It’s easy to be self-righteous when you’re pregnant. At least it was for me. It was very easy for me to clearly define in my own mind what sort of a parent I would be and what sort I would definitely not be. I still wince when I remember throwing away formula samples thinking that there was no way in hell I would ever feed my son that junk. It was easy for me to read about other parents on blogs and judge the choices they made, because I would never do anything like that or feel like that. When pregnant, you have nine months to create an elaborate vision in your head of what your life as a parent will be like. It can take just moments to shatter that idyll.
I wasn’t one of those moms who had difficulty falling in love with my son, but I did have a lot of difficulty squaring my professional identity pre-baby with who I was as a parent. I think a lot of my difficulties early on were the result of my own guilt in having to let go of some of the things that I was convinced were the very definition of being a good mom. At the same time, I was letting go of things that had been a major part of my professional identity, which had become pretty all-encompassing in my life pre-2009. In the first six months, it didn’t seem to matter what I was doing, because I’d feel guilty whether a choice was being made for my child or for my work. I wince when I think of that time and wish I could give my younger self a hug and let her know it gets better.
It took a long time, but I finally got to a place where I stopped feeling guilty about everything and started leaning into my roles as wife, parent and professional. When one of my best friends from high school who came to stay with me last summer commented that my husband, Adam, and I “are such laid back parents” I realized for the first time that I did feel pretty laid back about parenting. I’d found my groove as a parent. A big part of that was letting go of a lot of expectations/fear of judgment and trusting my gut. There is a lot of judgement out there from other mothers and there are plenty of parents who love to compare themselves and their amazing children to others, but it’s not worth falling into those traps. I’m immensely proud of my bright, inquisitive, funny, smart-ass of a four-year-old and I’m very happy with the life I have with my family. That’s what matters.
But I’m also finally finding my groove as a passionate professional who happens to want more from life than professional accomplishment. I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned about parenting to my attitudes towards work. I’ve always been a bit of a busy bee. I’m one of those people who has a difficult time being still (to my husband’s chagrin). When I’m working on a project, I always look forward to the moment when I will be done with it and can relax. But when that time comes, I’m always on to the next thing. There’s always some idea or some new opportunity I can’t pass up. I’m a tinkerer, trying to improve things at work and home, which is probably why I do so well with changes at work, but it can be exhausting. I’ve also been very career driven; focused on excellence and on moving up the management ladder. Since 2005, I’ve been blogging, writing, and developing presentations nearly entirely on my own time, which has meant lots of time sitting with my family with my head buried in a laptop.
I’m not sure where this drive comes from. Part of it might be insecurity. I never quite feel like I’m doing enough or doing well enough. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I achieve; I never lose that feeling. How can I miss out on this opportunity? What might be the consequences of saying no? If I don’t do or see ___ now, I may never get the chance again. This constant craziness of always needing to do the most and get the most out of everything is exhausting. And what’s most frustrating is that all of this doing never seems to lead me to any real sense of accomplishment. Already, I’ve achieved more than I ever thought possible in my professional and personal life, but the bar just gets higher and higher.
Being a parent is a lesson in giving up control and learning to roll with things. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to apply that to my work life. I’m trying to let go of expectations or agendas and simply try each day to do the best I can for the people I’m supposed to be serving — whether that’s my direct reports, my colleagues, the faculty in my liaison area, or students. Instead of continuing to run this hamster wheel, I’ve begun to question why I need to do something, what is truly important to me, and what really makes me happy. I think we do a lot of things because of “should’s” and “oughts” and we can get so busy that we don’t question the why of it all.
I used to say yes to way too many things, because I was always focused on what I’d lose by not doing it. Now, I’m focusing on what I give up by saying yes. By saying yes, there are other things I can’t do, like spending time with family and friends or engaging in hobbies, exercise, and sleep. I’ve spent way too much time at home sitting on my computer working when I could be having fun with my family or going for a walk in our recently beautiful weather. I don’t even remember where last summer went. So I’ve started to say “no” a lot more. And I’ve been surprised by how not-at-all guilty I feel about it. Sure, I’ve given up some cool opportunities, but I love what saying no means I’m saying yes to. I can’t remember many weekends over the past 8 years where work didn’t intrude in some way and I don’t want it to be that way anymore.
I’m working on becoming more mindful and grateful for what I have now. I want to appreciate each moment without focusing on what’s next. This recent mindfulness has actually made me feel happier and less stressed than I have been in a long time. Perhaps it’s helped me to actually see what I have. I’ve achieved more professionally and personally than I ever thought I would back before I met my husband and discovered librarianship. I’m so happy with where I am. I want to put just as much effort and passion into my work without having my work become the yardstick for determining my self-worth. I want to relax. And I think this means setting up better boundaries between my work life and my home life; something I never before thought I needed. When I’m at work, I want to be fully focused on work. When I’m at home, I want to be fully focused on my home life.
My family has brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined, and I’m especially reminded of that on this long weekend in which I’ve spent nearly every waking moment playing games, kicking soccer balls, reading books, taking walks, cooking and doing other fun things with my son and husband. My work could never provide the sort of satisfaction I get from my family. That doesn’t mean I want to give up my work — I think I’d be miserable staying home — but I’m realizing that letting something that is largely an economic relationship define me as much as it has simply sets you up for disappointment.
I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as an ideal work-life balance. Or if there is, it’s something that is constantly in-flux and defined by the individual. Is there truly a balance where one does not feel the push-pull of one or the other? Does anyone ever feel that way? If you are passionate about your work and your family, friends, hobbies, etc., there will always be decisions to make that will pull you toward one and away from the others. But I think being true to what you define as a healthy balance at that time is what’s key. I often see people with children doing things professionally that I never would, but I’m sure there are parents who would never do things I’ve done. It’s all about knowing what works for us and our families. Every person and every family is different. I also don’t think this is a solely female problem. My husband has also struggled with and made decisions for the good of our family and I love and respect him so much for it. I also think that people with kids aren’t the only ones struggling to define a healthy work-life balance. I should have done it long before having my son, but he provided the critical wake-up call I needed.
I have not read the work-life balance book du jour Lean In primarily because I do not aspire to be anything like Sheryl Sandberg. However, I’ve heard the gist of it is that instead of pulling back from work when you’re getting married, having kids, and the like, you should lean into work and solidify your commitment to your career. My advice instead would be to “lean into” being a whole person; committing deeply to carving out a life you enjoy, whatever that means for you. My lessons for being a parent and/or a professional have not come from books. Largely, they’ve come from seeing role models (both positive and negative) and trusting my gut. I don’t see Sheryl Sandberg’s advice as being feminist, but instead, as being about about women making it in a “man’s world” by denying themselves the opportunity to be a whole person (again, I haven’t read the book). Some people seem to feel like they let feminism down when they prioritize their family (or hobbies, health, etc.) over their work, but I honestly believe that women have always been fighting for the rights and freedoms to make choices. And I think it’s great that we all get to make the choices for ourselves (and perhaps also our families) that make sense and feel right.
Postscript: I’ve heard from a few readers that Sheryl Sandberg shares a similar message to mine in her book, which I’m glad to hear, because the reviews I read seemed to indicate the opposite. Mea culpa for the mischaracterization.
Image credit: Scales of Justice – Frankfurt Version by mikecogh, on Flickr
A few months ago I wrote a (not so well-argued) version of this post (really mine was two posts). Even though we don’t have kids, I definitely get you on this. I want to have a well-balanced life, which includes doing good work, but to balance that with my personal life and non-work creative and intellectual goals. I do better work in all those realms when they are in balance. I’m also wondering how this connects to the issue of putting down roots? early in my career I was itching to move on to bigger and better things in bogger and better locales, but recently I’m finding myself more interested in serving the library, university and community I’m in now as fully as I can.
Thanks for this, Meredith! Very thoughtful and sound advice.
Lots of wisdom in here … thanks.
Thanks for the fantastic post, I could relate to nearly all of it!
Sheryl Sandberg says pretty much the same as you do though – she makes it clear that you need to find the right balance for you and that for many that means taking that time at home or slowing down.
The point is that you shouldn’t step back just because you’re expecting a child, or that you might perhaps think about having one in future – that you should make that decision when you’re on maternity leave and not before.
Meredith, I’m a retired public reference librarian who has enjoyed reading your blog for years but rarely comment in ANY blog – except for when I must, like now. Yours are true words of wisdom that I hope are helpful to others of all ages and at various stages of the ongoing struggle for work/life balance.
I also hope for increased understanding and tolerance for our wide range of work/life balancing acts. Young rising stars or movers & shakers need not be condescending toward those of us who have done our best within 40-hour work weeks – or toward part-timers. Management need not think that we all strive for management positions. We could all benefit from recognizing that we simply have different fulcrums of balance.
Thank you for this post, and for your thoughtful blog in general.
Everything you say here is right on, although you’ve stayed a more passionate professional than I have. As you well know, I made a fairly public decision to prioritize my family over my professional pursuits. I’ve never looked back and at no time did I feel like I let feminism down. 😛
I love this post. Like you, I wish I could’ve given my younger self a little more credit, a little more grace, and the permission to say no a little more often.
Your words are a softer version of my words 15 years ago. Mine were so harsh and resentful I didn’t share them with anyone. My “breaking” point came with the birth of a second child. “Having it all” really means only having what works for you. I also managed to find what was right for me. I do still struggle with picking out just what is manageable though, both on the personal side and on the work side. But, as you say, by living in the moment and fully giving yourself to what’s in front of you, a lot of that gets sorted out by reality. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Finding that work-life balance is, indeed, something that is elusive and ever-changing (and something I have struggled with ever since becoming a Mom). I think you and I must be cut from the same cloth — I too never wanted to say no for fear of missing out, always looking to advance, always striving for more… and missing out on the rest of life in the process. For me, letting go of blogging at Library Garden was my first step in learning to balance life. All of my posts were written late at night, on weekends, etc. and I was giving up time with my son and husband to do so. I now am very thoughtful before I agree to any commitment that is not directly related to serving the people of Princeton.
I totally agree that making the choice to put family first (or at least equal) to work is not letting feminism down and, in fact, it is what feminism should be — supporting all women in the choices they make and giving them the right to make the choice that is best for them.
Thanks for sparking this discussion and for sharing.
Thanks for this post. I have a 3-month old and have been back to work since her 7th week. Most of the time I feel very much torn in both directions so it’s nice to know that others have struggled with this and have made it work.
Meredith, as always I’m in awe of your ability to share your personal experience in an open and straightforward way while drawing lessons from it that can help us all. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.
Rebecca, it definitely does get better, I promise! Those first months you’re just figuring out who you are as a parent and you need to just focus on being easy on yourself and giving yourself the space to figure out the work/life balance thing in the future. There’s no wrong choices as long as it works for you and your family. Good luck!
Greg, see, I was thinking that you were singlehandedly responsible for the decline of feminism in America! You were definitely a great role model for me of someone who really has his priorities straight.
Janie, I’ll bet giving up Library Garden was difficult, but it was definitely the right choice when you find it taking time away from your wonderful family. It’s awful to have to make those decisions, but so freeing once you do. 🙂
Awwww! Thanks Roy! I’m sure a lot of other people have much deeper wisdom about finding work/life balance, but when I get to a good place with something that I’ve struggled with, I figure sharing it might help someone else.
@rcn, I think you make a great point. We’re all in different places in our careers and in our lives and have different priorities. Just because someone is not engaged with their work/profession 24/7 doesn’t mean they’re not a great employee and just because someone is engaged 24/7 doesn’t mean they’re a better employee. People should be judged by what they produce/do at work, not by how shacked to their work/profession they are.
I’d like to believe we can all be engaged within a 40 hour work week and if we can’t, then it’s more a problem with the structure of the job than with us.
Love this! I’m a bit of a “busy bee” myself (also much to my husband’s chagrin!). Lots of great things to think about. Thanks for sharing with us.
“I think we do a lot of things because of ‘should’s’ and ‘oughts’ and we can get so busy that we don’t question the why of it all.”
I’m not a parent, but this has always been an issue for me, with a heavy helping of “What will other people think?” Thanks for such a thoughtful blog post.
Yvonne, it is so easy to get sucked into making choices based on other people’s expectations. Guilt is a powerful force. I’ve tried hesitating before making decisions and really thinking about why I do or don’t want to go ahead with something. Just taking that time is SO helpful.
When women are asked to describe a satisfying life, they often envision a scenario in which they want to please their bosses, mother in laws or husbands. Strike a perfect balance between work and life. This is where the problem starts. I think we need to focus on work-life effectiveness rather then balance.
I came across a blog that inspires some great thought on the same subject. Its by Nita Kapoor of Godfrey Philips India. Its a must read. Here’s the link: http://causeitworks.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/doing-the-right-thing/
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