This week I contributed my first story to Know Your Value, NBC News' digital platform dedicated to women's personal and professional growth. The story is about a challenge I am facing right now: Navigating summer break with older kids. Short version: Plan ahead and don't let free time become your enemy.
Let me know your best advice for summer months below in comments. I'll be contributing regularly to Know Your Value, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
I love to read. Always have. I typically have one fiction, one non-fiction and one audio book going at any given time. But the reality is that I don't have time for book club in my life right now. I suspect many of you are in the same boat, listening to audio books on your commute and falling asleep to the thwack of your kindle on your forehead. Instead, I keep a running list of recommendations on the Workflowy App with the name of the recommender so that when I'm done I can call or meet up for a catch up and book chat.
But one of the joys of this sabbatical is that I have the time, space and energy to read many great titles surrounding women and work. I'll use this column to interview and support the (largely) female authors who are bringing these topics and issues to the forefront. And hopefully add a few new titles to your reading list.
And while reading much of the latest research, theories and reporting on women and work, I'm struck but just how depressing most of the news is. When USA Today is reporting that the "state of motherhood in the US is trash," it's hard to find good news anywhere. Which is why I was so excited to stumble upon Jamie Ladge and Danna Greenberg's Maternal Optimism: Forging a Positive Path Through Work and Motherhood, coming out this Wednesday.
I came across a review of Ladge and Greenberg's book with a quote that struck me to the core, and really highlighted what I'm trying to accomplish with the Ringmaster:
“You can chart your own path,” Ladge says. “Maybe it helps to read about someone else’s path, so that there’s one piece of it that might be useful, and another piece of another path that’s useful—then you can kind of piece it together yourself. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, because we all have our own experiences and stories to tell. It is really an individual thing.”
I reached out blindly to Jamie, who was generous with her time in sharing what she and Danna wrote and why they wrote it. "First of all, most of the titles cover only the first few stages of work and motherhood, we wanted to cover the gamut of all of the transitions you will make. But secondly, you only hear the bad stuff. There's a lot of good out there, and we wanted to show as much positivity as possible."
I always knew I wanted to be a mom. And I always knew I wanted to work. So as a young newlywed, my husband and I went through the tech bubble-and-pop racking up student debt for back-to-back top 50 full-time MBA programs, knowing that the education we’d receive would set us up for real careers making real money for our future real family.
But with the biological clock ticking, we dove into parenthood. And in August of 2001, we were overjoyed to learn we were expecting. Was it going to be easy getting through a tough second year of an MBA program while pregnant? No, but it looked like I had timed it just about right, for my baby to arrive sometime just after graduation.
Best laid plans, as they say. And the early lesson that once you become a parent you lose all control.
On September 11, 2001, I sat in a classroom at Georgetown University as smoke from the Pentagon filled the Potomac river basin. In that panicked commute home, I started spotting. Terrified, I called my OB who said, “sorry, honey, we are only open to Pentagon victims at the hospital today. And besides, if it’s a miscarriage, there’s nothing we can do.”
Finally getting a radiology appointment the next day about an hour away, I learned that I had not in fact miscarried. Instead, we were expecting twins.
And while we were facing some very tough economic realities as job offers were pulled and our 1.5 bedroom rental got smaller, the car situation became dire. Our 1986 Porsche 944, a purchase on the cheap from my father-in-law, was our MBA mobile. But as my belly grew… and grew… and then improbably grew some more, I had the seat so far back that my short legs couldn't reach the pedals. It was time to trade in the MBA mobile for a family car.
Next came a series of mom cars. First the used Passat Wagon, large enough for two pack-and-plays AND a double stroller in the payload. Then a minivan with the arrival of #3, and when we drove that one into the ground, yet another minivan.
But with the impending addition of two more drivers to our family, I decided it was time for a car for me. Nothing fancy, but it couldn’t scream “mom!” Used, dinged up and with some miles, totally fine. I was ready to turn my commute from drudgery into fun, I wanted a car that was all about me.
And look, I love my minivan. I was never one of those “I’m not a minivan mom” moms. It’s a very comfy ride in DC traffic, I can fit it in my parking garage at work with no problem and it can hold 2 paddleboards and 5 bikes and 3 extra friends on the weekend. They look different from the inside than from the outside.
The teenagers showed me how to use CarGurus.com and after tracking used Mini Cooper convertibles for several months, yesterday I drove an hour south to haggle my way into a deal for this sweet ride. It’s impractical, we don’t really need it, but I wanted it. And after spending the last 18 years thinking about other people’s needs over mine, this tiny car is a nod to getting back to me.
So parents of young children driving the caravan of Odysseys, Siennas and Pacificas, hang in there. Your time will come.
I am one month into a four-month sabbatical, my first measurable time off from work in thirty years. I never even took maternity leaves, as my first two came a month early (and a month before MBA graduation) and #3 arrived while I was getting a new company off the ground. I mean, I love to work. It drives me. It’s my identity. But for all the right reasons I put in for an approved sabbatical from my firm and I’m already learning so much about myself.
Like, for instance, baking. One of the gifts of time is the ability to produce really good meals. Three times a day, I am making meals from scratch, even just for me. I love the creative outlet, my boys are happy, and I feel great. But I cannot bake. At all. As in, I somehow made hockey puck chocolate chip cookies from a just-add-eggs-and-water mix from Aldi. Why can’t I follow simple instructions? I had visions of fresh banana bread every morning and warm cookies out of the oven when the boys rolled in after school but no. The closest I can get to baking is a foolproof granola recipe. I need to accept that this is not my gift and move on.
As my teenagers predicted, I didn’t do well without structure. I traveled the first two weeks but on week three I was staring at my trusty Google Calendar and wondering what to do next. I printed (on actual paper) the next three months and mapped out trips, goals and objectives. All of those items on my Sabbatical To Do list? They’re on there. And it’s beautiful. I’m still getting up early and working out with my girlfriends, firing up the creative juices to write. I then do one big thing- a grocery run or a local field trip- but leave plenty of time to read, garden and generally laze around. These items are also on the list! Two days a week I am out and about, doing book interviews or just reconnecting with people in real life that have only been on LinkedIn comments and group texts over the last few years.
Where does the day go? I am so busy. I am going to make the best retiree. A structured day helps, as there are many distractions in my house. There are always baskets of laundry to fold and clutter to clear, but yesterday’s writing break included cleaning out the gutters because I couldn’t stand the little oak tree farm blooming.
Work from Home
I had forgotten the pure joy of working from home. Over the last seven months, I’ve been on an all-hands-on-deck project at a client site and lost this benefit. Oh, how I have missed solitude, musical freedom and the ability to hit Target at 10 AM. Mostly I have enjoyed the simple pleasure of walking my youngest son to school every day, unhurried, just chatting about what’s on his mind and stopping to slurp honeysuckle or hunt for four leaf clovers. He’s my youngest and is off to middle school next fall, a time when all parents become the most embarrassing creatures ever. I know this ritual is coming to an end and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
This is kind of a one-off but while I’m sitting here in self-reflection, I don’t need to go to another one of these things ever. Getting buzzed on cheap wine and bidding on things I don’t need, even for a good cause? No, thanks. I’ll write a check, stay home and drink my own good wine.
My iPhone is the Devil
Even though I’m no longer tethered to an Outlook inbox with expectations of immediate replies to clients, colleagues and bosses, I can’t put the damned thing down. Sure I’m looking up recipes and snapping pictures of my sabbatical adventures and listening to great music, but this device is going down as my biggest productivity killer. Airplane mode is a must while I’m writing. And as with a toddler, am working through separation anxiety with consecutively longer times apart.
My Presence Doesn’t Fix my Teenagers Forgetfulness
One of the big objectives for this time at home was to give my older boys some much-needed attention, as junior year is kicking their butts. ADHD means they are both disorganized and struggle with executive functioning. But just because I am here doesn’t mean that magically goes away. Yesterday I handed one of the boys an assignment left on the printer as he walked out the door. He somehow managed to leave it at home. (Seriously, it was in his giant palm as he exited the front door, how does this happen?) When I return to regular work I can’t feel guilty about not being there. My presence doesn’t mean their assignments magically get out of their backpacks and turned in on time. This is their problem to solve, not mine.
It’s a virtuous cycle: less stress, more sleep, more energy, happier, repeat. Almost immediately I am back to good (not great, it’s not like I have zero stress in the Folsom Frat House) sleep and have relaxed, consistent energy all day. But I’ve also noticed I’m just, well, happier. I caught myself skipping yesterday inside my house. Who skips inside? What adults actually skip? It was a weird physical response that caught me entirely off guard.
The big win will happen when I take these lessons learned and head back to the office at the end of the summer. Can I keep up the virtuous cycle? That remains to be seen. But you bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be hitting the bakery on the way in.
It had been building for a while. The tension. The tears. The yelling. The sleeplessness. Uncertainty in the present and angst about the future. Work hell during the holidays met an unfortunately rough hormonal cycle and I found myself awake all night on December 26th googling symptoms for “nervous breakdown.” By my own self-diagnosis, I was four-for-seven and headed downhill.
I am a so-called expert on and lifelong student of work-life integration and I was losing my shit. I mean, I’m writing a book on this topic and I couldn’t calm my brain enough at night to sleep more than a few hours at a time. I hate the nickname “wonder woman” but found a lot of my identity in my ability to do it all, even when things got tough. I can usually handle work when there is strife on the home front, and can likewise weather professional storms when everything at home is going smoothly. When both are coming off the rails? Apparently, that’s when Wonder Woman falls apart.
This has been a very tough work year for a lot of people, including me. The normal political tension that all Americans feel hits home directly when the bulk of your business is in the Federal sector. I led a very large, long-shot proposal and -gulp- we won. But what was great news for the firm was not great news for me personally. A new role (and not one I particularly wanted) plus my regular day job duties and one helluva lot of uncertainty caused me to have heart palpitations while on the metro platform on my morning commute, tears on my way out of the office most days and complete mental and physical exhaustion when I arrived home each night. The kicker? Feedback from my bosses at my year-end review that “I look angry and frustrated all the time.” Nevermind the vaguely sexist undertone, they were right; I was angry and frustrated all the time.
At home, despite my best holiday management strategies, it was much of the normal chaos of a household with three boys and two full-time working parents. But add in two teenagers that can’t seem to manage their way out of a wet paper bag, whose grades were failing and limits were being tested and the tension factor was high. Kid #3, content to hide out from the fray, was spending way too much time in virtual worlds. There was yelling. A lot of yelling.
And through all of this, I was painfully missing my best friend, who passed away two years ago. The one with the twins a day younger than mine, who was my boss during my MBA internship all those years ago and knew me so well she could call me on my BS and right my ship with one phone call. But she was gone, and I was going to have to figure this out on my own.
And while I wouldn’t say I am in the clear yet, things are looking up. I have given myself permission to fall apart and the space to put myself back together. How did I do this? By going back to the basics. None of these ideas is earth-shattering, but if you are teetering on the edge, one or two of these things might work for you:
Move the Body/Calm the Mind
For the last year, I have resisted the mat. I don’t want to go to yoga or sit still for meditation, but I’ve made myself do it. I switched meditation apps for a new voice and made a daily challenge with a friend for accountability. I switched out long, time-consuming runs for shorter sprint workouts or heavy weights to make me feel strong. I never want to do it, but always feel better after.
After trying all of the normal things (lavender in the diffuser, “sleep stories” on Calm app, etc.) I finally called a family meeting and said that mom was going to need more sleep or life was going to suck for everyone. No teenagers banging around at midnight, no errant 3AM alarms, no TV shows with my husband or the boys. Sleep above all else. I think that my behavior had been so crazy the week before they actually complied.
Do whatever you have in your control to change your surroundings. Play mood-changing music. Hang out with positive, supportive people. Rearrange your workspace. When you’re feeling the downward pull of the vortex you need to change what you can so that you don’t get sucked in.
I have never been able to keep an Oprah-style Gratitude Journal or any journal for that matter, but when I would lie awake at night and worry about all things I would say to myself, out loud: Warm bed. Dry roof. Healthy family. Loving friends. Sometimes you just need to remind yourself that these are first-world problems, you are blessed beyond belief, and stronger than you know.
I had been working on my book project for nearly two years but could never get past the proposal phase. I never even sent out agent query letters. Despite a strong time management game, I couldn’t find even 30 minutes a day to pursue this passion project. And even if I had, there wasn’t an ounce of creativity left in me. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I never took maternity leaves, as my twins were born when I was in graduate school and my third when I ran a start-up. So I put in for and was granted a four-month leave of absence so that I could dig into the book project, spend the time with my family we all needed, and hit the professional reset button. Within a week my blood pressure was down and I was sleeping through the night again. Not working isn’t an option personally or financially for me so I will look to lessons learned during this sabbatical to find a new way forward.
So stay tuned. I’m doing research, interviews, analysis and introspection to figure out what works for working mothers. And I can’t wait to figure out how to lighten the load for you.
Last week several friends shared this hilarious article with me, knowing that I also do all the things before I get to work each day. I’m a morning person but even I don’t want to get up at 4:45AM. The problem is that I have so much to do I can’t see any other way. At this point, I’m the first in my family to bed at 9:15 and my 11 year old tucks me in. I can’t tell you the last television show I watched.
See this flattering picture? This was Wednesday. I hit a 5 minute snooze when the soothing voices of NPR came across my clock radio and hopped out of bed at 4:50. A few stretches later I threw on my laid-out-the-night-before workout clothes and hit START on the coffee maker. A half cup of coffee is required before a 5:30 workout so that my eyes are open enough to affix contacts. While the coffee brewed I unloaded the dishwasher, reviewed the teenagers’ text history on phones charging in the kitchen and moved a load of wash to the dryer.
I met my friends for a 45 minute neighborhood run and circuit. Is it fun getting up in the dark to exercise? No. But fitness is my number one stress beater and my friends hold me accountable. Plus, it’s really the only time I get to see these likewise busy ladies.
Back from the run, I unloaded the groceries delivered from our dairy and farm share and bid adieu to my bike-commuting husband who has thoughtfully laid out medications and lunches for the boys. I added a few apples to lunches packed the night before and got dinner going in the Instant Pot. We had a cross-country meet and soccer practice at the same time 40 minutes apart that night and the only way dinner was getting made was at 6AM. Hopefully this would keep the chili warm all day without blowing up my house.
With dinner going, I went up to get myself ready, stopping at twins’ rooms to give the first wakeup call over Alex Baldwin- and Blake Shelton-recorded alarms on their Alexas. With 15 minutes allotted, I showered, dressed and answered via voice-to-text all of the work emails that came in after 10PM. All the while I silently cursed that none of my male colleagues had to spend time putting on makeup or flat ironing their hair to conform to societal professional norms and thanked the good lord for whoever invented dry shampoo.
Dressed for work, I donned my handy black apron to get two rounds of hot breakfast on the table. With bacon frying I hollered up to the twins one last time and woke up the little guy who has developed a mysterious “back muscle pull” and believed he “absolutely just can’t go to school today.” With five minutes of empathy, cajoling and, finally, bribing behind me, I carried a half dressed 11 year old to the table.
With no teenagers afoot, I gave the ultimatum, “today’s the day, guys. You’re late, you get a detention.” I folded what was in the dryer, finished last night’s pots and pans and wiped down the counter when two salty 16 year olds arrived to tell how it’s anyone’s fault but their own that they’re going to be late today. Standing on my tippy toes to kiss them goodbye, I said “I love you” while being yelled at as they sprinted the four blocks to school.
Having missed my window to hop on metro (because: environment! money! Really, my only time to myself…) I decided to drive to the office. When I arrive 40 minutes later my blood pressure was pumping and I arrived 5 minutes late to my 9:30 meeting. And I’m beat, because I’ve been up for nearly 5 hours and have done ALL of the things. A 9:15 bedtime never looked so attractive.
I have been having a lot of financial angst lately and have leaned heavily on some of my financial planner friends for comfort and advice. Which is how I came to meet Natalie Wagner, a money wellness coach at VitalFinancials. And no, this isn't a post about how the heck you save for college when you're paying the equivalent of that for daycare; we'll get there, I promise. This is about spending on you; why you do it and how to get the most out of it.
Here's Natalie's advice:
“I don’t need an expensive retreat to have a spiritual experience. I am a spiritual experience!”
- Sophie E., VitalFinancials client
Self-care is when we do something kind for ourselves that brings Energy in, leaving us feeling satisfied and with a sense of joy.
Self-indulgence is when we go too far in trying to show ourselves affection; the energy that goes out is ultimately greater than what we bring in, and the act becomes hollow.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. And when it comes to our money, how do we recognize when our spending will result in self-love, and when we’re buying extravagances that will leave us energetically depleted?
My client, Sophie, deeply values spiritual experiences. When her yoga teacher invited her on an international yoga/meditation retreat, her first instinct was to sign up immediately. Yet, something held her back.
The retreat would cost several thousand dollars. Although she had the funds, she also had other meaningful parts of her life that call for money. What’s more, her current place in life had her inclined towards simplicity, and she felt unsure whether travel would expand and replenish her soul, or leave her feeling tired and yearning for home. She decided to take some time before signing up.
Soon after, Sophie took a trip to the local zoo with her daughter and granddaughter. The day was delightful – three generations exploring elephants and iguanas, smelling spring flowers and enjoying each other’s company. After spending roughly $100, she felt like she’d received priceless self-nourishment.
At home, Sophie began to think about the retreat in contrast to the zoo and realized something. Going on the retreat might sound amazing – even be amazing – but the self-care she truly needed was right in front of her. With a confident heart, she forewent the retreat and bought a family membership to the zoo.
I love Sophie’s story because it illustrates the blurry line between self-care and self-indulgence. A spiritual retreat can be an amazing way to care for yourself – but there is more to it than that. Whether something is self-caring or self-indulgent varies from person to person and across the span of our lives. Though this retreat was surely perfect for another yogi, at this point in Sophie’s journey, it was an unnecessary and expensive distraction.
So how did she reach this bold and honest conclusion? In our coaching session, Sophie and I explored the dynamics at play as different forms and amounts of energy moving in and out. While Sophie would have received energy through the spiritually enriching content of the retreat, she saw that the traveling, time away from her home and family, and money spent were all forms of energy going out. For her, the energy out would be greater than the energy coming in, and would leave her depleted. When she was honest with herself about this, the right decision naturally rose to the top.
When you’re looking to send yourself some love, turn inwards and consider the energy you would spend versus receive. Consider the amount of money as one of the valuable forms of energy at play. What does the money mean to you? How does this fit in with the other dynamics at play?
To be self-caring instead of self-indulging, your actions must ultimately bring energy back to yourself. Using your money intentionally for self-care will sustain you and inspire your inner vitality.*
My older sons are high school juniors and with college looming in the not-too-distant future I've been panicked of late. It all seems so much more competitive, complicated and expensive than when I did this. So I turned to THE college planning guru, Becky Claster of Claster Educational Services, for the crib sheet of what parents of high schoolers need to know year-by-year to get this process under control.
Here's what she had to say:
As families with high schoolers settle into their new routines, college may be all your student is thinking about . . . or it may not have crossed his or her mind. Whether your student is in the Class of 2019 or 2022, some essential grade-by-grade tips can help you start the year off right from the college planning perspective.
You have a lot on your plate, which means time management is crucial. Your first priority is earning good grades in your core academic classes, so be sure to reserve enough time for study. Next priority: college applications. Create a detailed timeline for completing the Common App, Coalition App, all of your essays, and optional components like a resume or portfolio. Check in with your school counselor and other recommenders to make sure your letters are on track, and create your FSA ID so you can complete the FAFSA when it opens on October 1. (If your schools require it, the CSS Profile opens the same day.)
Fall is also the time to schedule any remaining college visits. Prioritize schools that consider demonstrated interest in the application process; those where a visit won’t improve your chances of admission can wait. If you can’t make it to campus, meeting with college reps locally counts too, so keep an eye on your school’s visit schedule. Also check to see which schools on your list are attending upcoming college fairs, then come prepared to their tables and make a great impression.
Planning ahead can ease the pressure of this busy time. As the PSAT approaches in October, take a practice ACT to figure out which test is better for you. Then put all your effort into that one. Look at possible test dates, keeping in mind what else you’re doing at those times—playing sports? The school play? AP exams in May? SAT Subject Tests, usually best taken in June? Once you have a testing plan, figure out your prep plan. Consider schedule, delivery method (online, in-person, group class, individual tutoring, etc.) and your budget, and sign up.
I recommend blocking out dates now for college tours throughout the year, even if you haven’t decided where to visit. Taking a few shorter trips is less stressful than a jam-packed spring break tour and allows more time to reflect. The best times are your school’s administrative days because you can see colleges when they’re in session without missing your own classes. You can also start with local visits to get a feel for big vs. small, university vs. liberal arts college, urban vs. suburban setting, etc. In addition to the admissions tour, arrange to attend a class in a subject that interests you to get a better sense of campus life.
Connect with your teachers and your school counselor, and set goals for the month or the grading period. Work on study and organizational skills. As school-based sports and clubs start up, consider which activities you’d like to get more involved in, keeping in mind that colleges value commitment to a few priorities over lots of dabbling. Doing these things this fall will kick off a strong start for the year.
It’s September of 9th grade, do we really need to be talking about college already? Well, not too specifically. Get to know your teachers and school counselor, who will support you along the way. Plan your routines thoughtfully and set goals for a month or so, then revisit them and recalibrate. And explore the new opportunities that are available to you now that you’re in high school, like sports, clubs, community service, internships, or simply the higher level of academic challenge. The most important thing right now is to have a smooth transition and lay the foundation for a successful high school experience.
Becky Claster, an independent educational consultant, is the founder of Claster Educational Services. She works with students throughout high school to help them prepare for and navigate the college admissions process.
One of the things that made me reluctant to embark on this book project is that I don't have all the answers. Far from it, in fact. Which is why I am always seeking good counsel from my crew, subject matter experts, friends with older children, professionals I admire and that mom on the Metro platform wearing killer shoes that are sensible enough to hoof it up the escalator. They are my de facto Personal Board of Advisors and I am bringing their good advice to you. Stay tuned to hear from guest bloggers on topics that are keeping both me and you up at night. Have a burning issue or question? Drop it in comments and we will answer!
I recently heard a panel featuring kick-ass female attorneys in the general counsel’s offices of some of the largest brand names you know (Um, hello, SPANX!) and one topic the group kept coming back to was women’s lack of network - specifically to powerful people. At a time in life when you’re racing out of the office to make the soccer carpool, dedicating time to attend networking events can feel like a real drag. What should be a top priority for career development falls to the bottom of the ever-growing to-do list.
This crack panel shared their tips for cultivating a network:
Look, I know hiring a sitter to drive your daughter to dance class so that you can attend an evening networking event seems like a colossal waste of time and money. But it's not. Done strategically, you can build your own highly-targeted network that actually saves you time, helps your career and makes your work more efficient.
It’s a pretty common occurrence, really. You finally find the right role with the right boss and the right schedule, and what do you do? You park. Because you’ve finally gotten into a routine and rhythm that works for you and your family.
But then something changes. Your firm gets bought and your flexible schedule gets canceled. Your empathetic boss leaves and the new boss, managing from across the pond, doesn’t understand that you have a 6PM daycare pick up. You think hey, I’m at midlife, I want a job I actually care about that’s going to leave the world a little better than I found it. So you commit to a job search and dust off your old resume, which, thankfully, is backwards compatible from Windows 2008.
Too often I see the telltale signs of a dated, poorly-attended resume. And do you know what I think when I read it? This person does not care enough about this job to give this resume the attention it deserves and into Deleted Files it goes.
Here are a few tips if you are refreshing a several-years-old resume:
So stop putting it off. Update that resume. And for goodness sakes run it through Grammarly and have at least three friends review it. Not only are you looking for eagle eye editing, but your friends (you know, the ones that you’ve known since you first drafted this resume) will give you the honest truth about how it reads and what it says about you.
Most days, I rush out of the office at least 5 minutes late with a messy desk and nothing close to inbox zero. I then spend the commute trying to answer emails while my train is above ground because if there's one thing I hate more than unfinished business it's MY flexible scheduling interfering with my colleagues' productivity.
For the last few weeks I've tried a new daily closeout routine that's helping me end the day on a high note, set me up for a smooth landing tomorrow and ease the transition to home life (also known as the second shift).
This routine is largely based on Daniel Pink's latest book When: The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing. I'm a big Dan Pink Fan, if you haven't read his work, give it a read (or listen on Audible, because I know you're multi-tasking even as you read this blog post).
I block the last five minutes of my day on my calendar and do three things:
Is it helping? Too early to help. But a five minute investment in a strong daily wrap up is sure to have a positive return.
With my youngest now in double digits, I am beginning to lament the ending of so many elementary school rites of passage: Dwindling birthday party invitations. Forgetting to put Santa’s cookies out. The hilarious tooth fairy charade the next morning when all he really wants is the dollar.
But one thing I won’t miss? Valentine’s Day. With three boys, this has never been a big holiday in our house. But when the class list comes home on the first Wednesday folder in February we either march to Target to get some pre-fab punch-outs or sit down together and cut out some construction paper hearts. They write TO and FROM while I provide editorial oversight for appropriate language. “Your toots smell like roses” did not make the cut in 2014. But it feels like a chore, another item on our busy family to do list.
Last night a friend, a mid-Atlantic transplant to the Lone Star State, texted me about the over-the-top Valentine’s presentations in her elementary school. A four-foot tall gumball machine atop a Valentine’s Day box? Apparently everything IS bigger in Texas. “I’m waving the white flag,” she said. “When did parenting become so competitive?”
And it led me to wonder why some moms (and dads, Example A: The gingerbread house wired with flashing lights) have the desire to invest so much time and effort in holiday crafts and gifts when they know the kids are really only after the sweet tarts. My take? Women want over-the-top visual presentations of just how good of a mom they are. How creative they are. How they can work, and raise kids and volunteer and hit the gym and still have time for the BEST VALENTINE'S DAY EVER! They want to post pictures on Instagram and get lots of virtual love to fill all those corners of self-doubt and identity loss that accompanies motherhood.
And I’m not immune. A few years back I was feeling so guilty about spending so much time working over the summer that I made these back to school vases (pencils rubber banded around a frozen orange juice container full of fresh flowers) for each teacher. Of COURSE I took a postcard-perfect picture, replete with “chrome” filter for a healthy glow, and posted it on Facebook. “You’re so creative” they said. “How do you get it all done?” they wondered. I watched those Likes pile up and for a few minutes, I didn’t feel like a terrible mom for dragging my laptop to the pool and working on their crappy wi-fi instead of playing cards with the boys during break.
I’m not saying you need to delete Pinterest from your iPhone, or knock off all these super cute projects. I’m saying it’s helpful to know WHY you’re doing it. If you know why you are showing off your bad-ass mom skills, you’re more empathetic to others that are doing the same. Let them have their moment, say “You’re so creative!” and “I don’t know how you do it” and then let it go. And for God’s sake, don’t try to compete.
Now that we’ve aged out of all-class Valentines and are on to the awkward teenage boy phase I, you know, very casually asked one of my 15 year olds if he –ummm- needed any help procuring a gift for someone special. “Wait, what? Mom, when is Valentine’s Day again?”
Maybe it's because I'm feeling guilty that I've parked my 10 year old in front of Roblox so I can catch up on work emails on a Sunday morning (my sacred down time!) or perhaps it's the freezing-rain dreary February weather, but I have had it up to here with the happiness mandate.
My news feed blew up this week on the subject of happiness. The most popular class at Yale? Happiness. Great. Good on ya kids, that'll prepare you for real life. Want to know the scientific formula for happiness? Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has it allll figured out. I can't get through a Facebook scroll without Gretchen Rubin, whose books I greatly enjoy, sharing a 30 second video on how to do better at happiness.
Recently I sat down with Lisa Roepe, one of my favorite journalists, who was working on a story about happiness project groups. Like a book club, the idea here is that folks come together and hold each other accountable for their happiness goals. The whole concept just didn't compute. I tried to imagine telling my husband, "hey, you've got to finish the chemistry homework oversight and pack lunches, I'm headed out to happiness club!"
Look people, life is messy and complicated and sometimes it just isn't going to be fun. Only YOU know what makes you happy, and you can't expect others to hold you accountable for that. To the greatest extent possible, do more of what makes you happy and less of what doesn't. You don't need a group for that.
This week I sat down with Michele Hoffman, Managing Director of Clarendon Partners, an Arlington, VA-based management consulting firm. She’s also the mom of 11-year-old boy and girl twins who is killing it professionally and personally. I wanted to know a little bit more about how she manages her three-ring circus to see if she had any strategies to share.
Wow, twins, let me guess, totally smooth sailing right?
After leaving the Federal government I spent twenty years in consulting and when I became pregnant with the twins, I was working for a large, global consulting firm. I knew I didn’t want to step back, that I wanted to keep growing my career, but I was realistic about becoming a mom to two at the same time. My boss had twins and knew what that whole thing entailed. Together, we made a strong plan. I moved off client delivery so that I wasn’t a key person, and took a more managerial approach that could be done from bedrest. Because I remained in a managerial role, I didn’t lose stature. I was realistic about what it means to be pregnant with twins, had a transition plan, and they were confident I was coming back. I worked up until a week before delivery.
How do you handle your role as a mom with coworkers? Clients?
If you can't make an early meeting don’t say “my son has a doctor’s appointment,” just say you have a conflict and reschedule. Don’t use your kids as your excuse. But if I’m trying to build a relationship with someone, particularly with a client, sure I’ll tell them. It’s all part of me and the relationship. I feel like I get more credit because I have kids. I am more relatable.
How do you share the load?
My husband loves to cook, it’s his quiet space. And well, we need to eat every day, so I don’t have to worry about food. We try to play to each other’s interests and strengths. If he likes something, he’ll do it.
What do you let go of?
You have to pick your battles. I don’t care about what my kids wear or how crazy my daughter’s hair is. But just like with work, I need to transfer accountability to my kids. I need to be in the Quality Assurance (QA) role, not the execution role. If something needs to be done I hand it off so I can review it and make sure it’s on track. For example, I cannot be the mom alarm in the morning. My kids have alarms and if they miss the bus they have to walk to school. I try to delegate more and give more ownership so it’s not all on me.
What is the best piece of work advice you’ve ever received?
For women, and especially in consulting, just ask. It’s that simple. For a long time I would do lots and lots of things expecting others to notice, expecting recognition and promotion. But do you know what? Most people have their own things to worry about and are not thinking about what was going to get me to the next level. So I asked. I said “I want to be a managing director, how I get there? What do I need to do be a managing director?” Get mentors. How do you get them? Older, younger, anyone you respect. Reach out to men. Getting a well-rounded perspective is valuable as you go through the different stages in your career and in your life. Just ask people for advice. It’s good for mentorship, coaching, business development, relationship development.
How do you manage kid’s activities?
Stick to one sport each, and switch off transportation duties with husband or rely on carpools and grandparents. I just realized that every parent doesn’t have to go to every single practice! I got better at village building and sharing the load with other parents. Having a strong neighborhood is so key here. We have similar philosophies, like we don’t set up playdates. Instead we just send them out to play, and if it’s not a good time our neighbors know to send them home. Go play ball in the street, it doesn’t have to be a sports team or planned activity.
Now that my kids are older, I find the summers really tricky. How do you manage?
Hire a teacher as a summer nanny! They’re available, will teach your kids, but you have to recruit nearly a year ahead. I share mine with a neighbor. We have found over the years you need to set the weekly schedule as well as a budget for activities.
The sprint from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a beast for most folks, but if you have kids and you’re working outside of the home it’s a trifecta of over-scheduling, guilt and unmet expectations. You feel horrible that you have to miss the preschool Holiday Caroling Party at 11 AM because you have meeting downtown at 10:30. Your to-do list seems to grow with every item checked off and yet as you are rushing around, from your daughter’s Nutcracker Dress Rehearsal to your son’s Boy Scout Canned Good Collection Drive while frantically checking email from your boss you have to wonder: is it January yet?
Listen, the Holidays are busy. There are extra commitments and activities on top of your normal circus and that only adds fuel to the fire. Add on all the baggage from your own childhood holiday expectations and guilt that you aren’t going to sacrifice your little angels’ “perfect holiday” because you work and you have a recipe for disaster.
So I’m here to tell you two things: it will not be perfect, and that’s okay.
The upside to adulting is that you are in charge of your time, you can say no, and it will all be alright. On my sixteenth year as a working parent during the holidays, I have a few survival tips that may help quell your Christmas Chaos:
1. Reign It In. You don’t need to give every single person you know the perfect gift. Ain’t no shame in the same-gift game. Find the perfect small gift? Buy a dozen and share with everyone from your cube-neighbor to the newspaper delivery guy. And most of our kids have MORE than they will ever want or need. Our family sticks to the four gift rule: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. Draw names with your extended family or agree to only exchange gifts for the children. We all have too much crap anyway.
2. Just Say No. I once insisted on attending three holiday parties in one night. That was dumb, and not a lot of fun for me or my husband. Two parties per night, max. And it’s okay to say no to client or vendor parties. Or to your friends that host direct sales parties (ask them to send you a link, they gladly will). You probably won’t make it to every year-end or holiday event for each child, and everyone will survive. Why is the piano recital at the same time as the end-of-season sports banquet? Are they conspiring against me? No, but ’tis the season for a calendar collision course.
3. Order Gifts to Your Office. You are more Amazon Prime than Pinterest and I love you for it. Ship gifts to your office so you don’t have to Heisman your kid when launching out of the minivan from daycare pickup, running to get the box left on the front step, only to spend the next fifteen minutes (during the witching hour, mind you) looking for a better hiding spot from your little Nancy Drew. Schedule a late work night in December, pour yourself a little cocktail and put that laptop Spotify app on Holiday music and wrap away. All the recycling goes in the office bin and you arrive home with wrapped packages to slip under the tree or gift after you light the menorah.
4. Only Do What Brings You Joy. I have a love-hate relationship with holiday cards: love to get them, hate to give them. Every year it became a family battle royale to get the right photo, wrestle with mail merge labels and bribe the boys into assembly-line the distribution. So I gave it up. One year I made an Animoto video, another year I sent Valentine’s Day cards. People, THANK YOU for sending me yours, but I just can’t even. Maybe I’ll send them when the boys are in college (please, sweet baby Jesus, may they all get into college) but please accept my apologies in advance that I just can’t get it together to get cards out the door while I’m wrapping up year-end at work.
5. Impromptu is Better. Look, you can’t orchestrate the perfect holiday. Rather than scheduling all the things you want to do during the holidays, leave space for the magic to happen. One of our favorite holiday traditions is for the boys and I to sneak out for an hour or two (can be done ANYTIME) to be elves practicing Random Acts of Kindness. They get to choose what we do, we’re together, we feel good. And that’s a heckuva lot better than forcing your family to go to a Messiah Singalong that only YOU want to attend (and seriously, go alone, it’s better that way).
And when you have the inevitable candy cane-induced meltdown, don’t freak out. That’s happening in every house and isn’t what you see in the picture-perfect InstaChristmas posts. Throw your kids in the car in their PJ’s, give them a plastic coffee mug of warm milk or hot chocolate, and take a little ride around the neighborhood and look at all the pretty lights. There really is magic in the season, you just have to have the time to notice it.
Through my Board service to the Society of Alumni at Randolph-Macon College I have recently had the honor of mentoring a young woman, a junior from southern Virginia and first-generation college student. Inspired by Elizabeth Morehead’s writing on supporting first-generation professionals to improve corporate diversity, I wanted to share some advice.
If we ever want to solve big problems like pay equity or women in the Boardroom, we have to support women from the very beginning. It’s not enough to GET to college, you need to maximize the experience. It’s not enough to get the internship, you need to squeeze every last drop of value out of it. And to keep going you need to be supported every step of the way.
So I went to my hive mind, my college girlfriends who are killing it professionally and up at 7 AM on a Sunday morning and happy to share advice via text as they sip coffee before launching into their busy days. While some of the advice stemmed from our own internship failures (“don’t talk to the press,” truth.) here is what we came up with:
Remember, this is an audition for your future life. Now go break a leg, sister, you’ve got this.
Spend 10 minutes with me and you’ll hear me say “my most precious resource is time, even more than money.” Now winning the Powerball probably makes that math a little different, but on the main the thing I am most protective of is my google calendar. I wake up at 4:45AM, manage my schedule like a hawk and crash hard at 9:30PM. Everything in between is an exercise in maximizing face time at the office and with my sons, who appear to be changing from boys to men overnight (and with the assistance of a gallon of whole milk per day).
Over time, I’ve realized that there are just some things you don’t have time for as a working mother. Let me rephrase that; there are things *I* don’t have time for as a working mother. If you can pull off one or two of these things, then boy howdy, you are Wonder Woman and I am in awe. Share your secrets, pretty please.
So that you can check your guilt at the door and get on with living your awesome crazy life, I share my list with you:
1. Office Drama. I could argue that NO ONE has time for this, but if you’re trying to finish a slide deck by 4:30 so you can Grace to soccer across town at 5 PM then you do not have time to gossip, pick sides, lobby opposition or send speculative IMs. Keep your head down, be polite and pleasant to everyone and get the hell out of dodge.
2. Personal Drama. That cousin that always makes a snide comment about how awful it must be for your son to have to go to after-school care because you “chose to have a job” or the girlfriend that leaves you irritated, frustrated and wanting after every brunch date? Nope. Don’t have time for them. Do not give people that take from you any blocks on that precious google calendar.
3. Every.Single.Happy.Hour. I love a 5 o’clock glass of house white as much as the next lady, but to quote Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, “every day is someone’s special day.” Someone in your office is always having a baby, getting married, going to grad school or having some other big life event. Great, wonderful, wish them well as they celebrate with their real friends. If you can make one of these a fiscal quarter, you get a gold medal. Attend one with your boss, key client or star employee? BOOM. You’ve won the working momolympics.
4. Pinterest-Worthy Birthdays. Or anything Pinterest-worthy, for that matter. But ESPECIALLY not children’s birthday parties. I used to love Pinterest, but now think it’s the digital epitome of what is wrong with women: rather than inspiring one another, we see ourselves as not as worthy. Don’t let working mother guilt get you here. Kids want their pals, pizza and cake. And order the damned cake, will you? You must finish the Fleischman brief tonight; you do NOT need to track down edible bamboo for the Moana cake.
5. Seasonal Decorations. Outside of the 3 bins of Christmas gear, you won’t find a Kiss Me, I’m Irish sign on my front door or an Easter Egg tree in my yard. If Halloween is your jam then great, go all out, but don’t spend your precious free time tracking down President’s Day-themed laminated place mats for your kids (I did it, it wasn’t worth it, trust me).
6. Errands. There is never joy in running around town for the Bed, Bath & Beyond return, dry cleaning drop off and never-ending Costco run, but if you work 40+ hours per week and spending another 10 commuting (welcome to Washington, folks) then you must lean on the fairies that deliver any- and everything to your door. What used to be the delight of urban areas is available everywhere thanks to Boxed.com and Amazon Prime.
Face it, sisters. We’re more Amazon Prime than Pinterest and we wouldn’t have it any other way.