I remember as a child, the inquiries of adults who wondered what I wanted to be when I grew up. My standard response was ‘a vice president of a company.’ (Why didn’t I set my sights on the top spot? That’s a whole other Oprah!) I wasn’t sure what company or even what field. What I was sure of was that vice president would be high enough to provide me a secretary…who could take care of the baby I planned to bring to work. Even at age 5, I had planned to have “it all”.
The current media interest in this topic – as a result of Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All in the Atlantic – brings those early expectations right back into vivid focus. And it forces an honest look back from the vantage point of having a son who recently graduated from college and a daughter who’s entering high school. How successful have I been?
I’ve been blessed to work from my home for the past 22 years, the last 12 of them for myself. Both of my kids grew up understanding that:
- the red light on the headset means mom’s on a conference call… and they trained their friends at an early age how to respond to that cue by entering the house silently and pantomiming ‘hello’
- work happens at odd hours – when they woke up not feeling well before the sun was up, when they had a bad dream late at night, and all hours in between
- Mom’s not always here
Sure, I’ve missed some milestones. Like most parents, I lament not squeezing more joy from each day with my children. But I also celebrate what I did accomplish on both the home and the work front. I celebrate that my children had a front row seat to me trying to figure it out (sometimes less successfully and gracefully than others). Perhaps they’ll be able to make better, more deliberate, clear-eyed decisions about their own lives as a result.
As I consider my experience and the debate in the media, here’s what rings true for me …
- We have to individually define ‘it all’ and unapologetically own our expectations. “It all” is not the same for everyone. And, it’s easy to be co-opted into other people’s views of what constitutes good parenting or career success. What does ‘it all’ look like to you? For some of my mom friends, it means tucking their kids into bed every night… and that’s lovely. But it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or a worse parent for feeling very comfortable being out of town several days each month. It’s personal. It’s individual. And if we aren’t intentional about what it is, “it all” will continue to elude us.
- Flexibility is the only lever we have in pursuit of “it all”. Control over one’s schedule is the key. Being able to make choices about when and how to work creates the conditions for being able to achieve both work and home objectives. When women (and men too, for that matter) understand this, they may be able to make different choices. When organizations understand this, they may be able to change their cultures and systems in ways that support this human need while delivering potentially greater business outcomes as a result of the engagement, passion, and loyalty of highly satisfied (whole human) employees.
- Balance may not be the ultimate end-game. Work and home life will rarely be evenly distributed or have the upright, steady quality associated with the traditional definition of that word. What if we re-framed the idea of balance? Perhaps it’s about integration and bringing work and home into a coordinated whole. Perhaps it’s about harmonizing the needs and rhythms of each. Perhaps it’s about reconciling or negotiating seemingly competing needs and desires. Or perhaps it’s coming to terms with the fact that balance is dynamic, shifting sometimes to one side and sometimes to the other… but only momentarily touching the sweet spot in between.
- We need to keep talking about this issue. We need to keep the discussion honest because it’s too easy to sanitize or idealize elements of this very complex issue. And, we need to keep the discussion blame-free. There is no right or wrong as individuals grapple with blending the two potentially most joy-generating dimensions of human life. We need to be kind to ourselves and others during this dialogue.
So, back to my own evaluation. I’d say I’m 80% pleased with the extent to which I’ve had “it all.” And that’s just fine… but then again I am the one who at 5 years old was willing to settle for only being vice president.
What about you? Are you settling? What’s your definition of “it all” and how are you pursuing it?
Image by Jerry Bunkers