Life is often full of tough choices. I was raised with the mindset that I could achieve almost anything if I were willing to work hard and sacrifice. But when you become a working mom, what does sacrifice mean? To sacrifice at home or work, or not to sacrifice? This is the question I have pondered throughout my entire career, which included a four-year stint as a start-up CEO inside of a Fortune 100 company. Being a single mom of a three-year old and a first time CEO meant making tough choices every single day. In every instance, I felt guilty and worried that I was letting someone down.
I will never forget standing in a coffee shop in Seattle with my colleague and feeling the joy of landing our first big customer while getting a call from my nanny that my son had just projectile vomited in the grocery store. I was a five-hour plane ride away. Or the time my son got a bead stuck up his nose at day care. My nanny, pediatrician and daycare teacher called me laughing. I was not laughing. I was a four-hour drive away and my father and nanny had to take him to the emergency room at a children’s hospital to be sedated and have it removed. Children getting sick is a normal part of life and parents must face these choices every day. Of course, we laugh now about the bead getting stuck up his nose, but that day I remember crying during that four-hour drive home and berating myself for not being home when my son needed me. I think it’s often the harsh critic in our own minds that holds us back from happiness and success. Over the years, I’ve learned to be kinder to myself.
I was recently at a women’s conference where a speaker talked about how we need to reexamine the expectations that society puts on working women. Often, we are expected to still carry a larger load of house work and child care than our spouses (if we have them). I believe this is the reason many women opt out of taking the bigger jobs. Instead we must determine what’s most important to us and how to get the help we need. I am a big fan of delegating and outsourcing whenever possible. Luckily since I’ve taken the bigger jobs, I have the income to pay for resources such as house cleaning and grocery store deliveries. I have a wonderful part-time nanny who has been with me since my son was five months old. She is our Mary Poppins. I am remarried now and have a wonderful husband who was a single dad for years. I have an amazing daughter now too. My nanny and husband can handle anything my kids need.
Still I’ve had to define my role as mom. And I’ve determined that I am not willing to outsource or sacrifice my role as mom. I want to be there when my children are sick. I want to be their chaperone on school trips. I want to be at home when they need someone to talk to because they had a bad day. I do not need to be the mom who makes the most amazing treats for my child’s school bake sale. Nor do I need to make homemade meals every night. So, if I know I’m not willing to make huge sacrifices in my role as mom, how do I succeed and grow in my career? And is this why so many women opt out of moving to the next level in their career?
At one of my first all employee meetings in New York in 2013, my advice to them was that being part of a start-up means that you will have to work hard, work long hours and travel. At the same time, I explained that I valued family above all other things. Even as I said this I wondered what that really meant. Having to be both mom and dad to my son meant that I was the sole financial provider and the kisser of boos-boos all in one. Was it more important to be at that big meeting where we were trying to get our first sale to the biggest software company in the world, or be at Mother’s Day Tea at my son’s daycare? That day, I chose the tea. I was not going to imagine my four-year old son not having his mommy there to receive his homemade cards and gifts. And I knew and my boss knew we were not going to close this deal so being there would have been for face time only. I was grateful to have a boss who fully supported my choices.
A few months before this meeting, I heard Arianna Huffington speak at Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco. She made a call to action to the women in the room that we need to redefine success — that it can no longer be just wealth, status, titles and exhaustion. Inspired, I told my team we needed to be clear about what success meant to us. As a start-up, we got to define this. My perspective was that if we were to thrive with skyrocketing revenue but half of us ended up divorced, in poor health or in poor relationships with our children, then we would have failed. This cultural mindset that my leadership team believed in and cultivated meant we were able to attract similar leaders with the same values. As a result, for a few years at least, we had an extremely happy work environment and a very successful business.
Still, there were many choices during those years that at times felt soul crushing. One of those times was when I had to board a flight across the country for a meeting that was necessary to save my business the morning after my sister died unexpectedly. And my team had their own personal challenges over the years of maintaining boundaries while going through major life events such as marriage, pregnancy, young children, divorce, parents passing, and illness. I wanted them to feel supported in making healthy choices for themselves and their families. And the balance issues were vast and they were not gender specific. One of my male leaders said he loved working for an organization where he didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving early some days to watch his son’s baseball game. Having asked 75 people to take a risk and join my start-up, I felt a heavy load on my shoulders every day to make sure they had the freedom to make the same choices about their priorities while still having a successful business. Sometimes that meant that customer meetings were done via video conference rather than in person or really important business trips were delayed. I hoped I was making the best choices for all of us. I know I made lots of mistakes.
It’s a balancing act every day. My time spent in meditation and yoga was part of what kept me grounded and helped me make the best choices in the moment. Arianna had also said at that Wisdom 2.0 conference that leaders are paid to make good decisions and not “create widgets.” In my experience, to make a good decision you have to see clearly. And that is the gift that meditation brings — not to just see things the way you want them to be, but to take the filters and conditioning off of your view and see what is really there and to see your reactions to what is happening from a broader and more compassionate view. It creates some distance and perspective from the situation and your feelings about the situation. This does not mean that you don’t experience stress. As one of my meditation mentors said to me one time, “there is a difference between feeling stress and being unseated by it.” And it’s often our reactions to the stress and inability to manage it that make tough situations much, much worse.
I have also learned through my meditation practice to be more compassionate to myself. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines “mindfulness” as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Non-judgmentally is a very important instruction in meditation. As my mind drifts, I bring myself back to focusing on my breath with a kind voice and no judgement. The practice of using a kind voice is powerful. And after 10 years of practice, kindness to myself has become a habit. I look back six years ago on that woman who was crying and racing home while her three-year-old was in the ER and have empathy for her. I know she was doing the best she could on her own and making the best possible choices in difficult situations.
So much of the guidance I gave to my team at that time in 2013 is still the same guidance I would give today plus a few other thoughts:
· Decide what is most sacred and precious to you, put a boundary around it and talk to your manager about that boundary so it can be supported. Don’t expect your manager to read your mind and know what you need most. These conversations need to be had in a deliberate manner. It may be your children, or it may be an ailing parent who you are caring for. It doesn’t matter what it is.
· Take care of yourself. Although this is perhaps an overly used analogy you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first on an airplane before you can help others. You have to be rested and healthy to truly be helpful to anyone. For me, my yoga practice is my oxygen mask because without it my arthritis is very painful. If you are good at your job and have a good boss, they will support you.
· Make sure you are seeing things clearly to make the wisest decision possible in the moment. I find meditation helps me have a perspective on tough decisions. But perhaps you need to take a walk, go for a run or sit on a decision for some time before you have the answer. Anything that helps you see the problem from a broader view is helpful. As Shawn Anchor says in his talks and books about happiness, it doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full as long as you know there is a pitcher of water nearby.
· Don’t attend meetings just for “face time.” You know what these meetings look like. You know when you don’t really need to be there. People are rarely promoted for face time. They are promoted for doing a good job and solving problems creatively. Don’t give in to the pressure of attending a meeting that you are not going to make a meaningful contribution to, one that others can handle on their own. People know when you don’t really need to be there. If anything, it can be detrimental to your career at times.
· Your time is your most precious commodity. You don’t get to live forever and neither do the people you love. Remember this every day and be deliberate about how you spend your time.
· Stop worrying about what people think of your choices. It’s your life, not theirs. You will never regret maintaining boundaries around what is sacred to you and you don’t have to justify it to anyone. People aren’t really thinking that much about you anyway. Get over yourself.
I can’t pretend that I have always followed my own advice. One of the times I didn’t follow my own advice was when I missed taking my son to his first day of first grade because I let myself get bullied into attending a meeting in NY that I knew was not necessary. It didn’t bother my son but it bothered me. It was not a sacrifice that I wanted to make.
I reflect on the decisions I regret and I work on forgiving myself. I also reflect on whether I would have still been promoted and as successful in my career if I had not made the sacrifices I didn’t want to make. In every instance over the last 24 years, I truly believe it would not have made a difference to my career path. I would still be where I am today and have had all the wonderful career opportunities that I have enjoyed. And that reflection empowers me to forgive myself and try harder to maintain my boundaries every day. As long as I am taking care of myself and meditating, I know I am making the best choices from the wisest version of myself. I make the choice to sacrifice or not sacrifice every day, I reflect on it at times, and then move on and up.