Work-life balance, working moms, and stay-at-home moms have been all over the news, social media, and blogs this year. We’re leaning in, leaning out, having it all, giving up, and not doing enough. There’s been stands taken, points made, no-offenses and lots of defenses.
But what we need in this conversation is honesty. Early in my motherhood gig I had the realization that there is more to this ‘balance’ idea than we think. I’ve hesitated to write this story, but I think it needs to be told.
At a past job, I worked for a small woman-owned company that was growing steadily. The president was a mother of three, and her entire staff was in awe of the way she managed to balance career and family. She was incredible at what she did, and passionate about it. She was a mentor to her employees, many of us under 30, getting married and buying houses and beginning to think about having families.
I often told her that she was a role model in achieving work-life balance, and wondered how she did it. She would tell me about waking at 4:00 am to answer emails, about she and her husband splitting up school functions, and about Saturdays spent at home with her family.
When I told her I was pregnant, she was excited and shared stories of new motherhood. She asked if I’d be willing to be in touch during maternity leave (yes). She told me that she found life with a newborn “very doable,” gave me sweet advice, and was very supportive. I enjoyed our conversations about the work we did at the company and within our families.
As I started to look into childcare and think about life as a working mom, I would again mention to her how inspiring it was to have a successful working mom as a boss. I was beginning to get overwhelmed about childcare arrangements, finances, and having time with my baby. Again, she would respond with how wonderful it is to be a mom, how it’s all doable.
And then I learned some things from employees who had been there longer than me. I learned that she had hired someone to do the family’s grocery shopping and prepare meals. She had an interior decorator. Cleaners. I learned that she regularly hired people to help with the daily tasks of life. When she had a newborn she hired a nurse to care for the baby when she couldn’t be there and when she returned to work she was able to bring the baby to the office, nursing her there, keeping her close.
And there’s no shame in that. She owned a successful business. She worked hard for what she had and had every right to hire help. That is what it took for her to be there for her family and for her business. She found ways to make it all work, and I have a lot of respect for that.
That’s what I mean by the lack of honesty between mothers and families, and in those articles about finding “balance.” We owe it to each other to acknowledge what it really takes to make it work.
I have new mom friends who ask me how we do it in a household with two working parents. Here’s what it takes for us: I work four days a week (starting with two days a week after my maternity leave ended, then up to three days, and now four). My daughter goes to a wonderful daycare center three days a week. My mom helps with childcare, at our house, one day a week. We have two sets of very involved grandparents that live 10 minutes away, as well as helpful siblings and friends. When we aren’t working, our top priority is family time, and so we have to be okay with letting other things slide: our house is not as clean as I would like it to be and we have at least six incomplete house projects in the works. The bottom line: we aren’t doing it by ourselves, and we’ve cobbed together a situation that works for us.
We can’t do it alone. We were never meant to do it alone, or to be isolated as a family unit. We were meant to do this with help, either from family or friends or hired, but never alone. And we need to stop acting like we’re doing it alone (or talking like others are doing it alone) and be honest about what it takes to raise a family. Every family I know has come up with different arrangements and combinations for providing a stable income and caring for children, and it almost always involves help from others. Before I entered this parenting world I thought there were two choices: two working parents + full-time childcare, or one working parent + one stay-at-home parent. It turns out those are just two out of many combinations, which can shift and change all the time, and that in most cases there is a team of people making it work.
It’s time to call off the war and be honest about what it takes – and then help each other figure it all out.