Can women really have it all?

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has prompted this post. She has confessed that she leaves work at 5.30pm each day to have dinner with her family. She’s been doing it for years, but only just became brave enough to talk about it. Well shock, horror! Fancy leaving work at 5.30pm to spend time with your family. Of course, like many of us (male and female, parents or not) in this connected day and age, she clears email in the evenings. She’s a pretty busy woman – not only a wife, mother of two and the COO of Facebook, but she sits on a couple of boards. She’s achieved an amazing amount for someone only in their early 40s. She probably has some kind of home help, but even she has said there’s no such thing as work-life balance. And the fact that a C level employee (whether it’s a woman or a man) only just now feels brave enough to talk about this? And what about the fathers who choose to leave work early to have dinner with their families? I’m sure they are often looked at askance. That’s the frankly horrifying thing for me. Here’s another commentary on this from Pamela Stone, a professor of sociology and commentator for CNN, which makes some interesting points.

Add to this the raging debate between Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney about whether Ann Romney, who chose to be a stay at home mother and who has reasonable financial resources, can help shape policy for women with whom the only thing she has in common is that she is also a mother. Yes, she’s raised five boys, no easy task, but she hasn’t done it while facing financial hardship and having to go back to work to make ends meet, or being an unskilled worker who can only get a minimum wage job.

This is such a contentious topic. Women especially seem happy to slam other women’s choices because they are different from their own. F0r the record, I totally respect women (and men) who choose to stay at home with their children. It’s an incredibly hard job, and I freely admit that even if there wasn’t a financial necessity for us, I would have gone back to work in some capacity. But I also respect women (and men) who juggle careers and family, and firmly believe that we should be able to choose what works best for us without comment or judgement.

But can we have it all? Yes, I think sometimes we can, but it is really hard work. This article, which I found on my hopping from one link to the next, talks about the fact that many working mothers are still responsible for more of the household tasks than their partners. And they also talk about the guilt and the trade-offs that working parents make in order to have it all. I think those of us who do work outside the home can relate to that. I remember when I went back to work after my first baby. She was 6 months old, and my father said “I don’t know why you bothered to have a baby if you’re just going to let other people raise her.” That smarted, I must say, but helped to keep in my  mind always that I (and her father) were the people raising her, and to do that successfully, we had maximise the amount of time we spent with her and make it count. My Dad wasn’t trying to be hurtful, and his attitude is representative of his generation, but I know that if my mother had been able to go out to work after she’d married and had children, her life would have been a lot easier in many ways.

I am in a very fortunate position. There has never been the expectation that I will automatically be the one who stays home with sick children, nor that I am solely responsible for keeping the household running. I did make the choice to take a pay cut and work part-time for a few years while my older children were small – I worked about 30 hours a week and finished work in time to do a 3.00pm pickup, and have some playtime before dinner and bedtime. That developed into doing the school run for my kids and my bonus kids, enabling the other three parents to work full-time in paid employment.  When I returned to paid work after my youngest children were born, I negotiated a full-time job where I was in the office for about 30 hours a week, then would log back on in the evenings and weekends for the additional 10 hours.

My company empowered me with the technology to do this – a Blackberry and laptop – and I like to think they’ve never regretted taking me on. I had a customer pay me the compliment the other day of saying “If you hadn’t told me, I would never have known that you have six children, because you’re always available to us.” I am available – but I manage it. If the children are screaming, singing, laughing or fighting in the car and a work phone call comes in, I don’t answer it as it wouldn’t be professional. That’s what voice mail is for, and when things have calmed down, I return the call. I use my Blackberry as a prioritisation tool – I determine which emails need to be responded to urgently (that evening after the small boys are in bed) and which can wait until the following morning.

Going back to the household chores, it is true that I cook more often than my husband does. This is simply because I am home earlier. The children are normally eating before he walks in the door. He mows the lawn and is more likely to vacuum or do the garden. We both take the rubbish out – or more commonly nowadays get the older children to do so. But my husband does the school run in the mornings (and my ex-husband still does the morning school run for my older children), enabling me to start at the office a little earlier. They both finish work a little later in the day, as they are often not in the office until just after 9.00am. If we have a sick child, we each look at our diaries and decide who has the least meetings or deadlines, and who is more easily able to work from home. It is often him! So I am lucky. Or rather, I have managed to find a way to make it work both in my working life and my family life. I think the key thing is that we have negotiated with our employers and each other and come up with solutions that work for us and them. I should also mention that we have a cleaner who comes for 3 hours a week to do the basics – the bathrooms and the floors – which does make the division of labour easier.

Is it easy? Hell no! There are days when I get up at 6.00am, and by the time I fall into bed at 11.30pm, I feel that I haven’t stopped running. There are days when I really need to log in to work as soon as I get home to do something urgent, but the children also need me. I feel that I need to perform at 125% at work because I am given so much flexibility. The thing that suffers is of course couple time and ‘me’ time. I’ve written about how we try and manage this in detail here. Where do I find time to write this blog? In very small increments of free space. At present, I’m sitting on the hall floor outside the bathroom keeping an eye on the 5-year olds while they have their bath.

I’ve also just run across this book review of Gaby Hinsliff’s “Half a Wife” which presents some interesting ideas for sharing the workload and ways to manage giving your children time as well as maintaining a career.

So my feeling is that it is possible, especially in this electronic age of mobility computing, to find a way to both be an involved parent and a contributing paid employee or business owner. But that is not true of all jobs, wage brackets and skills. My husband and I both have jobs where we do have meetings, people contact and so on, but a portion of our jobs can be done remotely.  If we stacked shelves in a supermarket, worked at McDonalds or were doing unskilled roles where there were 20 people waiting for our job if we tried to challenge the perception of what a ‘contributing employee’ should be, it wouldn’t be possible for us to the way we do.

I believe that corporations, small family businesses and employers need to be challenging their own perceptions of what work-life balance is. By offering flexibility and a chance for balance to their employees, they will get a far more motivated and loyal workforce, who will feel invested in their roles and contribute far more because they know that their employers care. We should try and think outside the box – can we be self-employed? Can we contract? Can we use new technologies to find new opportunities to work? We should support and empower those who choose to stay at home and raise children, but equally support and empower those who wish to combine a family and a career – and I’m not just talking about women and parents here. The same applies equally to people who aren’t parents.

What do you think? And how do you make parenting and paid work outside the home work for you?

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6 thoughts on “Can women really have it all?

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I agree that each family/person needs to find their own way of getting the balance right. It is not right for any other person to make judgement upon anothers choices. We might feel that we know someone well enough to make a judgement (or in some cases not) but others will never fully know what motivates another to make the choices that they have. My decision to stay at home and raise my children has not been an easy one for me, our family finances, my teenaged son, my husband. I love my job. I mean I really love my job but one day I realised I love my family more and I would be a better mother and wife if I wasn’t working. I believe we can have it all, it’s just how you define having it all. I still have it all by not working…in fact more so because I decided not to return to work. But my ALL doesn’t include work. So who defines what having it all means? Thanks for giving us this food fo thought!

    • Thanks Amie. You’re completely right that everyone’s experiences are different! I enjoyed writing this – kept seeing more and more articles which related to the topic, which made me think harder and harder!

  2. I work FT but have been a SAHM and a WAHM. None of it is easy. Motherhood isn’t easy. I’m in a position now with my husband working an hour away so I am also the sole provider during the week. It’s hard but sometimes we have to suck it up. I have a very flexible job and my hours are easy so I’m done by 4:30 each day. If I had different hours, this may not work for me. I also blog, which helps my sanity. : ) I loved this video of Sharon because it gave permission to a lot of people to put family first at the end of the day, which is my No. 1 Rule. I think the PT solution you came up with is perfect and what I hope to do in the future.

    • Thanks for the feedback Shawn! It sounds like you have a good set up at home, and reading through your blog, you have some interesting ideas! I think I might have to try the peace corner idea with my 5-year old twins!

  3. Great post–and I am so impressed that you wrote this in the hallway while your children were bathing! It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. But this is exactly what we need–parents who juggle a lot of balls to help us all figure out what changes need to be made in the workplace. It’s amazing to me that all of these concepts–flextime, remote work, contract work, in-house daycare–are still so slow to materialize. SO many people juggle work and kids and yet the people who can implement these changes seem hestitant to do so. I think it’s inevtiable that we’ll start to see a change in work culture. I just wish it would happen sooner than later.

    • Thanks Rian! I couldn’t agree more – flexibility and innovative solutions, but not just for mothers. In fact not just for parents – for everyone. Let’s see if we can change the world one blog post at a time!

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