work-life balance

"Leaning Back" isn't always "Holding Yourself Back"

The pre-release media buzz around Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has sparked a barrage of essays about women and ambition and career. In this one on the Daily Beast, journalist Mary Louise Kelly describes how and why, after considerable distress, she left a very high powered, full-time career to be mainly with her kids, and writing part-time.

She comments:

And yet—with sincere and enormous respect for the accomplishments of superwomen like Sheryl Sandberg—I wonder if there isn’t room for a more expansive definition of female professional success. So many of the women I know are blending work and family in ways our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed possible. This seems to me worth celebrating, not sniffing at. Dare I confess that I feel I’m accomplishing something just as meaningful now as when I spent my time scurrying between Pentagon press briefings? Or, to use an example from Sandberg’s world, should we automatically assume that the woman running the company is doing more with her life than the woman who has negotiated a three-day week?


There are many ways to succeed professionally over a lifetime, just like there are a lot of things you could call a “great dinner.”  Personal taste, access to resources, time and skill are all factors; it’s silly to compare them. 

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss.  The larger point is, if you’re not “leaning in” to your current career, why?  

  • Is it because you’ve been conditioned not to take yourself seriously?  Not to take risks?  Not to grab the spotlight?  Not to “go for it”?  Only to worry about the logistics?  Never to say you’re great at something?
  • Have you been taught to take criticism so hard that you lose sleep over it even when the person criticizing you is clearly in the wrong?  To feel like a fraud and an imposter when you do well? 
  • Has everyone failed to teach you how to negotiate, how to ask for a raise, or how to identify the person in your work community who is most likely to shepherd your career?  Have they, instead, taught you that negotiating and asking for a raise is “pushy,” and that looking for help is “weak”?
  • Were you indoctrinated to forgive a spouse who is better at getting out of domestic and childcare tasks than you are at saying, “share this stuff with me or leave” because “that’s how men are”?  Do you and your spouse tacitly agree that if he takes a job that leaves him no time for home and family that’s “sad for him” but that if you take the same job, it’s sad for all of you?
  • Have you been taught, over and over again, that if you don’t feel guilty or inadequate you probably ARE guilty and inadequate?

If those are the only reasons you are leaning back, they are a shame, and there are things that help.  

That these are the motivators for so many of us reflects systemic problems that began to color our views in childhood. They lead to women holding themselves back, and men holding women back.  It’s time to push back against that, hard, starting with what we teach young girls and boys, and I hope that the “movement” afoot is about that. And to the extent that any of it can be re-learned in adulthood and allow women to take more control of their lives, I am all for it.  Not just for mothers.  Not just for women.  For all of us.

But let’s not conflate any of that with something separate, which is:  for reasons that have nothing to do with the above, many people feel a very strong pull to be substantially with their kids while they are little. They want to be with their babies not because they’ve been taught to hold back by a sexist culture, not because their work isn’t interesting enough, but because they want to be with their babies.  And that’s a good thing.

Although leaning towards our babies when they are babies is not what feels right for everyone, is not practically possible for everyone, and is not a profession, it’s right for many and it should be possible for more of us, just as access to affordable childcare should be possible for more of us who need that.  

A mother who feels called to be with her young is not unfeminist.  In fact, it’s misogynist to suggest that there’s something wrong with her for wanting to use her body to do female things: gestating, birthing, lactating, nurturing the baby she has grown with her body. 

It’s also not a permanent state:  babies grow, and when they’re big kids most people have moved back to the workplace. 

Meanwhile, whether you’re staying in or leaning back from the career path you were on before your kids were born?  Learning to negotiate, take risks, partner with your spouse and develop appropriate confidence will help you dive back in to whatever it is you do in the next chapter.  It will also help you parent your children.

I hope we’re at the beginning of a flood of thoughtful discussions that lead to real changes for women, not a slide into the old, divisive, unproductive arguments that folks call the Mommy Wars.  There’s no war, and it’s time we stopped using that term and built systems that help more of us succeed.

"If I lean back, can I lean back in eventually?"

There’s been a lot more commentary on Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” in the past week; here’s a piece by a mom who returned to work full time after her baby was born, but later chose to leave her career, and be, for now, substantially with her child.  She vividly expresses the mix of concerns and joys she feels, including an honest admission that she worries about how and *whether* she’ll “get back in” when, eventually, she wants a career back.

I like this essay for its honesty. It takes character to acknowledge your reservations and not just cling fiercely to a defensive “I did the right thing that all mothers should do” or “what I did was dreadfully wrong so don’t make my mistake!” mentality.  Especially on this topic.  So first of all, congratulations to Ms. Morison and I’d love to see more of this, everywhere, not just at my working moms’ groups, where moms can be brave because they know they can lean on each other (and there’s wine!).  

Second, and importantly, to all folks who have stepped out for a few months or a few years.  To the extent you are wondering, can I ever get back in?  The answer is yes.  I don’t know what your job is, and I can’t promise you you can return to your exact same job.  Truly, after a hiatus where you’ve been doing something profoundly different, you may not want the exact same thing you wanted before anyway. 

But yes, when you are ready to be done with what you’re doing now and rejoin the workforce in a more ambitious or earnest or focused or unambivalent way than you feel now — yes, you will be able to do it. I have watched it happen for clients and for friends.  They are not CEOs of mega corporations.  But they are outstandingly successful, fully engaged, bettering the world, inspiring their kids and their friends, and bringing in money.  They are stressed by childcare issues and parent-teacher conferences sometimes, and by their work, sometimes.  But that’s because they’re human.  In the main, they are happy.  You can do it, too.  You’ll need to have a lot of creativity and confidence, and there will be moments where you have to be courageous or do something scary or uncertain, and that’s where peers and colleagues who love you can help a lot.

Last:  Ms Morison brags

I was great at my job – before I became a mom, and after. I have trouble even typing that statement — which perhaps gets at some of what Sheryl Sandberg is talking about to begin with — but I was.

YES.  I don’t know, yet, whether that’s what Lean In is about, but getting to a point where women can be proud and confidently tout their own awesomeness when they deserve it:  that has to be one of the most fundamental parts of any movement that seeks to reinvigorate this very old discussion.

That and adequate affordable childcare and an understanding that corporate success is not the only type of success.  

Family-Work balance is not a "woman's issue"

I love the abstract ideas I’m seeing in the “Lean In” concept. I long for us to get to a point where we see family-work balance issues as human issues, not as women’s issues. I dream about changes in American culture that would allow more people to feel — over the course of their lives — stimulated, challenged and engaged with their work and also deeply, humanly connected to each other and their families. I wish that “work” and “life” were parts of each other, not mortal enemies. And I am sick to death of conversations about this stuff that return to the old, clunky tropes. But I also think it’s easier for me to talk in abstraction now without taking it personally than it was a decade ago, when my kids were babies and these questions were new to me. Anyone who embarks on this stuff has to be mindful of their audience.
— Hey folks — here’s an excerpt from my piece on Huff Post today about my take on the Lean-In book/movement that’s in the news these days.  Check it out!

Marissa Mayer has a nursery in her office suite; says employees can't work from home, tho.

I’m miffed again about Marissa Mayer.  The Yahoo CEO sparked online rage this week after announcing Yahoo would no longer allow employees to work from home.  Last year, she pissed people off by announcing in a way that sounded rather cavalier that she would take “a couple weeks” maternity leave.  I blogged, at the time, about how her comments made it seem like she didn’t understand that the transition to motherhood is more than just learning how to wipe a butt (which women like Mayer can farm out.)

I actually feel kind of bad for Mayer — as the world’s most prominent CEO/New Mom she’s got to be under tremendous scrutiny to prove herself in a thousand ways, and it must feel like a minefield.  But whether she’d wished to be this or not, she’s the Working Mom In Power, who everyone is looking at right now, and she’s handling it badly, over and over.  I don’t know the right answer for Yahoo! in terms of work flexibility arrangements (and some online have suggested that flex time was abused within the company and/or that the scheme is a way for Yahoo! to achieve mass layoffs without having to do a public reduction in force), but a blanket ban on working from home seems outdated and monolithic in response.  

This isn’t just about mothers, it’s about all parents, and to be expansive, it’s about all workers.  Flexibility can be abused, for sure, but it can also allow workers to do better, cleaner, more efficient work and be happy with their lives.  As long as it’s managed well.  And what we expect in a CEO is excellent management skills, right?

But it gets worse.  Apparently, Ms. Mayer paid to have a nursery built into her office during her maternity leave.  This way, she can see her baby when she needs to, without having to work from home.  How nice for her!  She’s so lucky to work for a company where that kind of work-life flexibility is considered importa— oh.  Wait.  

Somehow I’m doubting she’s about to unveil Yahoo’s plan to provide on-site nurseries with childcare for the rest of its employees.  Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, but this example is pretty egregious.  

It’s a shame; I was hoping she’d use this position and the timing of her motherhood as an opportunity to lead.

Working Moms' Group is Back!

I’ve had a bunch of requests to re-start the working moms’ workshop and listserve. 

The irony is, often new moms who are back at work don’t sign up for this kind of thing because they have no time.  But here’s the deal, folks:  you need this even though you don’t have time.  


1.  Because it builds knowledge:  we cover the logistical nitty gritty stuff (how and when to pump), and also the big emo concerns (“will my baby love the nanny more than she loves me??!”)*.

2.  Because it builds confidence:  you deserve to get to know a group of awesome other women in the same situation and see your experience reflected in theirs and let it all hang out just like Stay-At-Home moms get to do at the MOMs’ group.

3.  Because it’s a good networking opportunity.

4.  Because it’s only twice a month and you can totally make it to this, I promise.

5.  Because it will be fun.  Maybe you’ll all even go out for a drink afterwards!

Each week we’ll discuss a new topic pertaining to the balance of work and motherhood —For instance: 

  • Childcare — finding it, and then, when you do, having a great relationship with your caregiver, learning to tolerate the normal doubts and ambivalence, and how to assess whether this set-up is right for your child.
  • Food Stuff:  breastfeeding, pumping, weaning, nighttime issues, and, for those with older babies, solid foods.
  • The Re-Balance of Power: co-parenting with your partner when both of you are employed
  • Basics of Self-Care:  sleep, exercise, and basically how to get a life.
  • Work Issues — negotiating liveable work arrangements, dealing with co-workers

WHERE:  City Treehouse, 129A W 20th Street, between 7th and 6th.

WHEN: 7:30-9:30 pm on four Tuesdays:  6/12/12, 6/26/12, 7/10/12, 7/24/12

REGISTER:  By clicking “Purchase” button at left.

Members will be invited to join a private listserve to continue the discussion.

More questions?  Contact me at meredith(at) amotherisborn (dot) com

*Of course your child will love you more than she loves the nanny! She will also especially love that you are providing her with a wonderful loving nanny.  :-)


Working And Mothering -- What Would You Tell Your 22 Year Old Self?

Recently, I was talking to a client, lets call her Anne, about the logistics of going back to work now that she’s a mom.  Anne has a tough job that requires a big time commitment, more-than-occasional evening and weekend hours, and intense focus. It’s a job she loves and is great at. 

It’s also a lot like taking care of a baby when you think of it.  

As we talked, we were partly discussing childcare and time management, but, as we chatted, veering more and more into a conversation about what becoming a mother has meant to Anne, how it’s changed her perspective on what she enjoys and how she wants to spend her time.  Anne was pondering how to blend all that with the woman she’d always been, and the career she has really loved.  This kind of conversation involves issues you can only explore, not the kind you can Solve in Three Simple Steps.

Somehow we got onto a tangent about Anne’s infant daughter.   “My husband said, ‘Maybe when she’s growing up, we’ll encourage her to pick a career that blends better with motherhood,’” Anne told me, and went on, “I was so annoyed!  If someone had said to me when I was in college that I should pick a career that blended well with motherhood I would have been totally disgusted by that.”

"And what about now?" I asked.

"Well … "

There aren’t simple answers to this, are there?  The fact is, it’s very tricky to weave together a pre-baby life and a post-baby life.  What do you think?  Email me your stories about going back to work, what’s worked well and what’s been complicated, and what advice, if any, you’d give your 22 year old self, now that you’re on the other side of this.  I’ll feature the stories here.

meredith (at) amotherisborn (dot) com

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.
What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

From Tina Fey’s book, _Bossypants_, part of her “Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter”.

The whole prayer is great (you can hear her reading an excerpt in this interview with Terri Gross here) and hits on so many of a parent’s hopes and fears for her child (I especially liked, and related to, the part where she hopes that cutting grapes in half, today, will one day prevent her daughter from trying crystal meth — and “stick with beer” instead).

But I most love the quote above, because it’s a fantasy that a child will get the “perfect” career — and some agony about whether such a thing exists —  from a famous working mother who appears, truly, to have it all.   

No one has it all, of course, not even really happy people, not even really successful people.  But aren’t her dream jobs interesting?  Architecture, midwifery, golf course design … 

What is a dream job?  What are the ideal hours or industry or work parameters that would make it feel “just right”?   Would it be a job that allowed you to bring your child along, like Sacagewea did?  Would you be your own boss, or work for someone else?

And what kind of work do you dream for your child to do someday?  What would make you proud?

And if you’re an architect, midwife or golf course designer, is it all it’s cracked up to be?