It's Time to Reveal the Secrets We've Been Keeping About Work-Life Balance

When former Secretary of State Madeline Albright recently said, "there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," we turned to each other and wondered if we would eventually have to argue about who would get the window seat as we made our descent to the netherworld.

We weren't concerned about our political choices but rather about the more practical ways that we can but haven't helped other women enough. Each of us has managed to achieve a good degree of career success while raising children and managing complicated family dynamics. But like many women, maybe we don't share enough about how we do it. Have the façades we've built created unrealistic expectations for other women? Maybe it's time to quit keeping secrets.

Recently, one of our colleagues left academia after at least 15 years of training. She was exhausted, defeated, and done because she didn't feel as if she was doing anything in her life competently. At first we were angry: who does? We are most certainly not mythical "superhumans"- able to maintain perfectly ordered homes, ensure our kids design award-winning science projects, make class party cupcakes from scratch with little notice, or effortlessly quote National Public Radio interviews at dinner parties all the while climbing ladders in our respective fields. The real truth is that we haven't worked it all out; we hack our way through, as we suspect many others do.

Anger soon gave way to guilt when we realized that our colleague's story isn't unique, particularly in STEM fields such as biology, where women earn the majority of all degrees but hold only 30.8% of faculty positions. Recent studies show that women are actually choosing not to apply for faculty positions and link this choice to the increased weight we give to family considerations.

The question is: how often are these choices based on unrealistic expectations built on the secrets of others? You see, while we've tried to project an air of calm, focus, and competence, you might see something quite different if you looked at us on the inside. We constantly second-guess our choices and are often exhausted. Admitting this is hard, but it is also important. We want women to know that while balancing family and career demands can feel impossible, it can be liberating to lower your personal expectations of perfection. Here are some secrets we've been keeping:

1. Work is more fun than almost anything else
We actually like to work. The people are interesting. The projects are engaging. We are making a difference. We unapologetically believe that it's OK to rank personal fulfillment as an important component of life decisions. Doing so doesn't diminish our dedication to other aspects of our lives, including our families. We tell our children how much we like our work. We don't HAVE to work in demanding roles; we GET to work in demanding roles.

2. We understand that we can have it all, but we can't have it all at the same time.
For women, work-life balance is often presented as an either/or decision: have children or a career. In reality, it's a continuum that's better described as work-life integration, where our focus frequently shifts between our families and our careers. In academia, professors typically work over 60 hours per week. The reality is that we need to take work home, but we also have the flexibility to take time out of our workdays for other things that are important to us. For example, it's possible to knit a sock monkey for a five-year-old while awaiting the results of a grant application, even if the five-year-old demands more progress than the grant review panel.

3. We are more stressed than we appear
One of us got in her car each morning for years chanting the mantra: "I will not have a nervous breakdown. I will not have a nervous breakdown." We should spread the word that it is possible to achieve career success when the rest of your life feels like it is falling apart. Delivering a keynote speech to 500 people? Easy. Getting a two-year-old to put on socks? Often impossible.

4. We take advantage of any help that we can get
We're fortunate that our university has policies and programs that support women with families. We benefit from sick childcare programs, and we're thrilled that our university now offers a paid parental leave and tenure clock delays. We also give ourselves "leave" at home. For example, one of us finally stopped preparing a freezer full of meals for dad and the kids when she was traveling. "Breakfast for dinner" became something to look forward to when mom was on the road.

5. We use work travel as time for ourselves
We look forward to travel without guilt because it offers a break from the daily grind and often much needed uninterrupted sleep. And we let our children and spouses know how lucky we are to have these opportunities. Instead of "I have to go to Boston," we exclaim, "I GET to Boston; I can't wait!"

6. We give in a lot
Each one of us has an ideal life in mind, but being self-aware enough to abandon our ideals, at least temporarily, is key to surviving and thriving. Instead of arguing about things that don't actually matter - extra TV or a candy bar for our children, our favorite of two entirely reasonable ideas being debated in a departmental discussion, whose turn it is to take out the garbage - we've repeatedly given in. Arguing takes time, and we need all the time we can get.

In sharing our secrets, our intention is not to say that we have it all figured out or that changing women's expectations will fix everything. There is well-documented evidence of unconscious gender bias and a child penalty in academia, and those challenges must be addressed if we ever hope for equity. But, we know that as the proportion of women in the workplace increases, the climate of that environment improves.

Every woman's situation is different, but being honest with each other might help all of us. Instead of viewing each other as unattainable ideals, let's start to see each other as inspirations of what's possible with a few tricks. Help us spread the wisdom: #shareyourhack