Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Doing It All: Reality and Myth

I started thinking about balance, priorities and time management because I am frequently asked how I "did it all." I know the question is intended to be flattering and to refer to my particular combination of successful business career, happy marriage, and cheerful, interesting, grown children, but I don't like the underlying assumption. As flattering as the question is meant to be, "doing it all" is an illusion, and a bad one at that. What we need to do is "our" all. Every working mom needs to articulate her priorities and then spend her time and energy - scarce resources both - doing what matters most to her.

Getting your priorities clear isn't impossible, but getting comfortable with the notion that you get to set your own priorities - and then setting them - is evidently close to impossible for many of us. If you can discern between, on one hand, what you really care about, your spin on what's really important to you and, on the other, what's traditionally done and believed, then you can clarify your priorities and allocate your time so as to spend it on what matters most to you.

You also have to shed any all-or-none mentality you might have. It's not necessary to devote yourself 100% to your kids to be a good mother, and it's not necessary to devote yourself 100% to your career to be good at that. (Most men, by the way, understand this instinctively. They have balance issues, too, but as my character Jane says in A Merger of Equals, men don't worry that they're somehow doing the wrong thing by working when they have kids. Whether for traditional reasons or because they're just wired differently, men expect to work and be parents simultaneously. And everyone else expects that of them, too.)

Throughout all but the first few years of my intense and time-consuming career (which I loved), I also had two kids. There was never a shred of doubt in my mind about what was more important, my kids or my career. My kids won hands-down. That didn't mean, though, that everything about having children took precedence over everything else.

When my kids were babies, I found them boring and needy. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that adoring them didn’t stop their need for constant care from making me want to jump out of my skin, their non-verbal demands from making me long for words. Who knew? Now, I could have seen this as evidence that I was a terrible mother and should never have had kids, but whose rule would that have been?

Because I had clearly articulated my priorities – and because my self-confidence gives me courage and makes me largely impervious to worrying about things like what some magazine defines as appropriate motherly feelings – I didn’t doubt my fitness for motherhood.

Instead, I tried to figure out which parts of traditional mothering were important to me as a mother and to my kids in their development toward becoming independent, happy, productive members of society. Whenever a time allocation issue arose, it was this frame of reference I fit it into and measured it against. With my priority firmly in mind and a clear framework against which to measure tasks and decide which ones were the important ones, I allocated my time as wisely as I could.

I didn’t need to see my kids' first steps or hear their first words to take – and demonstrate – great pride in their development as walkers and talkers. So for me, putting them in daycare as infants was easy and guilt-free. School plays? I’d rather be working. Teacher conferences? After a memorable conference with an elementary school teacher who evidently had our son confused with someone else (the teacher referred to him as a “quiet, reserved boy” and I politely asked her if she had ever met him), my husband and I decided that he would handle this aspect of parenting. (He was also a busy professional, but one whose competencies include bedside manner.)

It also wasn't necessary to define success at work the same way others did. Like many women, I took a far from linear path. My
all-encompassing job as a young lawyer was great when I was learning my craft. But after my daughter was born, I wanted to be able to spend more than 30 minutes a day with her. So I left a law firm in the city for an in-house legal position closer to home in the suburbs. Everyone told me I was closing doors; a few people even told me I was throwing away my career. At the time, I figured I was willing to pay the price of a few closed doors (the principal one being law firm partnership) for the prize of a job I could enjoy and do well in fewer than 16 hours a day.

As it turned out, seven years later I became a partner at a different law firm (where I worked part-time for 4 of the 6 years I was there) and that led me to a senior executive position at a $20 billion company. No doors closed as a result of my non-traditional decisions. Even better, other, arguably superior, doors opened.

The point is not the particular choices I made, but rather that I made choices that used my strengths (and compensated for my weaknesses) in the context of my priorities – and then I lived by those choices. I suited myself. And my kids, my career, my husband and I all flourished.

Success and contentment come from knowing and articulating what matters most to you, then living your life achieving those priorities. The balance is not going to be perfect at every individual moment, but it doesn't have to be. It’s the long-term balance over the course of the journey that counts.

(I write about balance-related issues often. Click here, here, and here for other posts you might find useful. You might also enjoy my Suit Yourself Essays.)


Punup said...

"men don't worry that they're somehow doing the wrong thing by working when they have kids." That's because they leave the bulk of the childcare to their wives. Women don't have that option.

Lisa Gates said...

Wow. Fabulous post. And I'm here commenting because of your invitation on Twitter (thanks!) and because of the curious comment above by Punup.

To me this comment says it all, and why we women are always scratching our heads in wonder. Assumption kills the creativity of setting priorities, and it kills choice. Women "don't have that option" because they don't take/request/demand/choose that option. Simple as that. The rest is all a mental war waged inside our heads.

Wonderful site.