One of the most mortifying moments in my life as a working mother was the day I went to my eldest child’s elementary school to talk about my job and the teacher asked him what I did for a living. My son’s answer? “She fires people.”
A more accurate response would have been “She goes to meetings,” but I couldn’t really blame the kid for skipping the mundane parts. Back then, in a (clearly misguided) attempt to help my children understand what I did during our time apart, I had taken a friend’s advice to make my job seem really dramatic! Full of extreme highs and lows! To hold their interest! Which I did, until I realized that if my children were asked to describe my workplace, it would have sounded like an acid trip starring the Big Fat Liar, the Woman Who Always Cries and the Most Boring Man in the World. And reigning over this little nonsensical kingdom: Dear Old Mom, otherwise known as the Boss.
According to Hollywood, being a woman in charge is a pretty straightforward business. I’ve just seen the new Melissa McCarthy movie, The Boss, in which she plays a scared, scarred self-made mogul who can’t handle the messiness and intimacy of a personal life. She finds herself in a desperate situation that forces her to rely on the kindness of her long-suffering assistant and learns that there are more important things in life than making money because it’s people that really matter yada yada yada. While I am an enormous fan of McCarthy’s and might even pay money to see her read the phone book, as I watched I thought: Haven’t I seen this plot before? Once again movies are neither the mirror nor the lamp but, well, an acid trip in which a woman can be great at having a career or great at having a personal life but seldom great at both.
In the real world, whether they like it or not, many women are in charge at work and at home. (Imagine!) The other day I asked my 9-year-old if I was the family boss, to which he replied, “Yes, which is kind of annoying.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I wish a boy could be a boss,” he said.
“More fairness. Boys let people do more stuff. No offense, Mom.”
But this is progress, right? No more waiting by the front door with a martini in your hand for the big guy to get home and count out your spending money. Progress!
I suppose. Over the course of my career I’ve had the great fortune of working for many women who balanced, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not, atop the three-legged stool of career, motherhood and marital success. There are two beliefs I have held on to as I have risen through the ranks in corporate America. The first is that if an idea is really hard to explain, then it’s probably not a very good idea. The second is that it’s nearly impossible to simultaneously triumph in career, motherhood and marriage. All too often, one of the three will be sacrificed for the benefit of the other two. Not exactly selective elimination–more like survival of the fittest.
Years ago I had a conversation with a working friend who said she wouldn’t let her babysitter do the grocery shopping while the kids were in school because “she would buy the wrong kind of lettuce.” While I regarded this as something of a management failure, I knew exactly what my friend meant. When I can’t find my son’s gloves for a weekend lacrosse game because he came home with his babysitter from practice on Thursday afternoon and put them God knows where, my anger and frustration is not really about missing gloves. It’s about my own failure as a mother and a working woman just trying to keep it all together. And the feeling that one of the three legs of the stool is breaking.
Since seeing The Boss, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a movie that accurately reflects the triumphs and struggles of working motherhood, and bizarrely my mind keeps going back to Boyhood. In which the Patricia Arquette character ends up, apparently by choice, alone. Is she sad, or is she liberated? Yes.
This morning my husband and I were talking about a problem I am having with one of our children. In an attempt to be helpful and take the long view, my husband said, “He’s not an employee, and you can’t fire him.” Which is true, and healthy, and as it should be. But, oh man, even though I dearly love that child of mine, sometimes I really wish I could.
Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.