Women who telecommute, at least part time, tell me, "I have a killer job."
The pièce de résistance of their professional setup? "I can work from home when I need to. I can bend my work schedule around my child's needs."
Turns out, that's a mixed blessing. It's a killer job, all right -- and it's killing them.
One 36-year-old senior VP of an L.A.-based international P.R. firm described to me this conundrum:
"I need tips for managing clients, bosses, and my team while juggling parenting, like one of my children bursting through my office door for 'an emergency.' I do a stellar job and want to maintain my professional image, even when I'm closing a deal while flipping grilled cheese sandwiches to keep my hungry kids from flipping out after school. How do other women do it without losing it?"
I Hear That
I'm on a three-minute break during a phone interview with Oprah & Friends Radio's Jean Chatzky. Thinking she's off mike, I hear Ms. Chatzky sweetly whisper, "Honey, you have a fever. You need to be in bed." Another mommy busted!
Later, I told this story to a small group of women professionals between the ages of 29 and 45.
"Isn't that adorable? We're all juggling work and home, yet somehow making it all work."
Everyone nods in unison with knowing, soft smiles.
My friend, Andrea L. Henderson, an executive recruiter and founder of the Basketball Academy, a youth basketball camp for girls and boys from six to 16, shared with us a similar personal experience:
"Recently I was being interviewed by phone by a high-profile financial consulting expert. A few minutes into it, I heard a small child call out, 'Mom-MIEEEE!!!!'
"My interviewer said, 'Would you please excuse me for just a moment?' I heard her muffled voice: 'Just a minute, honey; Mommy's on the phone.'
"We continued our interview. A couple of minutes later, 'MO-AH-AH-AH-OMIEEEE!!!!'
Clearly embarrassed, she started begging: 'Honey, Mommy's working. Please. Let me talk on the phone without interrupting.'
"She told me, 'I'm SO, so sorry!' I reassured her (and she was vetting me!), 'It's okay! I have a child. I know the drill.' But she kept apologizing over and over.
Laughing and empathizing, Andrea said to us, "I mean, My God!! You'd think we're apologizing for being caught smoking a joint instead of mothering a child!"
Don't Explain, Don't Complain
My husband, a mergers and acquisitions attorney, was on a conference call on speaker phone, from home when he noticed our cat teetering on the four-inch ledge outside the open office window. We live 20 stories above the pavement. Without missing a beat, he gingerly reached out, grabbed her by the scruff, and yanked her back inside. She let out a God-awful screech clearly heard by the seven people in on that conference call. He simply remarked, "Believe me! That was a very good sound!"
Then back to the deal. No explanation. No apology. No nothing.
Men don't apologize.
A dad staying at home with a sick kid -- and yes, there are plenty of guys who do that these days -- doesn't apologize. He doesn't over-explain. Phone interruption? He'll say, max, four explanatory words: "My daughter's got croup. So, on that deal point... Here's your blankie, honey...we have option X. Or, we can try Y. The upside of X is..."
Men deal. Matter of factly. Sometimes with a bit of situationally-appropriate transparency.
Yes, I know -- men don't have to explain.
Yes, women face a double standard. Those external biases, and the price we pay, are beyond our control.
We do have control over the professional image we put out there -- including being authentic, unapologetic, and simply matter of fact and low-key when reacting to life's "little ambition obstacles." We can take a cue from the guys on this one -- by just being ourselves, in all of our multi-faceted complexities.
New Mindset: Damn, I'm Good
Betsy Rapoport is a writer, editor, life coach, and 22-year-veteran of trade publishing, most recently as an executive editor at a division of Random House. She told me this story:
"I was working from home once, negotiating a particularly thorny contract over the phone. I pacified my 18-month-old by upending a box of Cheerios and letting him crush each one individually into the rug -- his favorite hobby at the time."
Betsy rightly figured that it was worth two bucks' worth of breakfast cereal and a five-minute vacuum afterward. She closed the deal and the client was never the wiser. (Her toddler is now a senior in high school.)
Damn, she's good. So are you.
The next time a Murphy's law day makes you feel like a loser, the next time you feel like a fraud, the next time you feel yourself about to apologize for being human -- course correct.
Say to yourself, "No. Actually, I'm good. In fact, I'm damn good."
Write that down on a note card. Place it on your desk where you can see it and constantly be reminded of your new mindset. You've got your job, you've got your kids, you've got your life demands -- and you're not going to apologize for anything, because you're getting it done.
Don't Drink The Water
Let's stop twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to find the elusive Holy Grail called Work-Life Balance. To hell with the mythical "Goodhousekeeping Seal of Approval Juggler" and her imaginary sisters.
Show me the woman who believes in the mirage of the working mom sipping herbal tea, desk cleared of pressing client matters, calmly catching up on e-mail while her sleeping angel's naptime gives her some "me time", and I'll show you someone who really did drink the Kool-Aid. Life balance is an unattainable ideal, and we just waste untold energy and brainpower and creativity and optimism trying to chase it -- or to at least appear as though we've nailed it.
If you want to abandon the tired old work/life balance myth and free yourself from its tyranny, you have to construct a new paradigm. The old model leaves you with a King Solomon solution: a baby that is torn in two.
What good is tearing yourself in two? To be ambitious, you don't want to choose work instead of a full life of family, friends, and outside interests. You don't want to divide your loyalties between being a gutsy entrepreneur or a good executive and a good lover, partner, friend, or mom.
You know what? You don't have to choose. And you don't have to apologize.
Balance Is Bunk
Go for acceptance -- expect and accept imbalance. Find your own comfort zone. Work your own plan. Accept that your day to day life simply isn't always going to flow smoothly. You have to cede a certain amount of control in your life -- especially if you have kids.
Some days you're going to feel like, "Shit! I'm so overextended. That feeling can be extremely frustrating -- until you say to yourself, "You know, things are just always going to be kind of out of balance."
And once you do that -- once you expect at least a little normal life chaos, and stop beating yourself up over it -- acceptance takes over. And here's the irony: once we begin expecting and accepting imbalance, that mind-set paradoxically guides us to periods of -- guess what? -- balance.
Forgetting Balance is Freeing
Now you can begin deploying comforting self-talk like, "You know what, self? I'll put that in order later, when I get to it." Or: Things are too crazy this week; I'll delegate more until they slow down." Or: "So we're ordering in again tonight. You know what? I made my own organic baby food with a hand grinder for those first couple of years. I have even started that presentation. So to hell with it -- I'm a good enough mother; let's have pizza tonight, again!"
Wouldn't it be so freeing just to let that ridiculous balance idea go? Wouldn't it be great to be able to say to yourself and to others:
Imbalance is normal; balance isn't normal. And you know what? Some days, hey...I'm not getting high; I'm just getting by. But I'm getting it done -- and that's okay.