Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review: I Know How She Does It

There is a certain amount of irony in the timing of this review of Laura Vanderkam's new book, I Know How She Does It. I'm in the middle of one of those periods of life where I say it isn't so much that my work and home life are out of balance, but that they are ganging up on me.

Some of this is my own fault: I broke my rule about not scheduling any major work projects during the end of the school year "silly season," and scheduled the two class sessions for my online course about project management for... today and a week for today. School ends Monday. This was entirely my own choosing. I do not know what got into me.

But- the first session went really well today, and I've already received some good feedback about it. I'm very glad I decided to offer this class, I just wish I'd thought a little more carefully about the timing and offered it a couple of weeks later!

I compounded this issue by making something I can only call a stupid mistake today. I promised my class participants a recording of the sessions, and in fact sold access to just this recording (instead of the live class) as well. I blathered on at the start of the class about how I was recording it, and asking a question was agreeing to be recorded, and blah blah blah. And then I didn't record it. So, after I finished the class I took a short break for lunch and then gave the class over again and recorded it. Luckily, everyone typed their questions into the chat box instead of asking them out loud so I had all the questions. I think I got a fairly faithful reproduction of the class, and don't feel that I'm cheating anyone (I will of course honor my money back guarantee for anyone who disagrees).

Still. I didn't really have time to give my 1.5 hour class twice today! I also had to make some cookie bars for the end of year class party that was held after our schools big end of year dance festival tonight. It was a super easy recipe, but still... I thought I had plenty of time and then I didn't because of my mistake. To make matters worse, the dance festival meant that I had to stop working roughly 45 minutes earlier than usual, to go get my daughter, feed her a snack, and then get her back to school on time to get ready for the festival.

Oh, and did I mention that demolition for our room addition project starts tomorrow? The portapotty for the crew was delivered today... right after I started the 15 minute tech check period I'd scheduled before my class.

In short, this is the sort of pile up that often gets cited in the "you can't have it all" stories the media likes to use to get us all to rage read their articles (or share them as proof that our decisions were in fact the right ones).

But you know what? I wouldn't change any of the fundamentals of my life. I love working. I love being a mother. The sort of story I just told is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, the story of my Wednesday would be something like this:

I walked my older daughter to school after kissing my younger daughter good-bye and waving at least three times as she got buckled into her car seat so that Mr. Snarky could take her to day care. On the way to school, I smiled at the awesome view of Mission Bay and the ocean from my corner. As I walked home again, I turned and enjoyed the view some more. Then I came home, made myself tea, and started on my completely manageable to do list. I worked for most of the day, breaking for lunch and a run on the path next to Mission Bay. At about 4:30, I walked back to school, picked up my daughter, brought her home and left her to her own devices while I did another 30 minutes of work. Then I made dinner (Wednesday is Tortilla Night!), and ate it with my kids and my husband. After dinner, we had Family Game Night, and then the kids showered (on their own now!!!!) and had snack while I made lunches. Then they went to bed. If I still had things on my to do list that needed to get done, I might work for another hour. Or I might read.

It is easy to overlook those sorts of days when you're in the throes of a day like today... but they are there and every bit as real.

And this is one of the central points of I Know How She Does It: the life of the working mother is perhaps not as bad as we've been led to believe. She backs up this assertion with data from a time log analysis project she ran on volunteer working moms who make $100,000/year or more. By her own admission, this is a biased set of data, but there are still a lot of interesting observations and insights to be had from the analysis.

There's a lot more fun (and a lot more sleep) going on than the usual stories let on.

When I think about my usual weeks- the ones where work and home aren't ganging up on me- and try to understand why I am mostly happy with my life when so many media stories tell me I should be miserable, I struggle to explain it. I think I've had a lot of good luck. I'm the beneficiary of a lot of privilege. I happened to choose a career that affords a fair amount of flexibility (although Vanderkam's sample includes doctors and other careers that are far less flexible than mine).

And, if I'm honest and not trying to be modest, I'm damn good at time management. This is probably partly due to my personality, partly due to the fact that I've worked as a project manager- a job that specifically involves managing time!- and partly due to the fact that I'm constantly trying to get better at time management.

That's where books like I Know How She Does It come in. I think I'm good at managing my time, and building the sort of life I want, but I can always get better. And between the time log analyses and the anecdotes included to flesh out the story, this book is just full of ideas about how to manage time and get the most out of life. Not every idea in the book is relevant to me, but enough were that I'm glad I read it.  (Full disclosure- I was interviewed for the book. My Family Fun Lists feature in one of the chapters. Laura also provided me with a free review copy, which means I read it before it came out, but doesn't influence my opinion of its value.)

This is not the Be All End All book about balancing a "big" career and motherhood. There are no policy ideas in there, for instance, and even the introduction to the book acknowledges that the full answer to the angst about "having it all" (God, I hate that term) should involve some policy changes. It specifically focuses on high income women, and makes no attempt to address the intersecting issues of race, sexual orientation, and the like. Although the research is interesting and thought-provoking, it is not rigorous in an academic sense- i.e., the logs are from a self-selected sample of women, and the details about the statistical analysis are largely glossed over.

But it isn't trying to be the Be All End All book on career and motherhood. It is trying to be a counter-balance to the usual gloom and doom on the subject, and maybe get people to think about the possibilities a little differently. One of the strongest things about the book is how it shows that there ARE women out there working "big" jobs and really leaning into their careers... and doing it on a completely reasonable number of work hours. The narrative about 80 hour work weeks is truly flawed. Rigorous time log data (cited in the book) shows that people inflate their work hour estimates. Recent stories have also shown that a fair number of men working "big" jobs are quietly working 40ish hour weeks, too. As the book points out, the false information about what it takes to pursue certain careers can lead people to self-select away from those careers, and that is truly unfortunate.

I put this book in the same class as Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. It doesn't tackle the systemic issues that are holding women back- but if you're the sort of woman who wants to have a "big" career and a life outside of work (or indeed, the sort of man who wants that), you're likely to pick up some useful ideas.

The fact that I find these sorts of books useful doesn't mean that I'm not interested in seeing systemic change. It doesn't mean that I'm not going to work to make things better so that my daughters aren't facing the same crap I do. It just means that I want to lead my life and have a big career and a full home life NOW, and I don't have the luxury of waiting for that change to happen. If this describes you, too, you might want to pick up a copy of I Know How She Does It.

For newer readers: I've written A LOT about work-life balance. It is late, and time for bed, so I'm not going to dig up all the links now. I've sprinkled a few throughout this note- between those, the posts linked on the right hand side, and the "You Might Also Like" suggestions, you'll probably find most of what I've written on this topic, if you're inclined to look for it. You can also check out the "working motherhood" category of posts. I have another post brewing on the role of old-school sexism in some of the frustration working mothers often feel. That will have to wait until my work and home life stop ganging up on me.

Also... none of this should be taken to imply I think everyone SHOULD aim for a big career and full home life. We all want different things out of life, and if you've made different choices than I have, I am fully in support of that. You do you, as the kids say these days.

And one more also: I still think that moms working minimum wage jobs have it a hell of a lot harder than I ever have. That's also a rant for another night. In fact, I may have ranted about it before. I can't remember. But that doesn't mean that moms like me shouldn't look for ideas that can make our lives better, and it doesn't mean that no one should write books about us.


  1. I had such a nice work-life balance, then we moved (I still have the same job, just living an hour away from it now), now I have a long commute and a household mostly in boxes, a kid who's about to be out of school, and I'm struggling to find a new balance. I wish I could "bounce back" from these kinds of life changes better! I feel like it takes me so long to find a new groove.

    1. Moving is a HUGE disruptive force. Definitely cut yourself some slack :) Good luck!

    2. Moving, new longer commute... yeah, that will take some time to adjust to! I still do a long (for me) commute of 30 minutes each way 3x/week, to go to a client site. They key for me was to find ways to make that time not feel like it was wasted. I tried a lot of things, and eventually discovered that I like to use the time to listen to podcasts. Some are about work-related topics, but most are just cool things I want to learn about.

  2. Thanks for this review. Waiting until the library gets its copy to read; I've already more than used up my book budget for the summer!

    I'm guessing I will be a combo of inspired and irked by the target audience. As I mentioned in a comment on LV's blog, I'd really like to see what she finds if she looks at lower middle class/middle class folks.

    I know for me just having an additional $5-10K/year would radically change my ability to outsource, in terms of increased childcare, etc. As it is, I consider myself really fortunate but nowhere near the income level of the women she looked at (whose houshold income is presumably even greater if they had a working partner).

    1. Anonymous7:37 AM

      Having been most of my life out of the target demo and recently in it, I can definitely attest to this. Having money to throw at problems is amazing. It really does change everything, and not just at the margins-- there's an entirely new way to approach problems. But maybe that's one of the points of the book-- upper middle class women really do have it easier in many ways.

      I'm way behind in book reviews-- still have a half-finished one for Petunia the girl who was not a princess (which DC2 loves and points out every time I have this webpage open) in my drafts. Sorry! Maybe I'll have it queued up for Christmas.

    2. I definitely think more money makes work/life balance easier. Without a doubt, having money has made my life as a working mom easier than that of some of the other working moms I know from Pumpkin's school. Without a doubt.

      But, to be fair to this book, it is far from the only thing that focuses on the "big" career, high earning women. In the introduction, it is clear that the project was motivated at least in part by the "Why Women Can't Have It All" Atlantic cover and stories like that. Those tell an incomplete story, too, and this book does help balance that.

      I would also like to see more attention paid to middle class and working class working mothers, but to be brutally honest, I think any book on that topic is going to have to come out of academia, because there will need to be something other than book sales funding the work. This research that went into this book seems to have been entirely self-funded, and you only do that if you expect to make the money back in book sales. Sadly, a book about women with more moderate income levels and career achievement probably wouldn't do that.

    3. Yes, what you say here makes total sense.

      But that's a huge problem with self-help books as an industry. I'm drawn to them, but much prefer academic work on the same subjects for exactly those reasons.

    4. Yes, a well-written academic book on an interesting topic is a thing of beauty! I've recently discovered Deborah Tannen's books. They are old, but I am finding them very useful. They're not about time use, though- they're about language usage and how that both reveals and shapes our culture.

  3. This book is a MUST READ for every working mom. Love, love, love reading how others are making their lives balanced!

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  4. Laura Vanderkam continues to demonstrate that there is plenty of time to do what we need to do. I loved her analyses of the time charts of the very successful women discussed here. We are doing better than we think we are. She has the data to prove it!


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