trust that you (and your partner, if one exists) can solve problems, and then solve those problems when they come up. Level up your organizational game. Divvy up the worry work. Keep getting better at these things. And remember that there are always trade offs in life, and the trick is to try to make choices that make you the most happy overall. There is no such thing as perfect work/life balance. But there is happiness and pretty damn good work/life balance.


Laura Vanderkam talked about related issues on her blog all last week, in support of the upcoming release of her book I Know How She Does It. I haven't had a chance to read it yet- it isn't out!- but from the reviews I've seen, it will offer other examples of how women with "big careers" and kids make it all work. I wish I had thought to mention that book at the panel, but I didn't. Moderator fail.


This is only somewhat related- project management skills are what I use to level up our organizational game at home!- but I want to mention it anyway: The early bird pricing on my Get More Done class ends tomorrow, May 12. That's probably "today" in the time frame of when you're reading this post! So, if you want to learn about the fundamentals of project management so that you can evaluate the available processes and tools and pick the bits that work in your specific situation... sign up now!


  1. So true. I put off having kids for so long partly because I thought I internalized that sense of having to carry all the burden alone, when all the time PiC was right here willing to be an equal partner and consciously and consistently resists my inadvertent attempts to take on more than I should.

    I should have trusted my mom, too, when she said that certain things do come together after marriage and not before because that's the right time for them to. I didn't even recognize that I'd been traumatized by the adults in my life and expected way more evidence that we could make an equal partnership long before I was willing to commit to it.

    Now I see what she means. When I watch PiC doing dad things I am a bit overwhelmed by how much he's grown just in these past few months - not that he wasn't great before - but he's risen to the new challenges like they weren't anything and became my rock upon which I can rest. So yes, the paradigm that women have to do it all to have it all is really bull. We can figure out how to make it a balanced load in our lives with the partners we choose, but we have to be willing to figure out how to make it work along the way. Alas that it's not as simple as picking the "kids with the balanced work life situation" package like a sports package or a tow package with the car. It's far better, though!

  2. I couldn't even finish reading that op-ed, it was so infuriating, and the first half of the piece used every mommy martyr cliche in the book. First---she cited the stats that 50% of men think they do most/half of the work, but 66% of the women think THEY do most of the work. And her reasoning was that obviously men overestimated what they did, or maybe women defined "work" differently. She never mentioned that maybe the women were overestimating what they did? Then she goes on to admit that she was the "gatekeeper" mother, not willing to relinquish control. There. She just admitted that she brought this upon herself. Women doing this makes me rage-y---on the one hand complaining that their husbands don't do enough and on the other hand making quite clear their beliefs that their husbands are incompetent and incapable of doing much unsupervised. Its the perpetual cycle of martyrdom.
    I'm not saying women's work isn't devalued systematically---of course it is--and changing that is certainly a noble goal. But, like you---and many many of my colleagues & friends---we've figured this out. Its not inevitable. And my husband happens to be inherently TERRIBLE at remembering things, or even updating & checking his calendar. But its important to us that this not fall on me (I have the bigger career and salary) so we've worked out solutions.

  3. I had a long response but it disappeared, so here's the short version. My husband is the disorganized procrastinator of the family and it would have been so easy and "natural" for me to take all the entire mental load. However, with time, we have been able to re-distribute the load fairly equally. He pays rent and I pay other bills. He researches products we need to buy and I find the coupon codes or best deals. He is responsible for gifts/birthdays for his side of the family. I do my side. He schedules his own medical appointments. He schedules most of the kids' medical appointments. I handle the medical insurance side of things. We both do laundry. We share a calendar via the Cozi app, which is a lifesaver in terms of saving time and scheduling conflicts. It took me almost 2 years to convince him to use it but now he's great at it. It can be done if you believe that your spouse is a responsible adult (even if he's less responsible than you).

  4. Great post (and thanks for mentioning me). While there are many practical tips to tell young people (women) fretting about all this, perhaps the wiser advice is just what you said: you and your partner will be smart enough to figure it out. Stop worrying about stuff that hasn't even proven to be a problem. In the worst case scenario, that worry will push you to make problematic choices about leaning back and the like.

  5. Unless one's partner is a total slacker, I think there is other "worry work" that they do that goes unrecognized, too. In our house, my husband is the one who realizes the lawn needs to be mowed, the house needs to be repainted, furnace filter needs to be swapped out, investments need to be monitored/adjusted, and cars need to go in for maintenance. Like the "kid" stuff, I am capable of worrying about these things, but I just don't - he's got it. I don't much care that these things fall along traditional gender lines - in the end I think we're both taking care of a bunch of "worry work" and we didn't even negotiate this explicitly.


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