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Today, I had a revelation about my own experience with motherhood. My husband is out of town on business for four days and I have all four of my kids with me and a business to run. In addition to client meetings, deliverables to complete, and a new employee to train (she started today!), I had school pick-ups and drop-offs, one child who had a tutoring session a half hour away, and a grocery run thrown in there for good measure.

As I reviewed the day in my head, I realized that I do a pretty good job of running a tight family ship despite our crazy schedule. My kids even commented on how smoothly things went today – they got to school a bit early, a home-cooked dinner was on the table at a reasonable hour, the laundry (three loads!) all got done, homework is finished, and the house is clean. After I finished giving myself a mental pat on the back, I started thinking about why I was able to pull it together so easily when on many nights, the situation is much more chaotic.

The answer? Motherhood is like project management and I work better under pressure.

I come from a management consulting background and in any consulting field, project management is a critical skill to master. To carry a project successfully from start to finish, you’ve got multiple balls to juggle:

  • A clear set of expectations for what will be accomplished;
  • A good plan with all the major tasks identified, responsibility for their completion assigned, and clear deadlines and accountability;
  • The ability to manage your client (ie. Keeping them happy while making sure they are giving you what you need, when you need it);
  • Consistent communication with your client and team members;
  • Strong leadership skills and the ability to work well with a team;
  • A solid work ethic; and
  • The ability to work well under pressure and manage people and tasks during a crisis.

Motherhood is no different. It’s all about balancing the mundane (checking things off the “to do” list) with the sublime (giving each child some individual attention and love) while not losing sight of the master plan. To do this successfully, you’ve got to apply the same concepts employed by the Critical Path Method, namely:

  • Compile a list of all activities required to complete the project (day);
  • Determine the time that each activity will take to complete; and
  • Understand the interdependency of the various activities.

In my case, this plays out something like the following. The tasks included me getting a shower and looking presentable for work, everyone getting breakfast and taking their various vitamins/medicines, packing lunches for school, dropping kids off at school, conducting an orientation for a new employee, taking said new employee to a weekly marketing meeting with a client, completing a deliverable, checking and answering emails, preparing dinner for the kids, picking the kids up from school, getting my stepson to and from math tutoring, buying groceries, picking my other son up from daycare, feeding all children dinner, washing and folding several loads of laundry, taking the garbage out, cleaning the house, and touching base with my husband (on the business trip) and my parents. Whew!

In order to get all of the above done, several important things needed to happen. These included getting the coffee pot ready to brew the night before, having my breakfast made the night before, waking up 45 minutes before my kids to shower and get dressed, laying out everyone’s vitamins and medicines and lunchboxes so nothing would be forgotten in the morning rush, preparing dinner the day before, and combining the grocery run with the tutoring pick-up/drop-offs.

In addition to these tasks, I needed the cooperation of the kids. This means having plenty of patience while I ask my stepson for the 5th time to clean up his dinner dishes, not getting too upset when I return home to find popcorn kernels all over the kitchen floor (the result of an ambitious afternoon snack project), and having to delay by one day seeing my stepdaughter clean her room. But while I take some credit for keeping the kids on track by picking my battles, I also recognize that they were fantastic today all on their own. They seem to sense when I need them to pull it together and help out – like when my stepdaughter offered to clean up the dinner dishes and my stepson helped me to take the garbage out. Have I mentioned how great my kids are??

The point is, there was a lot to get done and plenty of interdependency. In order to get started with work on time, I had to take care of a lot of the morning activities (coffee making, breakfast prep, etc.) the night before. To get the kids fed on time at dinner, the meal needed to be made ahead of time so we could simply “heat and eat” after tutoring. To find any time to buy groceries, I needed to take advantage of the half hour window while my stepson was at tutoring.

Our busy schedule really plays to my strengths. I work well under pressure and love it when I figure out ways to meet seemingly impossible deadlines. Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way saying I want every day to be like today, but I have learned to appreciate the times I’m able to rise to the challenges of motherhood. After all, let’s face it – there are so many times when we don’t live up to our own expectations as mothers and the guilt can be crushing!

I think what I love so much about today is it underscored why, for me, being a working mother is making me a better mother. I’m a big believer that everyone has to choose the best path for themselves and that there is no one “right” way to be a mother, but I still fall victim to the occasional bout of self-doubt on days that my stay-at-home mom friends are taking their children on field trips to museums or spending the day at the pumpkin patch. Getting back into the professional world has awoken my inner project manager and on days like today, she is ready to take charge! Knowing that my time at work is in some ways making me a better mother makes me feel better about the things I’m sacrificing and – I hope – teaching my kids about the importance of good planning, hard work, and patience. Yay me!

Now it’s time to do it all again tomorrow…. Sigh.

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Busy Mom

A few weeks ago, I read a thought provoking Harvard Business Review blog by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy. The title – “Does Female Ambition Require Sacrifice?” – was enough to grab my attention. As I read the blog, I was taken aback by some of the data cited, beginning with 2010 research from the Center for Work-Life Policy indicating that approximately 1/3 of women who begin their careers wanting to climb the corporate ladder no longer have that same ambition when they reach their 40’s. Even more surprising to me was that 41% of women who achieve executive-level positions do so without an “intimate partner” and 40% do not have children.

I’ve had a hard time getting this blog post – and the fundamental question it poses – out of my mind, and recently, I decided to do a bit more digging to try and form my own answer. This digging (and plenty of Google searching), led me to a New York Times article on “Marriage and Women Over 40” which details an interesting trend regarding marriage and college-educated women. As it turns out, women with a college degree have historically been the least likely to marry, but over time, the gap in marriage rates between college-educated and non-college-educated women is closing.

Interestingly, at the same time that marriage rates for college educated women are increasing, data indicates that so are the number of men who are marrying wealthier and more well-educated women. This seems in stark contrast to the stereotype of women looking for their “sugar daddies” and trying to snag an older, wealthier man for marriage. Now, more and more men are looking for a “sugar mama.”

So what does all this mean? And how does it help answer the question of whether female ambition requires sacrifice? To cut to the chase, I’m not sure there is an answer to the question. As a self-described feminist, I have a hard time thinking of women as victims of their circumstances, but I also recognize that as women, we’re forced to make tough choices and often difficult trade-offs to have the lives we want. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I simply don’t WANT it to be true that success requires sacrifice – especially in this day and age. Too many women have fought and worked too hard and for too long for that still to be the case.

When I consider the data cited above – on marriage and career ambition over 40, and on the trends regarding men marrying wealthier women – I find myself hoping that the answer to Hewlett’s question is “yes – but that is changing.”

I do believe that for women of my mother’s generation, it was much harder than it is today to achieve an executive-level position and do so while married and raising children. Note that I said “harder”, not “impossible.” There are certainly examples of women who have managed to have it all (at least from outside appearances!), including former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman (married with two adult sons), CEO of international media conglomerate Pearson and former CEO of the Economist Group Marjorie Scardino (married with children), and Xerox Corporation Chairman and CEO Anne Mulcahy (married with two children). But the list of these women is not very long. While women make up over half of our country’s workforce, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies have female Presidents or CEOs.

I think – or at least I hope – that in 10 years’ time we’ll see a different picture as women of my generation reach that point in their careers where an executive-level position is an attainable goal. Thanks to the work of our mothers and grandmothers, we were raised with the expectation that we can – and should – have it all.

I’m trying to have it all right now as the mother of 4 and the Owner of my own company. It’s hard work, and exhausting, but if I thought it wasn’t possible I wouldn’t be putting this much energy into it. And if you told me today that I would have to sacrifice my marriage or family to have a stellar career, I’d give the career up in a heartbeat. But that’s just me. One of the beautiful things about being a woman today is that we can all make our own choices and lead the lives that make us happy and fulfilled. If that choice involves career success but not a husband or children, that’s fine. But so is choosing not to work if that is what makes you happy.

Thank goodness having it all is still an option too, and for those of you out there who, like me, are trying to have it all while losing sleep and gaining a few more gray hairs, I say “Bravo!!!!” (and feel free to email or IM me at 1 am, when I will surely be up working and folding laundry!).

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Hello audience (or lack thereof!). It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you. You see, my job has kept me very busy and when I’m not working, I’m trying really hard to hold it together as a wife and mom and at least appear to the outside world as though I’m on top of my game. Yes, life is busy…and then came the holidays and it got even busier. Christmas card writing, present buying (and wrapping! and hiding!), party hosting, party going, baking, drinking too much, eating too much….yikes! So much to do – so little time.

When I first started this blog, my intention was to post once, maybe twice, per week. I imagined it would be like my online diary – the place I got to rant and rave about all the mundane things that none of my real life friends want to hear me talk about over a great glass of wine at happy hour (see previous posts on how often I shower, my Sam’s Club shopping, and how I parent my dog). This part came true. I have definitely used this blog as an outlet for what I’m convinced no sane person would find interesting (after all, it’s much cheaper than hiring a therapist!). The part about posting once or twice a week? Not so much.

It turns out that making the time to blog requires discipline – the kind of discipline that the authors of novels have. My college roommate is a famous novelist who churns out one very successful commercial fiction novel after another on a yearly basis. I once asked her how she does it and her answer was basically, “discipline.” She sets aside a specific number of hours every day for writing. It’s her job, and even though she doesn’t go to an office building to do it, she treats it seriously.

The irony of the situation is that my real job – the one I do from 9 to 5 (and beyond) – includes blogging. My company provides outsourced social marketing services to businesses large and small and I spend almost every day writing blogs, not just for my company, but for my 8 clients. That is work. This blog – the one I think of as my online diary – is supposed to be something I do for fun.

When I thought about this, the big question that popped into my head was “why are we so disciplined about making the time for our work but not for the things that give us pleasure in life?” I’m not just talking about blogging – the same lack of discipline holds true for exercise, quality time with my husband, reading great books, and gardening. And I’d like to think I’m not alone here. Most of my friends – men and women – say the same thing. They get so wrapped up in work that they fail to prioritize the things that they enjoy.

I’ve always been a firm believer that you work so that you can have a great life – not the other way around. In this spirit, my New Years resolution for 2011 is to make the time for the things that make me happy, blogging included.

What about you? Do you make the time for yourself?

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Here I am at 7 am on a Saturday morning … working. This past Thursday, I was up until midnight … working. Sunday afternoon … working! In my 20’s, I used to get dressed up, go to an office and put in a solid day of work. It might not have been from 9 am to 5 pm, but it was at least something close like 8:30 to 6:30. Sprinkled in with those 8 to 10 hour days were the occasional late nights at the office. I never minded the long hours – I just assumed that by working hard when I was young I would be able to enjoy the fruits of my labors in my 40s and 50s.

Boy was I wrong! Now that I own my own business and have four children, I find myself working harder than ever. The hours are longer (technically, the work never ends when you are a small business owner!), the stress is greater, and there are more demands on my free time than ever before. It’s ironic, really. When I had the time to work long hours, I didn’t need to. Now that I have no time, I need to work more than ever!

So what’s a hard working mom to do in this situation? Well, luckily I work out of my house and my office is in my kitchen. There is a lot of running back and forth between the stove (as I cook dinner) and the computer (as I shoot off a quick response to an email). But I don’t want to be one of those moms whose kids feel like she is on her computer or Blackberry every chance she gets – I want to spend time with  my kids and play with them. So on most weeknights, I put down my work at 5:00 and don’t pick it up again until 9:00, after my 4 year old goes to bed. The hours in between are sacrosanct. We sit down to the table to eat dinner together as a family, we talk about our day, we play a little, do some homework, and go through the whole bath, books and bedtime ritual.

Those evening hours form the heart of our day as a family. The morning is too rushed – getting 4 children off to school on time with all of their gear, lunches, etc. is no easy feet! Its incredible how quickly the week goes by when you only have a few hours each day to spend together.

At the end of the day, the late nights, early mornings and weekend hours seem worth it if it means taking the time every evening to just “be” with my family. And much like my 20s, when I worked hard in the belief that the payoff was coming later, I now feel that the long hours and late nights are an investment that will pay dividends in the form of happy kids and financial security. So with that, I guess its back to work!

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I’m not sure how it happened, but in the last few years motherhood and work have taken over to the point that showering has fallen low on the list of priorities. As I sit here and write this, my hair is starting to look stringy and I’m growing a remarkably scratchy layer of leg stubble. This is not an unusual occurance – the stringy hair syndrome is common enough that I’ve developed a very effective hairstyle for masking it (it involves lots of upside down brushing of the hair and a barrette).

How did I get to this point? When did showering become a luxury like pedicures once were? I’m not sure there was one particular moment when I stopped bathing regularly. If I’m honest, it was probably a slippery slope that began when I had my son and got worse over the course of that first summer of motherhood when I was able to convince myself that a dip in the pool could double for a shower and shampoo. Now when I consider showering, I weigh the time it will take to actually bath, plus dry my hair and apply makeup, against all the things I could accomplish in the meantime (empty dishwasher, throw a load of laundry in, write a blog post for a client, knock out a conference call, etc.). Put simply, its all about opportunity cost, and apparently these days the opportunity cost of a shower is too great (until I get so scuzzy I can’t stand it any longer!).  

Summer is over, my son is almost four, and I’ve got to face the honest truth – its time to reacquaint myself with my shower, shampoo, razor, and shave cream and reclaim my freshly bathed, coiffed and smooth-legged self. The objective is not to look like the “yummy mummy” that my friends love to joke about (although I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t enjoy being referred to in those terms); it is to take back some time for myself and enjoy the knowledge that I look my best – even if I’m taking my best to the grocery store for a gallon of milk.

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