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.