A foot in two worlds

I have written frequently about the drawbacks of part-time work, so I was interested to read Lindsey Mead’s essay in the Sept. 22 Princeton Alumni Weekly called “A foot in two worlds.” Describing her “personal mommy war,” Mead writes that she believes that “having both a career and a family that you adore is one of the world’s great problems.”

Her problem? “I haven’t ever had that job I love.” Since having children, this Princeton grad and Harvard MBA (who blogs at ADesignSoVast, including about 168 Hours) has always worked part-time as a way to pursue that ever-elusive goal of balance. “The thing that haunts me is this: In being unwilling to give up either world, did I end up doing a poor job in both?” she asks.

I would say no on the mom front, since her two children sound quite charming from her blog posts! (Many of us use our blogs to complain about the rugrats). But on the work front, she feels “frustrated by what feels like wasted years, spent only partially engaged in jobs that, in retrospect, did not mean very much to me. To keep the flexibility I prize so highly I have chosen roles that are often peripheral, not core to a company’s function, and I have been an individual contributor rather than a member of a team. This has eroded both my sense of making a real contribution and of feeling part of a cohesive group. What was the point of having missed hours with my babies for something that feels so insubstantial and inconsequential now?”

Of course, as she points out, she doubts she actually would have wanted to be with her kids every second. Still, it’s kind of a depressing essay, and she even floats the idea that she wasted her Princeton and Harvard educations, and let down her parents and teachers, which seems a little silly. Jeff Skilling probably let down his HBS profs. Not Lindsey. But she does raise several points that I think are worth addressing.

First, people have this idea that part-time work would be the best of both worlds between working and staying home with kids. In reality, as she has discovered, it is sometimes the worst of both worlds. You still have work stress, often a commute and work expenses, you may need childcare, and yet you aren’t working enough to get the full benefit of it — that is, working to the point of diminishing returns. And so you earn far less per hour, often don’t get benefits, and your career may not advance to the point where the work is fun. Or where you have the autonomy that would actually bring a better work-life fit. Sure, some people love their part-time jobs. But they are not a universal solution to work-life woes.

My main beef with the essay, though, is the idea that by fully committing to one’s professional life, you “give up” motherhood, even if you have kids. This is the kind of false choice that I wrote 168 Hours to combat. There are 168 hours in a week. If you work 40 and sleep 56, that leaves 72 hours for other things.

Now, you can point out that many of the jobs that HBS grads pursue are not 40-hour/week jobs. But I’ve seen several time logs now of big firm lawyers, executives, management consultants and so forth, and they were not working 80-hour weeks. Yes, they were sometimes 55-65. But this still leaves many hours for a family life if you choose, and I was gratified to see how often they did choose family. And not just at 7pm on weekdays and on weekends, either. Mead was not “willing to give up the flexibility to spend time with my children, during the week, during the day.” Neither were some of them (I enjoyed the Wednesday 10AM school birthday party entry on a particularly hard-charging mom’s time log).

The key for many people is professional situations where we get to be grown-ups. That is, if you want to be at a school event at 10AM, you make the work up at 10PM. In many cases, you get to that grown-up stage by devoting enough hours to your craft to get somewhere. Yes, sometimes the key to work-life “balance” is working more.

In other 168 Hours news:

  • Kimberly Wilson’s Tranquility du Jour runs a podcast on 168 Hours
  • Men with Pens runs a guest post from me on why you should write that Christmas letter now (and is co-hosting a webinar with me on Free Agent Time Management on Oct 14!)
  • Wandering Scientist writes what she discovered during the 168 Hours Challenge, and in good scientific fashion, gives us the daily averages, plus the maximum and minimums. Good stuff!
  • Laughing at Chaos rounds up her week and discovers she multi-tasks All. The. Time.
  • Light and Momentary discovers that she hates logging her time — but it does keep her accountable.
  • The Soap Dish vows to remember moments of family fun that thread through her 168 hours.
  • And many more time logs coming in (this is just a smattering – plus some that wish to be anonymous). Everyone finds this a learning experience. Though sometimes not in the ways we envisioned.


12 thoughts on “A foot in two worlds

  1. Thanks for including my essay here, Laura. I agree with so much of what you say. I think that it’s a false dichotomy to say that full time works means giving up motherhood and if I implied that I was wrong to do so. I do think that in the field I was in (management consulting) full-time partner-track work was incompatible with any kind of flexibility. These were people who flew out on Monday at 6am and returned Thursday night. If you studied the partners at my firm (and I did), there was only one with children and a spouse with an equally demanding career. And that person had four nannies.
    For me, it’s less a question of hours worked/available and more about mindshare. I took this summer off work and found the change in myself and, more importantly, how I related to my children, remarkable. I was less distracted, not as often reaching for my blackberry, not as quick to look at the clock and to measure time in tiny increments. That was a huge change, and it had nothing to do with whether I was working full or part time.

    1. Lindsey: Thanks so much for commenting! Definitely working on the mindshare issue. When I have worked a “job” what I liked is that I was done for the day when I got home. Now, working for myself, I’m never done. There is always something else I could be doing — I have to work on consciously putting down the iPhone, or just not turning it on on Saturdays…

  2. I work full time but some days do struggle to make 8 hours or 40 hours. My kid was up half the night and then didn’t get up today until 11 so I did not feel that in waking up at 8 a.m. and doing my workout it and my one hour or so of time with her

    If I am shooting for a 50 h our a week of work and I make 40 I can’t see how it would be good for me to shoot for only 25 b/c then I definitely would NOT make close to 40! But it is interesting to see how much work is full time? Is it really practical for a woman with a one year old and a three year old to work 50 hours a week, and if the magic number is 35, can I count the 10 hours my assistant works or how can we as working parents get full-time results.

    I think you can’t do everything you want to do in one five-year period but if you set a few big goals and try for them and them only I think you can do it. I don’t know why anyone would would want to be with a 1 year old and a 3 year old every waking minute they are completely exhausting but the other extreme is not good either — either for men or women.

  3. I work full time but some days do struggle to make 8 hours or 40 hours. My kid was up half the night and then didn’t get up today until 11 so I did not feel that in waking up at 8 a.m. and doing my workout it and my one hour or so of time with her that I really like to do 70 percent of mornings ( I love to be the first person she sees in the morning and the last at night to cuddle with her )

    But it will be very hard for me to work 9 hours or even 8 today, very hard. But maybe full time is not 8, it is really 7.5 or maybe those four hours on the weekend or as you say at other times.

    Flexibility is key. I also think that if you really don’t need to work for the money it is harder — and easier for women to find motherhood so very very marginalizing — but it is also hard if you don’t really know what you want to do or your job is not flexible (which many many many are NOT).

  4. Also and I am still thinking about this– I think it depends if your mom worked. I think that if she did — it is easier to relate to it. I cannot imagine not making my own money or staying home, though I can see how if my mom had been a stay at home mom I would want to do this.

    I really agree with a lot of what Laura writes about this idea that it is either or like if you don’t stay at home or work part time you are not there for your kids. But I think for those of us who can work from home and who have flexibility — no matter how many sacrifices we have had to make for it — we should keep in mind the woman like the single mom who has no choice and also the woman who is in a career which is so unbending. My friend is a six-figure attorney and yes she has made material choices that require her staying in that job but she is the breadwinner in her family and the one time she asked about childcare benefits at work — NO ONE IN her firm knew anything about it b/c they all had stay-at-home wives. Think how that woman feels and how she deep down will race out of that job b/c it really is not a good fit for her in achieving balance. Also I think if your balance comes at the expense of yoru child having a father or at the expense of your partners balance it is time to look at this b/c maybe more folks want balance in both worlds — and more needs to be written about this. If it works for you it isn’t wrong to let your man say take on this role but I don’t think most men who want to be good fathers are really happy with this.

    1. Cara: So true on some firms not even knowing their own policies because it’s an unspoken rule that no one uses them. I learned that my husband’s office has a back-up nanny benefit (if your caregiver calls in sick, or if your daycare is closed or some such — they contract with a service that has pre-screened sitters). I think if he were a woman, someone would have mentioned this to him as a perk he might use. I guess the assumption with a man is that his wife is the back-up if something goes wrong.

  5. Thanks for the link! I was coming over to leave a comment saying that I did finally get my summary up. Since you did that for me, I’ll write a different comment instead. (:

    I wonder how much of the difficulty some women have with the idea of combing motherhood with a challenging career is the sexism we’ve internalized? I hear all the time- and most often from women- that motherhood and a career in science are incompatible. This is bunk. If science is incompatible with motherhood but not fatherhood, then that is sexism, pure and simple. I got so tired of hearing this that I started a list of scientists who are mothers on my blog: http://wandsci.blogspot.com/2009/11/yes-virginia-there-are-scientists-who.html

    I think the internalized sexism manifests itself as guilt- so we mothers feel guilty about leaving work for that kid’s birthday party when a father in an equivalent job might not think twice about it. And we feel guilty about our occasional late nights at the office when again a father in a similar situation might not worry. I think this guilt cycle is self-destructive, and at least in terms of our careers, it can be self fulfilling, as our colleagues decide that maybe there is a good reason that we’re feeling guilty! I wrote up an entire post about this, too: http://wandsci.blogspot.com/2010/08/sabotaged-by-guilt.html

    Finally, AskMoxie had a post yesterday about dealing with working mom guilt: http://www.askmoxie.org/2010/09/qa-guilt-guilt-guilt.html. I mentioned the timetracking in my comment there, because I think that if more working moms saw how much time they actually spend with their kids, they wouldn’t feel so guilty!

    1. Cloud: That’s certainly been my experience with time-tracking. I see that I’m spending a lot of time with my kids. Partly this is because they’re such night owls, but the net result is that I really don’t think I’m over-investing in work right now, and I could scale that part (or the leisure part) of my life up if I decide I need/want to.

  6. I read this essay in the PAW yesterday and I found it interesting too, and thought of 168 hours and Laura’s arguments in favor of full-time work. I’ve always worked full-time, but my current job is more part-time-ish, less well-paid, and with fewer opportunities for advancement than the job I left to take this one. And, it has more scut-work that, to be frank, does not use my Princeton degree (or my Stanford PhD).

    But I think I was in the sort of bind that Lindsey was in–my old job in biotech was simply untenable and impossible to reconcile with the kind of flexibility I needed to be with my family. Not all jobs in biotech are necessarily like that, in theory, but that one was. It varies so much within an industry and even, perhaps, within the same company. And it’s almost impossible to go into a job and know beforehand whether it’s going to work that way or not. If you are too up-front in your interview about needing flexibility it may cost you the job (this happened to me).

    Many people currently in upper management, in their 50’s and 60’s, still can’t really imagine doing business differently than the way it was done when they were young tigers: with face-time, secretaries, and the phone, rather than google, email, and the internet. They may pay lip service to flexibility, but when push comes to shove, it bothers them if they can’t walk out of their office at random with an off-the-wall request, and find you there at your desk, smiling and eager to answer it. And you can’t be eagerly at your desk at your boss’ beck and call if you are “off” at your child’s birthday party at 10 am, even if you make up for it later by working at 10 pm.

    I also found her comment about being an individual contributor rather than a member of a team interesting. Some people just prefer being individual contributors due to temperament or work style–nothing necessarily tied to having kids. Some people are introverted, or just not necessarily “people people,” but are brilliant, hard-working, creative, etc. But those who prefer to be individual contributors for whatever reason do tend to get marginalized in the workplace–underpaid, underutilized, and fewer opportunities. And I wonder if Lindsey is onto something different there, if workplaces would be better, more efficient, more humane, or more productive, if they found better ways to utilize the talents of individual contributors instead of always insisting on teamwork from everyone–even those who do it poorly.

    1. Karen: Thanks for this comment. I’m more of a solo contributor myself — part of the reason I work as I do, I’m sure. I worked for myself and worked from home long before I needed any “flexibility” because of the kids. And I totally get what you’re saying about traditional notions. There’s a scene from an early job that’s burned on my brain — one woman was coming back from maternity leave, and her boss made her stay until 8pm on her first or second day back. I’m not quite sure what the story was, and perhaps there was some sort of crisis, but the result was she pretty much quit on the spot. Then there was a hiring freeze, and the department was short-staffed for months. An example of things not going optimally for either party.

  7. Thanks for linking me. When I decided to stay home it was a mixed blessing, at the time we had no money and I really shouldn’t have from a financial standpoint. I justified it by stating that it wasn’t a job I liked anyway it was just a job and I would rather be with the baby. Now, we have three kids and our money situation is way different but I still come up the thought “I really don’t know what I want to be when I grow up anyway, and the kids NEED me so why bother.” The problem is that there are things I want to do, but it takes time and effort to get there and I use my stay at homeness as an excuse not to put in the time or effort or ask for help. Last week’s exercise showed me that I busy myself, but that is all I am doing keeping myself busy, yes the kids need me, but do they need a distracted busy me or would it be better if I was happier and could focus on them because I was focusing on my goals as well. Either way, an enlightening exercise.

    1. Jennie: Thanks for your comment, and for taking the challenge. The Mama Bee (www.themamabee.com) has written about this exact topic in the past. Sometimes, in the interest of sparing young women later work-life challenges, we encourage them to take “flexible” jobs, or ones that are known for a good lifestyle, as opposed to whatever sets their hearts racing. But the truth is, we are all going to have rough weeks when we are raising our children and building our careers at the same time. We stick it out when we have careers that we love. And there are spill-over benefits of figuring out what we love — I write in 168 Hours that we’ll have more energy for our families working 50 hours a week in jobs we love vs. 30 in jobs we hate. Obviously there’s no study quantifying that, but that was certainly the way people I interviewed put it.

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