The work and life dance

I first shared this at a Women’s Salon hosted by Jacqueline Novogratz, I week before I would return to work from maternity leave:

When I gave birth to my second child, a lovely little girl named Aviva, I learned some things that I think will prove very useful as I navigate this phase of my life. The phase of being a mother of young children and a professional.

Because she was my second I assumed the birth would be faster and easier than the first with my son Elia. I was all set for a drug-free birth, and when it was time, everything seemed to be right on track. But 9 hours into labor as I watched the sun rise over the East River and still labored along, I realized it was going to be much harder than I expected – and that’s my first Aha. It’s all about expectations.

When you have an idea about yourself, an expectation of what your life will be like, it can be very hard to adjust. I have always seen myself as a worker, as ambitious. My goal as a teenager was to be precocious at 40. What do you have to do to be considered precocious at 40? A LOT. I never wanted to catch up to myself.

Having children has made me face those expectations and consider anew how I define myself and my goals. I don’t suggest it’s a mistake to have expectations, but the more we cling to them the harder it can be to adjust when life changes.

On the day Aviva arrived, I can tell you she was NOT being precocious. At 13 hours of labor, I realized I was no longer having the profound, deepening experience I wanted. Exhausted and uncertain, I had a feeling of wanting to escape. And I realized I had the freedom to change course. I asked for the drugs that would remove the pain and accelerate the labor, in that order mind you, and an hour and a half later I had Aviva in my arms.

I felt that I had experienced the best of both worlds. Laboring naturally gave me a feeling of connection to my husband and my own strength, but having, and then taking the option to switch gears had allowed me to get back to myself, and ultimately, brought the speedy arrival of my life’s treasure, my little girl.

And that brought me my second Aha – the importance of flexibility, not just with my choices, but with myself. I decided to own the choice to take medications as the right choice for me, even though it had not been a few hours earlier.

Being a professional and a mother has forced me to face my expectations and see where some of them may be outdated, out-of-sync with what I now value most. And I am now trying to be flexible with myself, making the constant adjustments between all the elements of my life and accepting them as they evolve.  Maybe today I can’t possibly miss that all day off-site meeting or dinner with a Partner, but then tomorrow I’ll leave the office early to go with my son to a birthday party for his 3 year old friend. I choose, day to day, and find there is not much of a logic to it. Just a constant dance.

More and more I find that “balance” is a silly word for what women who are both mothers and professionals do as they combine work and family. Balance implies there is an ideal and static proportion that works. But my experience is more like wearing those new exercise shoes with rounded bottoms. They keep you always off balance so you’re always working your muscles.

I’m finding that my life is about being off balance all the time and always having to reflect on my choices. When Elia was 9 months old, I took him with me on a business trip to DC where I was going to give a talk to women from around the world who led local women’s organizations. It was a great having him with me, and I cherish the memory of him sleeping in a crib next to my bed at a friend’s house in Arlington as I prepared my talk, but I second-guessed myself when he threw up on the babysitter the next day, WHILE I was giving that talk. I’ll tell him the story when he’s older and I’m curious what he’ll think.

I know I think about this stuff too much, and I’m still learning to let go and trust that as I navigate these choices, I’ll do what’s right, even as that changes. I feel blessed to have the options I do, but also know that as a society, we have a long ways to go in making sure that motherhood is not a liability for half of the world’s most talented people. Sadly, we still see women kept out or opting out from leadership positions across the board. This is a loss for everyone, and yet I understand why women with children sometimes choose to avoid the highest rungs of leadership when forced to choose between family and work. It doesn’t have to be a choice, and we can do much better.

Personally, my goal is no longer to be precocious at 40, but to be someone who helps redefine what it means to be a “working mother” (we all know that every mother is a working mother). I’ll be going back to my office in one week, and will bring these lessons with me. It will be harder than expected, perhaps, and will require real flexibility on everyone’s part – mine, my children’s, my teammates and my husband (who really gets the short end of the stick). And all of this is made more complicated by the fact that my work is not about the paycheck, but about my values and sense of purpose. I feel so privileged to work in a place where I feel I can make a positive impact in the world, yet it makes it that much harder to integrate my work into an increasingly full life without feeling like I am pulling myself in a million directions.

My new aspiration is to have the courage to forge my own path. To show that my contributions as a professional and change agent are not a function of how much I am willing to sacrifice at home, but rather a result of my bringing my whole self to everything do. If I can embrace that, truly, I know I can bring amazing things to life.

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