Finding a Work-Life Balance Because You Can’t Have it All

This post is in response to something that my friend Michelle wrote after listening to Martha Stewart speak at the keynote of the Blogher 2012 conference last Friday. I suggest reading her post first: Wherein I Tell Martha Stewart She is Wrong. Since reading it I have been thinking a lot about my experience as a working mother and I wanted to capture that here. It is long, but I want to capture the whole story in one place. I haven’t read the comments on Michelle’s post yet (I will after I publish this); I am curious to see how other people responded to it.

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On Thursday, October 20, 2005 I woke up early. I showered and dressed and added a few things to my hospital bag and put it by the front door. I went to my home office and checked e-mail and responded to a few project issues. Then we took my 40-week pregnancy picture, put my hospital bag in the trunk (just in case) and headed to the Doctors office. I had an ultrasound scheduled before my appointment to check on the baby’s health since I was 40 weeks and showing no signs that I was going to deliver any time soon. The ultrasound tech took some measurements and then some more and then told me that the amniotic fluid levels were dangerously low. We walked across the hall to the Doctors office and he walked in with the latest information and announced that we would be going to the hospital that day. It would be a while until there was a room available at Labor & Delivery so we were told to head to the hospital in a few hours.

Since my office wasn’t too far away from there, I stopped there to finalize a few things, make some calls, and make sure that all of my projects were under control. There was no back-up at work for my projects and most would be on hold while I was on leave. I was very nervous about walking away from work for 6+weeks. I think I made it 2 weeks before I logged into work to check e-mail and 3 weeks before I called in for a conference call. After working full-time since college graduation, it was difficult to be disconnected.

After my 8 weeks of short-term disability leave, I worked 4 hours per day for the next few weeks. Then I went back to my regular full-time schedule: 1-2 days at the office 50 minutes from home and the rest of the week in my home office.

The first day I was away from home at the office all day, Juliana was with my mom. When I came home she said how cute Juliana was when she rolled over. My mom hadn’t realized that it was the first time she had rolled over and I missed it. My first day away from her and I missed a milestone. Missing milestones is inevitable, but I wasn’t prepared to miss one so soon.

When Juliana was 3 months old I had to travel for work. It was so hard to leave her that first time. I was gone on Valentine’s Day and it seemed unfair to be away from my newest Love – I took this picture before I left and she wore the outfit on Valentine’s Day.

I left town for business trips a total of 6 times in Juliana’s first year and it never got any easier to leave her. Most of those early trips were 2-3 days. When Juliana was 13 months old I had to leave town for 8 days. Toward the end of the week I was sobbing in the shower each morning because I missed her so much. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time to travel home and my flight was canceled and I was rebooked for 6 hours later. I sat in a chair at the airport and cried – she would be in bed before I was home.

In a year I had gone from always being willing to hop on a plane, take on that extra project, go the extra mile…to a mom who just wanted to be home with her little girl. It was a confusing place to be after years of being career focused and moving up in responsibility at work each year.

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In 2007 I scaled back to being in the office only when it was necessary for meetings – the commute time meant not seeing Juliana before daycare/work in the morning and I didn’t want to give up that time with her. I also started to keep better cut-off hours and only worked at night when I was approaching a major project deadline. Part of trying to find a better balance between home and work. I continued to travel when necessary including a week in Germany in 2007 and another one in 2008.

Juliana is a very healthy child so I rarely missed work because she was home sick – I continued to always be available for work. My second pregnancy changed a lot.

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In December 2008 I was 18-weeks pregnant with the boys and I went on my last business trip until April 2010. That 16 month travel break was due to a combination of no travel past 20-weeks during my pregnancy plus maternity leave plus an economic induced travel ban at work. My first trimester had been rough and I was forced to take more days off work than usual – suddenly I was taking sick days which was very odd for me.

Before I went on leave I interviewed and hired an intern who would handle my day-to-day job responsibilities. Once again my major projects would go on hold, but I planned to be gone 12-weeks this time and I was prepared not to work at all. I spent several days a week in the office in the my final month of pregnancy making sure that my intern knew how to keep everything going while I was gone. I worked a full day on Friday, April 17th and the following Monday I went to the hospital for my scheduled c-section.

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As planned I was out of touch with work for most of the next 12-weeks. When I was near the office for my 6 week check-up, I stopped there to show off the boys. I also met my new boss who had started 2 weeks after the boys were born. He mentioned that we were having a staff meeting in Chicago the last week of my scheduled leave and would it be possible to attend. That day was the first time I passed on a trip. I was thankful that I was still in my 12-week FMLA time period so there was no question saying no.

I clearly remember the Monday morning that the boys were 8 weeks old. The night before had been another bad one…I was so sleep deprived and every week I thought things would get better and every week to this point I was disappointed. I was so grateful for all of the vacation time I had saved so I had paid time off for the final 4 weeks of FMLA after my short-term disability ended. I can’t imagine needing to go back to work in that state. All of the time that I worked and didn’t take vacation time was paying off.

Going back to work was rough, but I got back into a routine and picked up my projects and moved along. But I kept work to work hours, I was much too tired and busy with my children to work late anymore. Days were long especially since Wyatt thought that 5:30 was wake-up time.

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Because of the travel ban, I didn’t travel for work until the week before the boys’ birthday – so different from Juliana’s first year. Later that year a staff meeting was planned for the week of Juliana’s birthday. As soon as I heard the dates, I let my boss know that I would need to leave the meeting early to be home for Juliana’s birthday. I wasn’t going to miss the morning of her 5th birthday.

While I was out of town that week, Wyatt got sick. I was happy I already had plans to come home early, I hate being away from my sick kids. On Juliana’s birthday I got a call from daycare that Wyatt had a strange rash. I picked him up and went straight to the Doctors with him. Even though he had been on amoxicillin before with no reaction, they changed his medicine in case it was an antibiotic reaction. Once again I felt good about my decision to come home early.

6 weeks later I was supposed to go to NYC for a meeting. It wasn’t a critical trip for my job. The biggest value in the trip was the networking opportunity…exactly the type of trip I would have never missed in previous years when I was career-focused. The day before I was supposed to leave, Ruslan got sick and I felt awful. How could I leave my sick child after I was gone while Wyatt was sick? So I didn’t. I left a message for my boss, canceled my reservations and took the day off to spend with Ruslan. And 20 months later I have never regretted that decision.

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I am incredibly lucky to have the flexibility to work from a home office – there are a number of reasons why that works for me and my current position and I am very good at my job – home office isn’t an option for everyone.

On most days I get to see my children in the morning when they wake-up and I tuck them into bed at night.

But I don’t have it all – I would love to be further along in my career at this point in my life. The flexibility, unwillingness to move, and a desire to travel less – all of those factors significantly restrict my options to be promoted or find other opportunities within the company. I can’t give 100% to every part of my life all the time and given the choice, I know where I want to give my best effort.

9 comments to Finding a Work-Life Balance Because You Can’t Have it All

  • I think this was mentioned a couple of times on Michelle’s post, and I’ll concur with it here: When it comes to choices, we (parents, not just mothers) do choose our level of work-life balance. As was pointed out, Martha Stewart made a conscious choice to pursue a very time-consuming, financially rewarding career — at the sacrifice of her home life. most parents don’t want to make that choice; not all of us want to sit in the CEO’s office. We want to do well in our careers and spend time with our families. We don’t want to be millionaires; we want to be debt-free and help our kids get higher education. Workplaces that allow for flextime or part time or telecommuting can help the parents that work for them. If they choose. Nice post. I liked Michelle’s too.

    • Jennifer

      I remember how cautious my boss was when I initially proposed working from home a few days a week (8-1/2 years ago). He set-up some clear rules about work hours and when I would be in the office. 2 years later he was questioning why I was still coming into the office at all – the transition had been that seamless.

      If I hadn’t had Juliana when I did, it is highly likely I would have taken an 18-month assignment in Germany or Singapore because that was the next logical step in advancing my career. Once Juliana was here, it was hard to imagine making major changes to our lives for my career; most of my big choices revolved around our family and figuring out how to move forward as a family.

      I know Scott struggles with the work-family balance as well (I generally don’t speak for him here). He is coaching Juliana’s soccer team in the fall and I am very curious to see how that changes his perspective.

  • Jen

    I do agree that it’s impossible to have it all. You just CAN’T. You find a balance, and that has to be enough- for moms AND dads.

    I come at this from a little bit of a different angle- being my own boss has major perks because I can say when it’s time to quit or if I don’t want to take on a project because it’s too much, etc. But it absolutely means that I sacrifice where I am with my business. I regularly turn down projects because I just can’t fit it in, and it hurts sometimes (especially when it sounds kind of fun and even more when it would mean LOTS OF MONEY WOOOO! ha) But I know that my sanity is more important and those two days each week when I DON’T work and get to spend time with the girls are better in the long run than working. I could easily say okay girls! To the daycare with you! BE GONE! (which… not gonna lie, some days I would LOVE TO. ha) but I know that in a few short years, they’ll be in school all day and then I will be able to take my business to the next level if I choose to do it, so I’m just trying to be patient. No work/parenting arrangement is perfect by any means! We just do what we can and make decisions that are best for each of us :) And just take one day at a time!

    • Jennifer

      I have had to stop my self for volunteering for a few special projects recently. Projects that would be an awesome challenge and fun and different, but they would be additional work and that means extra hours. So I try to pick some smaller extra projects when I can, but step away from the big stuff for now.

      I think you have a great attitude about your situation, because eventually you will be home alone 5 days a week…and you will be able to dedicate more hours or not – maybe you will spend a morning volunteering at school, run your errands while they are at school to have the time available after school for some fun. And what works one year may not work the next, I think parents need to continue to “grow-up” with their kids.

  • The last paragraph is so profound. It perfectly sums up the whole post.

    “But I don’t have it all – I would love to be further along in my career at this point in my life. The flexibility, unwillingness to move, and a desire to travel less – all of those factors significantly restrict my options to be promoted or find other opportunities within the company. I can’t give 100% to every part of my life all the time and given the choice, I know where I want to give my best effort.”

    I too have been mulling over this whole idea of having it all since hearing about Martha’s comments at BlogHer. I’m sure that it’s an unpopular opinion, but I honestly don’t believe that *anyone* can “have it all”. Like you say, you can not give 100% to every part of your life. At some point, something will suffer. That could be your career, your family life, YOU. Something will suffer. I am the biggest proponent of being able to have a family and a successful career. I have that. I know many women that do (you included!), but at the end of the day, you can’t attend every business meeting, every trip, every soccer game, and see every milestone. At some point, every person makes a choice, which is a priority family or career? (And don’t give me that “my goals have changed” BS. Changing your goals means that you made a choice). I think that the important thing to realize is that making that choice does not make you less successful or a better mother. It is you deciding what is best for YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.

    • Jennifer

      I still need to figure out how to find more time for me and more time for Scott and I…it’s always a work in progress and when we figure out a new balance point something will shift and we will work to find it again.

      I agree with your comment about goals – my professional goals really haven’t changed, they just have a lower priority now. I would still love to get that PhD…someday.

  • BeckyD

    Man, I could go on all day about this.

    I have to be at peace with the fact I cannot have it all. I feel like I have a very good situation. Like you, I work at home. I work for a company in DC, and rarely travel there to check in and show my face. This is great for balancing work and family. But my attitude towards work has totally changed since having one kid and then again having two.

    I used to be the person who stayed late, did whatever it took. Now I do what I need to do at work, always keeping in mind that I have to pick the kids up at a certain time, I can only travel if my husband isn’t, etc.

    It works 75% of the time. Just today, I felt the guilt at work when my boss announced her upcoming medical leave. Other managers started asking if I would be in the office to cover. I would love to rise to the occasion and be there, but I just can’t do that anymore. I had to be silent and hope no one pursues that question anymore.

    I know I’m not up for any promotions any time soon, if ever again at this company. 6 years ago, that would have mortified me. Now, I am so so thankful they keep me around.

    And that’s another thing. I have been at this job for 14 years. I would love to move on, and try something new. But there’s no chance I would find something that allowed me to work from home, which allows me more time with my kids. So I am stuck in this job (which I still like, but come on, 14 years!) until I feel I can let go of this work-life balance situation.

    Don’t even get me started on Marissa Mayer and what I think she’s doing to EVERYONE’s chance at a good work-life balance.

    • Jennifer

      I feel like we are living parallel lives. 14 years at the same company as well (8 in the same general job function) and I have been feeling the itch for a change, a new challenge, something different…but I don’t want to give up the work from home situation.

  • BeckyD

    That’s funny. We are! And it’s a blessing and a curse.

    I feel like the day care people think I drop my kids off and go to the pool or something because I dress in shorts and tshirts. I always want to explain myself.