Work-life balance, and leaning in

I was taking a survey a few months ago, when I came across a question: how has having children affected your career? The choices were along the lines of “a huge impact,” “a fair amount,” “a small amount,” or “not at all.” Assuming that this question was assessing the degree of negative impact, I answered “a small amount.” That seemed fair — there are certainly parts of my work life that are less efficient because I have kids.

But then I realized that I was making a huge assumption by assigning a negative connotation to “affected.” In reality, my children have had a huge impact on my career — a hugely positive impact. I never would have written my book on time management, 168 Hours, if I hadn’t had my first son several years ago. I wouldn’t have been nearly as obsessed with the topic of time, and how women (particularly mothers) were spending it, now and in the past. Writing that book has opened many doors for me, like making it possible to write another book. I’ve had editors seek me out, which is definitely more enjoyable than pitching blindly. I’ve been featured in major media outlets for my ideas far more frequently than I was pre-kids.

So let me segue from that thought to this one: I’ve never really written about the Sheryl Sandberg speech she gave to graduating seniors at Barnard college last spring. As she told them, her generation (she’s 40) blew it on the equality front. Women have been earning half of college degrees since the early 1980s, and yet still are massively under-represented in places where real decisions get made. She blames an “ambition gap” and says that the achievement gap won’t close until women stop doing sexists’ work for them. Figuring they’ll want “balance” some day, women make choices that put them in less interesting, less well-paid work, which of course then means when they do have kids, they’re not as interested in sticking with that work. Why would you choose a boring job over being with your kids if you didn’t have to? (admittedly, “having to” is an issue for much of humanity — but probably not the women with Barnard degrees). As she put it, “Do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”

I agree with much of what she is saying. I’ve written before of the lack of op-eds by women, in part because op-eds require most would-be experts to put in extra time beyond their job descriptions in the interest of making a name for themselves. It is an ambition gap, pure and simple.

But what if this decision is not always what it appears to be? I think the lines of this conversation are changing. For starters, Sandberg’s advice assumes that you’re going to have children after you had time to establish a career. I think there’s a good argument to be made that there is never a perfect time in one’s career to have children, but there is a pretty good time biologically — and it’s a lot younger than traditional views of professional career trajectories would suggest. I’ve seen, anecdotally, that Gen Y women may be more willing to have children in medical, law or graduate school, or otherwise in their 20s. Does this make the first years of your career tough? Sure. But it’s always going to be tough. If you’ve had your babies by age 30, you’re going to have a long career with your children becoming less dependent on you as you go, rather than a major interruption at age 37 when you’ve established ways of doing things that don’t involve kids. Yes, I know that studies have found that women who have kids in their 20s are less likely to be working, but I think this confuses many things (including very young mothers, women who didn’t finish their educations, etc.).

And what if, sometimes, kids do enable you to lean in? Growing up, I kept hearing that kids and careers were choices that pointed in opposite directions. In my life, however, it has turned out not to be a choice — having kids has led to more career opportunities. Writing is obviously different than many other professions, but I imagine there are other lines of work where having kids is an advantage. Baby products have gotten much better in the past 10 years — probably because there are more mothers working in product development at places like Proctor & Gamble, toy companies, etc. Obstetrics? Pediatrics? The pediatrician I took my sons to this fall made sure to tell me, early in the visit, that she was a mother of six. This definitely made me feel comfortable with her and is no doubt a marketing advantage. Even in fields that have nothing to do with kids, per se, women like Sandberg are showing that there is nothing incompatible with kids and leaning in. Looking at the numbers of female CEOs misses a lot of what is happening in terms of small victories. A list of the newly-elected partners at a consulting firm doesn’t make a big deal about “Hey! Look! There are moms on here!” A father takes the reins of an office’s working-parents group. My son’s previous school had preschool class dads.

There is much that still needs to change — but there is a lot of reason for optimism, too. I’m grateful for the kind of work-life balance where I can go read a story to my 4-year-old’s class, and then check my email in the parking lot and see that Kirkus has given a glowing review to my next book. I took my infant along to a series of speeches in DC a few weeks ago. That’s hard to capture on a survey, but that’s my life — balanced, and leaning in.

flickr image courtesy of Ed Yourdon

16 thoughts on “Work-life balance, and leaning in

  1. Awesome post. A couple related points to ponder for the future.
    1) A sufficient number of women changes the field to be more women-friendly. My (male, 50-something) gynecological specialist pointed out the changes in OB-GYN (shared call, group practice, obstetricians that work only in hospital, certified nurse midwives doing routine deliveries) that have allowed women OB-GYN’s to balance work and family. When I was laid off in electrical engineering, he encouraged me by pointing out that it wasn’t my fault I had a high risk pregnancy and couldn’t take the available job flying to Italy rather than get laid off. Because electrical engineering is <10% female, companies can operate under those rules. Orthopedic surgery (for comparison) and cardiology are very unfriendly to women. Women prefer female OB-GYN's, so that field has changed to allow work/family balance better than orthopedic surgery and cardiology.

    2) I had fertility issues (recurrent early pregnancy loss, stillbirth at 23 weeks after IVF, eventual IVF for live birth since the IVF drugs treat early pregnancy loss) He pointed out that because I started trying at 28 and went through IVF at 30, 31 and 33, I could have children. If I had started trying later, I probably wouldn't have work/family balance issues because I wouldn't have had a family to balance.

    I agree that women should consider starting families in their 20's, both for the points you raise and because it allows a "margin for error" for women to whom children are a high priority.

    1. Thanks Twin mom – glad you like it! Yes, starting early leaves more margin for error, as you found, and hopefully for people without high-risk pregnancies makes for easier, less stressful pregnancies. Being pregnant at 32 felt much harder than at 27 – though it’s hard to tease out what is age and what is the fact that I had two other little kids running around, meaning I couldn’t rest, avoid lifting 25 and 40 lb objects, etc. I always take issue when people point out that having babies on the younger side means you take time out from a career before you’ve built a career…as if it is impossible to do both simultaneously.

      1. Career and babies aren’t impossible, but it requires money for a nanny/childcare and/or a supportive spouse. Only about 5% of the male engineers I worked with were divorced but about 50% of the female ones. I don’t know how many divorces occur in dual professional couples because they are unable to live out the ideal of egalitarian division of housework/childcare. The self-control book you recommended (which I liked) discussed the phenomenon of dual-career couples who fought because they were both exhausted from having given at the office. I think this really hits couples with, say, 2 or 3 kids in childcare who earn $100k combined, who don’t have extra money for the household help they could use.

  2. Can you email me your book suggestion about that book about setting reasonable goals for a company ? I can’t find it on your posts and I think it might have been in your newsletter
    do you have my email ? It was on one of your posts in the last three months.
    Cara M
    If you do not have my email I will facebook you

    1. @Cara- I just posted on FB as well, I’m not entirely sure which one it might have been. Maybe the “Big Enough Company” by Adelaide Lancaster and Amy Abrams?

      1. This one looks great too and I’m going to try to read, “The Brand Is You.” Did you ever read that one?

        I think though that the book you mentioned was by a guy. I am going to try to find time as things slow down this week to find the post etc. I really enjoy almost all of your book suggestions and despite having 2 kids under 3 and a half have found time to read the most important ones to me.

        I think that the leaning in thing is very important but we also have to recognize what is required to do that. Obviously you can’t go to Washington with a 3-month old and give speeches with your baby unless you have A LOT of support. Childcare is still not really recognized, affordable or accepted in America and our tax policy for example is a good place to start. Why is the nanny or housekeeper not top line deduction for female entrepreneurs? Why can you deduct everything but not that? If I spend $25,000 a year and $10,000 in property taxes (this is why it is good you live in PA) .. I can say to the gov hey I paid $10,000 in taxes and they say ok fine we can’t tax that income b/c it is gone, already paid to the local gov. But if I say, hey I paid $25,000 in childcare so my kids could be safe and educated so I could work and create jobs FOR OTHERS and self actualize.. they are like ” that is nice, here is a $600 tax credit off your net income at the bottom of the return.” I mean, “WTF” … Are they not the employees that help a woman run a business? If women were really in charge some of these terrible terrible policies would change and I think yes we need to lean in — and also in many cases — women must lean in or the family’s finances will suffer — or women in the family have BETTER work opportunities than men

        1. It’s not a woman’s issue. Lots of women have SAH husbands. It’s a dual professional couple issue, and I think childcare expenses should be deductible up to the income of the lower earning spouse.

  3. You mentioned in your book (I think it was in your book) that your husband frequently reminds you that he earns more and does not need to equally share into child minding responsibility.

    That bothered me a lot (otherwise I loved the book as it explained so many things for me, esp. that I couldn’t understand how come that I feel I have more time than my friends who always seem short on time and struggle a lot with their full time jobs and children. For me, having a child made no difference to my career at all, nor did I ever consider staying at home. The only difference was made to my leisure time, I still miss sleeping in on the weekends, but it actually made me more organized. Anyway…)

    This post kind of doesn’t reconcile with the statement in your book. I see that over and over, with my friends, and even though I have many where the woman makes more than her husband – she never thinks that entitles her to share less in the child care.

    The fact is that women are primary child minders, esp. with babies, which is one mind set that needs to change for both men and women to be able to even begin discussing on the topics as above.

    1. @Stella- I don’t think that’s quite the way I meant to frame it. The question is what is the proper reference point. If we compare to me, I do more of the childcare, so perhaps that is unfair. On the other hand, if you compare to, say, many of the people my husband works with, he does an order of magnitude more. it is an ongoing negotiation, but I’ve also learned that it doesn’t have to be a husband-wife direct comparison. The better question is if I’m doing the amount I want, and if I feel like it’s getting to be too much, then I can get more support from somewhere. That is something that money enables. But I do agree that women are probably more sensitive that it is their “role” to take care of children, and are working from the assumption that they should be doing most of it (or something like that) and men rarely think that.

  4. New(ish) reader here. I love this post! I have 3 kids – had the first when I was 28 and the third when I was 33 – huge difference!!! Although I have made certain decisions in my career since having children that some might consider to have been concessions, I was operating from a position of strength because my company knew that I was valuable, and I had been going “full bore” from university with them. Therefore, they were more willing to accomodate, and I was more invested in returning to work. I simply liked my job too much and earned too much money to walk away, even though (and maybe because) I love my children tremendously. I believe that becoming a mother has, overall, improved my life in every way (okay, except perhaps for lack of sleeping in and my tummy no longer being unbelievalbly flat and toned 🙂 okay, fine, maybe the boobs aren’t as perky as they used to be either 🙂 But, back to the topic at hand…I’m more organized and also more empathetic – more accepting of the limits on others’ time, more focused on teaching and mentoring. So I’m a better me at work than I ever was before kids. Is it hard sometimes – sure…but totally worth it!

    1. @Renee- thanks, glad you liked the post! And hope you’re enjoying the blog. Yes, parenthood has a way of focusing you and making you better at time management. Sometimes when people were scattered and chaotic pre-kids it just gets worse, but if you have reasonable organization skills they can get much better!

  5. Been reading December posts from young mothers. Stop this us/them stuff between economic classes of working women! You really need to appreciate the nannies and service workers who you don’t pay living wages. They facilitate your career, business creation, self-actualization. I know. I had a nanny, housekeeper, 6 figure salary career. Don’t think that because they work for lower wages means they are less capable of becoming engineers, writers, professionals and deserve to be low income. (The housekeeper who previously worked with premature babies was a blessing when I was on maternity leave with a 1st baby born 8 weeks early.) Many didn’t have the educational opportunities or role models you had. I have been an unhappy homemaker for 10 years. I didn’t pursue a job after lay-off in 2002 economic bust because spouse’s high stress situation necessitated me having extra bandwidth for emotional & logistical support. (You all think I should have divorced him and stayed more ambitious.) After his situation resolved, I chose to stay home because I saw the value of what I do, even though it’s not my favorite career. We entered the stage of life where daughters’ activities required lots of driving (music, martial arts, academic clubs). So I drove, volunteered, learned to cook & clean. I’m investing in human capital. They don’t remember whether I was with them or not when they were little, but they do remember who was home after school. He didn’t get me anything for our 30th anniversary, but he’s healthy and able to volunteer at school (robotics team) and makes me coffee. Now that both girls are in high school (9th & 11th grade), we are starting to see the pay-off of being available. They aren’t as self-sufficient as latch-key kids, but are more self-confident,creative, comfortable in themselves than many of their classmates.

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I’ve had that phrase Do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.” in my head all week as I’ve been trying to make some career decisions. I’ve enjoyed discovering your blog, and reposted it on my site this week…
    Thanks!

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