Monday, August 18, 2014

On work-life balance: is there such a thing?

There is so much chatter today about work-life balance that it often gets me riled up. A modern woman just can't win: you manage a full-time career yet feel like a bad mother for missing out on things like school drop offs and pick ups and the occasional recital or sports competition or you're just plain out of energy after a 8-10/hour (or more) workday and the thought of cooking a nutritious dinner plus baths, brushing teeth, pajamas and reading before lights out is enough to make any grown-up cry.

Or you decide to stay at home with your child(ren) and while you're thankful YOU get to be the one witnessing all the firsts (first laugh, first steps, first playdate, first solid meal, first homework assignment, first heart-to-heart talk in the car after school), there's this longing coming from deep within you, inside this secret box with nagging questions like, "Should I be doing more? Shouldn't I be using my college/post-graduate degree? What is becoming of my life?" 

I know because I've been there. 

I've held down a full-time job with two kids (at the time, my son was a preschooler and my daughter an infant). I've also put my career on hold to stay at home. 

For me, there was no "balance" in either scenario. 

When I worked full-time, I gave my best to my team -- fresh-faced and ready to tackle the world together -- meanwhile I felt awful because I came home beyond exhausted. I felt like I was giving my family second-best, the crumbs off my work table. I remember picking up my baby girl from daycare and smelling another woman's perfume on her. I just about died from guilt.

When I decided to stay at home with my son, I left a career that was just beginning to take off. I had my dream job: writing about Arts & Culture as well as penning my own column about impending motherhood for a small Southern California newspaper. I had hopes of taking that experience and going to a major metropolitan newspaper then moving to magazines and eventually giving New York City a shot. But after my son arrived, naturally my heart felt pulled in two different directions. Eventually my mother's heart won. I savored every newborn/infant/toddler moment with him and wouldn't have traded that for even the most fabulous job. But I would be lying if I told you I didn't have days where I wondered, "Where would my career be if I just kept going?"

You can't be in two places at once. Something's gotta give. That's why discussions about work-life balance and leaning in leave me rather annoyed. It took me years to finally reconcile the fact that you can't have it all (and while we're on the subject, what does "having it all" mean?). Can a woman (or a man, for that matter) have a stellar, jet-setting, on-top-of-the-world kind of career AND be the parent who's there for all of those little things like drop offs and doctor appointments and school plays and firsts?

For Max Schireson, CEO of billion dollar database company MongoDB, the answer was no.  

In a recent post on his blog, Schireson writes about stepping down from "the best job [he] ever had" to spend more time with his family. "I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role," Schireson admits. "Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family..."

Schireson made headlines with his memo and while I applaud him for being so open and honest, I also look forward to a time when a CEO leaving a high-profile, high-paying job to spend more time with family doesn't make front-page news.  

Perhaps we're having the wrong discussion and it isn't about balance or leaning in or opting out or giving it up or having it all. Maybe it's about seeking, trial and error, being allowed to make mistakes, not having all the answers and releasing our expectations to be perfect.    

Work and life and family: it is what it is and we're all doing the best we can.

Read CEO Max Schireson's full blog post here. (