By Stacey Grant, President and Executive Producer
My routine is waking up between 4:30 and 5am each morning and sneaking downstairs before anyone else is awake in the house. I start the coffee, click on the TV news and sit at the kitchen island. I crack open my laptop and start to delve into my emails. Or I’ll chip away at a project or deliverable that needs my complete focus. It’s the one part of my day that feels like mine. It’s my little decadent slice of uninterrupted morning. At 6:15 am, I hear showers running and people moving about upstairs and downstairs. And my gut starts churning. My son needs a clean shirt. My daughter can’t find her phone. The dogs need to be fed. It’s time to drive someone to school and I’m in the middle of something relatively important.
My mind races, Am I establishing enough eye contact with my son? I’ll type just one more sentence. Should I make him hug me before he leaves? Damn, I think I sent that email prematurely? Did I tell him I love him before he left? What else can I squeeze in before I leave to drive my daughter to school? I’ll never hit this deadline. Was I there for her when she asked for my help? Don’t forget to call that guy today. Has anyone seen the dog?
Stress. Analysis. Love. Guilt. Hugs. Shame. Success. Failure. Repeat. It’s that awful mental dance that we all do as working moms.
Shonda Rhimes, writer and creator of television shows including Gray’s Anatomy, said it best in her recent commencement speech at Dartmouth College, “Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing at another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I’m at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I am probably blowing off a rewrite that I was supposed to turn in. That is the trade off that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel 100% OK. You never get your sea legs. You are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing. And yet. I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers work. And I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I [work] – that woman is a better person and a better mother because that woman is happy. That woman is fulfilled, that woman is whole. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing. Anyone who tells you that they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.”
I know Shonda gets it. I mean on a different level, of course. I certainly don’t “own Thursday nights” or have a “land named after me” as Shonda recounts in her speech, but I certainly understand what she is saying. And after watching her inspiring message, I wanted to hear from some other working moms that I admire.
Laura is a young working mother of three children under the age of three. She spends her days at a demanding government job in Washington, DC before she comes home to her children and husband at night. She said this of the working mom conundrum:
“A Working Mom is the ‘Pacesetter’
Being a working mom is like being a pacesetter in a marathon, or a bike race. There are three racers behind me, my kids represent a racer, my husband represents another, and my work is the third. I started to feel the mom pressure when my first son was first born; That I would forever be blocking the wind for everyone in my tribe running behind me. Moms are the heartbeat of every family and society expects so much of humans these days, in particular working moms. That was hard to settle into, but now I’m starting to get used to it.
The way that I describe the “balance” of it all is that only one of the runners behind me can be in the lead at a time. If the kids are in the lead, and feeling loved and nurtured, then I can’t pay enough attention to my husband. If I have a great day at work and I spend lots of time with my employees one-on-one, giving great guidance, then the kids watch TV at night for more time than I’d like to admit. Everyone keeps running. As people get tired, I try to help them along in my own way.
Some days I feel like I can’t even run myself, so I try to conserve my energy and keep pumping my arms until I catch my breath again.
Why is it only women that get asked this question?
My mother’s group always talks about this. In the area that I live in we have a large portion of dual-income households. So women are always finding a way to squeeze an extra ounce of efficiency out of the day. But I can’t imagine that there are dad’s groups out there dealing with the same issues/questions.
Help. Help. Help!!!
We have SO much help. An au pair, a housekeeper, a personal assistant for my husband, a great school for our son, etc. The help is life changing. It’s the one thing that gives me at least a chance to catch my breath while I’m running non-stop.”
Kathleen is in her 40’s and she has four boys under the age of fifteen. She takes the train to New York City from Philadelphia 3 days a week to work at a Fortune 500 company. When I asked Kathleen to describe how it felt to jump back into the workplace after 15 years at home with her children, here is how she responded:
I hope that young women know the choices they have if they are willing to be flexible with their career. I wouldn’t change being home with my kids for 15 years. But now my worry is that after all of those years that I was with my kids every day, deep down they might feel like I have suddenly left them for my new career.
What I Love
I LOVE my job. But I don’t know the children in my son’s classes anymore. I LOVE my paycheck but I don’t do “play-dates”. Sometimes now, I find myself wondering if my youngest son will make friends without my intervention.
My husband was my biggest champion/cheerleader as [job] interviewers told me that I had been “away” too long. I couldn’t have stuck it out in the early days without him. I feel awful that I rarely remember to send birthday cards to friends and family anymore, but I love that my boys get themselves up and out the door for a 6:45am bus, making their lunches and all. The TV is ALWAYS on when I come home late from work. It makes me crazy. But, there’s nothing like the big hug and kiss that I get from my 6 year-old when I walk in that door. And I have to admit that I like getting the positive feedback from my colleagues. It had been such a long time since I heard praise about my work ethic. When you stay at home with your kids nobody tells you, “Hey, you change a great diaper.”
Amy is a mother in her early 50’s whose 2 kids have now both graduated from college. She always worked outside of the home in some capacity when they were young and has spent the last decade or so working as an executive at an ad agency in Philadelphia and Boston. I often ask her to share her nuggets of parenting wisdom with me. This is how she explains the mommy work/life balance – looking back on it now with her adult-children’s input:
“Guilt as a Companion
Being a working mother is at the same time the most fulfilling and the most thankless job. You’re expected to do both jobs without sacrifice or compromise (and often we hold ourselves to an even higher standard than others do.) Guilt is a constant companion. You always feel like you’re letting someone down.
Working mothers are some of the highest functioning, most efficient professionals I know. They prioritize, they’re accountable and they’re decisive because any wasted time or energy comes at the expense of their families. I’ve also found that the workplace has become much more friendly for working parents in general. When my kids were young it wasn’t uncommon for me to be working with men whose wives did not work outside the home and the notion of work/family balance seemed like an exception that was being made for me. Now, the majority of men I work with have young families and are struggling to strike that balance themselves. The whole culture has shifted to one where we, as a team, support each other in juggling responsibilities.
Early in my career, it was all about how hard you work. Now, I think it’s about how smart you work. As a leader I’ve always said to my team “family first, no matter what.” It has proven to be such a powerful mantra because the reality is that people are more driven and dedicated as a result.
Sacrifice or Reward?
Over the years I’ve gone through periods of doubt about the sacrifices I’ve made, the corners I’ve cut and the times when I wasn’t there with my full attention. My kids are old enough now for us to have an “adult” conversation about how my work impacted their lives. What I realized is that while I was worried about letting them down, they were so appreciative of everything I had done for them and proud of my work and my accomplishments. They’ve told me in many different ways, that I was a good role model. Hopefully, that’s true.”
After partially completing this blog post last night at 9:30, following a full day in the office, I noticed that the dishes still needed to be washed and the dogs had to be let out. Before I could close my laptop and jump on the house work to be done my husband swooped in, rinsed the dishes and placed them in the dishwasher without a word. I let the dogs out with a smile on my face.
It turns out that there is one component that is crucial to the successful work/mom puzzle: a partner who supports you steadfastly. All of the women quoted above have husbands who chip in, love, hug, cook, do laundry and take part in the parenting. And they work their asses off in the office, too. These men are physically and mentally present in some way for their wives on a regular basis. I felt a wave of gratitude for my other half as his support carried me through the last 2 ½ hours of the night, while I made sure homework was finished and counseled my teenage children about difficulties at school.
To be clear that key ‘partner’ doesn’t have to be a husband. When I was a single Mom I relied on my friends and family. As long as there was someone to lean on and vent to, someone who I could call to get the kids when they were sick at school, it was all good.
And as I sit in front of my computer now, in my favorite kitchen island seat, it is 5:12 am. And I know that all of the queasiness that I feel on a daily basis is worth it. I stayed at home with my kids for 12 years. And sometimes when I look back on those times I wonder, How did I do THAT? Concentrating fully on raising your kids while you watch your husband find his personal identity outside of the home at work is excruciating. But it is also incredibly rewarding. You get to see the little things your kids do day to day. By the way, I find it much harder to take care of children all day than going to work outside of the home.
Initially, I would cry daily on the train ride to Philadelphia when I went back to work. My son inevitably forgot his homework and I couldn’t help him by bringing it to school. Or my daughter didn’t have her cleats and she would worry about getting chastised at practice by the coach. The kids would tell me that they missed me and asked me why I would “leave” them. My daughter would climb into bed at night and hold my hand while we slept just to be close to me. And I felt like I was f&*^king it all up. Then I would get to the office and my desk would be so clean. People would want my opinion on something. I felt like they saw me as a person with a brain and it felt good.
Then the guilt cycle would kick in hard, Crap. Should this feel good? I’m not with my kids. I should be feeling bad.
Now, four years later, I still have times when I stare at the ceiling in yoga chanting silently, I am enough. I am enough. The moments when I feel like I’ve really messed up with my kids because I am working too much occurs almost daily. The times when my brain feels fried at work because I’ve stayed up chatting too late with my son or daughter happens regularly. What’s really important, though, is that I’ve found personal meaning and purpose in my career. That anchors me. That makes me a happier. It allows me to be a more secure person. And as Shonda Rhimes says, I wouldn’t want my children to see me any other way. It really doesn’t matter if a Mom works outside or inside of the home or both – either way, it’s WORK. The struggle IS real. And make no mistake, Moms LOVE all of it, nausea included.