Rushing to get in my car, arms overloaded with a briefcase, purse, and a packed lunch one Monday morning I found a note on my car seat. It was on a ripped off sheet of lined notebook paper. Written in pencil, in handwriting only a mother could decipher it said: “Mommy I wish you could stay home with us and not go to work.” Full disclosure, I don’t remember how old my daughter was when she wrote those words and left that note for me, but I remember the feeling. A blow right to my stomach. That was not the first time I experienced the punch to the gut nor would it be the last. It just happens to be one of the more vivid memories I have of the tug and pull on my heart and mind.
Since you only get one shot at being a mom, it’s a good idea to get it right — right? After all, isn’t that what all moms want, whether they’re stay-at-home or working moms. Here’s how to make sure you don’t wind up wishing you had done it differently.
In her 2012 article in The Atlantic, Ann Marie Slaughter says that “women still can’t have it all.” Recently, my new job in a new workplace reminded me of her assertion. Should I take on “the cause” of trying to create work-life balance — a phrase I loathe, but agree has meaning for most of us? Many, many times younger, career-climbing women would ask me, “How do you do it?” I never really had a good answer. Now, after a quarter century working fulltime, I can reflect and offer some help.
First, there is no such thing as balance. As a matter of fact, I spent most of my professional life or child-rearing life out of synch — conflicted, tortured and second-guessing myself. Secondly, to Ms. Slaughter I would suggest that “having it all” implies both work and home life are in harmony at all times. Nonsense. It’s a fantasy and a pursuit not worth pursuing. I would never suggest to my daughters that they aspire to have it all. Instead, I would coach them to aspire to inspire, to be comfortable in their skin, to make their own choices. I would tell them to find a partner, an employer or career that acknowledges what it means to be out of balance from time to time, but focuses on a state of wellbeing most of the time.
2. PICK THE RIGHT PARTNER
My daughters were fortunate. They have a father who set the bar high. He carried his load and then some. As a physician, he didn’t get snow days or sick days. But that didn’t stop him from being the one to cook all their at home-meals. I never made an appointment or took them to the orthodontist….that was their father. We made it all work somehow largely due to shared parenting values and the joy we experienced being part of a family.
I had a strong track record of never seeking advice from my own mother who was a stay-at- home mother until my brother and I were 14 and 15 years old. In retrospect, I’d say that worked out well for us. I always secretly wished she had gone to work when we were younger so that I could have had some space from an over-imposing maternal figure. However, I have to give her credit for a piece of wisdom that has resonated with me, particularly these last few years. She witnessed the struggle that I had of being a working mother who desperately wanted to be at home with her children. She cautioned me to tough it out because, as she said, “In the end, there’s you”. Which to me meant that when the kids head out, what gets left behind is “you.” What will “you” do then?
3. PICK THE RIGHT EMPLOYER
Recently, I made a significant career change. After two decades in an organization that supported my efforts to be challenged and offered me increasingly responsible positions, I decided to take another leap: new job, new organization, even a new town. I had been so lucky to work in a company that valued working mothers. I’d even been able to take off the month of August, pick up my kids two days a week during the school year, and occasionally work from home. Now, that seems like a distant memory.
As a member of the executive team at my new place of employment, I am often expected and invited to help shape the organizational culture. How I would love to jump into shaping the culture around work-life balance — especially since those days are past for me! As we launch a new initiative with the Gallup organization I may get my chance. The initiative is based on the book “Well-Being: The Five Essential Elements” written by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. Mr. Rath & Mr. Harter, we hope, will guide us in creating a workforce that cares about each of our 4,000 employees as “whole people”, not just the part that shows up for their shift. The five parts of wellbeing include career, social, financial, physical and community. While I am still formulating my strategy, the goal is this: to create a workplace that embraces, invites, honors, values and respects working mothers — and fathers, too. We need to adopt flexible scheduling, policies that allow parents to be parents, or caregivers to their parents, and have open conversations about family challenges. What’s a small example of a basic practice for wellbeing? A standard shift for employees is 7am to 4pm so parents can be with their children. Mothers need to seek employers who promote this culture and employers need to recruit mothers who both want to work and to be the best parent they can be. That way society wins. Take a look at Denmark. It’s ranked #1 among countries on the “wellbeing index” according to Gallup.
4. ADVICE OR PERMISSION: MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE
If this topic appeals to you, most likely you are either seeking advice or permission. Should you work or stay home? If you are looking back, you may be searching for validation for the choice you made. Or maybe you are an enlightened and supportive partner wrestling with mixed emotions. I urge you to face the decision honestly for what’s best for you and your family. It’s not easy. It’s gut wrenching and hard work, regardless of your choice.
I chose to work. It made sense for me. Many mothers either don’t have a choice or feel like they have no choice. In either case, reconciling the work vs. stay home dilemma might be a little easier if it’s not an optional lifestyle choice. I’ve been working since I was 14 years old. The only time I took off for any extended period was 6 weeks of maternity leave during the birth of my first daughter and 5 weeks of maternity leave with my second daughter. Meanwhile, their father, my wonderfully supportive husband of 26 years, took one or two days off during their birth with no visible signs of conflict. There was the month of August, which I took off because I felt the overwhelming need to spend the kind of time other mothers were spending with their children at the ages of 9 and 6 years old. Other than those times, I felt conflicted.
The source of conflict was guilt — plain and painful. I was guilty when I was driving out of my garage and leaving behind a small child with a low-grade temp. I was riddled with angst when a snow day befell our household and I worked from home while the men in the office, my colleagues, were holding their badge of honor proudly — in the office, ready to work, looking around and chiding “What snow?”
5. BE CLEAR ON WHERE YOU STAND
A turning point for me, the moment when my guilt was somewhat assuaged, was the revelation that the additional income was not only necessary for our household, but could enable the girls to get the education they deserved. In other words, I was working for a cause. Knowing that I was helping out with our living expenses, making a contribution to the family, and subsidizing our children’s education helped me to reconcile my internal turmoil.
It was also liberating to tell my employer what my priorities were as a working parent. Quite clearly I made my values known. For example, I often said, “I can be replaced in a meeting room, but there is no substitute for me in the auditorium or on the sports field”. If I had to pick where I should be; the meeting or the play, you could find me in the front row of the theater. Guilt free? Of course not, but at least my values were clearly stated.
6. REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT ALONE
At some point many mothers ask: “Should I work or should I stay home?” The answer is life altering, frightening and portends responsibilities of unimagined impact. Too often we search for books, experiences, and lessons learned from others to give us the right answer. It’s an elusive search. There is no right answer. There is only conflict. And, there’s no “do-over.”
I know this because I am a mother who asked and answered that question of myself a gazillion times over these past 20+ years. As my eldest enters adulthood and my youngest heads off to college, I wondered what each of them thought. Was my choice the right one? Their answers were not as clear as I expected.
7. ASK YOUR KIDS: HOW DO YOU SEE IT?
When I just couldn’t take it anymore, my eldest was five months old and I was at the office missing her, my heart aching to be with her, I stopped what I was doing, hopped up from my desk and headed to the gift shop. There, I found a journal and I began writing letters to her so she would always know how much I loved her, even when I was away from her. That began the tradition of writing both of our daughters a letter at least once a year (on their birthdays and maybe a few in between) for 18 years. My husband and I made entries to express to them just how loved they were, what we wanted them to know as young adults that at the age of 3 or 4 they might not understand. On their 18th birthday, we presented them with the journals in their keepsake box. From time to time, we’ve read out loud what we wrote. I highly recommend this practice. It’s so much better than a scrapbook of when they lost their first tooth or said their first word. When I read back over my letters, I notice many “firsts” that I may not have been on the scene to witness, but the love oozing out of those letters, the memories of their childhood validates for them and for me that being a working mom did not deprive them. A fact I later verified from the source.
In her 2014 interview with David Bradley, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave preposterous responses to questions on the topic of work-life balance and being a working mother. When you’re the CEO of PepsiCo, admittedly that’s a different stratosphere. But really? She was upset that her daughter accused her of being the only mother not doing her share at attending school functions. So, she called the school to get a list of every mother who in fact was there. Supposedly, she was trying to refute her daughter’s perceptions and feelings. Secondly, she claimed she didn’t know how her girls felt about her being a working mother because she “never asked them”. Well, I could hardly wait until my girls were old enough to ask them.
The answer my girls gave me when I asked them, “How did you feel about my working?” elucidated exactly nothing. What it revealed was mixed feelings. There were some things they liked about it — mostly when they were a little older and more mature — such as having a female role model who had a professional career. Perhaps they were proud and perhaps they respected my choice and hard work. What they did not like about it were seemingly small issues, but those that had great impact on them at the time. For example, they did not like being picked up by a babysitter when others were picked up by their moms for ice cream or shopping. They did not like that I showed up at school in my “worker woman clothes” while other moms were clad in Lululemon pants and the latest yoga attire, complete with ponytails and headbands.
IN THE END WOULD I DO IT DIFFERENTLY?
Like most things in life, there are trade- offs. There are compromises and there is conflict. With the advantage of some reflection, I now feel good about how I answered the question, “Should I work or stay home?” The answer to work meant to work at managing the conflict and the guilt, to work at making myself as accessible to my family as possible, to get to the games, to the performances, the parent-teacher conferences, even to volunteer to be PTA president. It also meant to work at making myself as valuable as possible to my employer, to accept new challenges, attend the 7am and 6pm meetings, take new assignments, and serve on community boards.
Mostly, what I worked at every day was being a better mother than I was the day before. There are no “do-overs” in being a mom or a parent. You get one chance to get it right. Now it’s my job to create awareness and opportunities for others to do the same.
The Author, Paula Widerlite, is the Chief Strategy Officer at a health system in Annapolis, Maryland. She has been in health care nearly 40 years, the last 25 at executive level positions. She is married to Dr. Lawrence Widerlite and has two daughters, Elise (23) and Chelsea (20).
Originally published at medium.com