This will be the first Mother’s Day that I feel like I finally understand the truth about motherhood and management and the balance between the two—namely, that it’s impossible.
Here’s how I came to that once-somber, now-joyous conclusion. My eldest graduated from high school last year. As she left for a college 1,628 miles away and her friends scattered literally all over the world and my house and heart were suddenly empty, I realized how fleeting everything is. “It goes quick,” people tell you when you have a baby. I thought they were referring to growth charts and milestones like walking and reading, pimples and prom. Now I realize they were referring to my role in my child’s life.
There was an adjustment period to our new arrangement, for sure: playing it cool but available, stalking my daughter’s and the college’s Instagram for clues, losing clairvoyance on moods and movements. As I adjusted to this reality, something else happened: I reprioritized my remaining child at home, our family life, and a harried household whose rhythms I now know are entirely temporary. I have roughly 2,242 days left until (we hope) my next and last goes to college.
I was an involved parent before, but I’ve now doubled down. I joined the board of the middle school PTA. I volunteered to co-chair the dance and scheduled work travel around it. I have no (okay, less) self-consciousness in canceling meetings or putting blocks on my calendar for field trips or career day.
In doing so, I’ve arrived at an alternative goal to strive for, one that’s more achievable than “balance”: a ruthless articulation of my priorities and what I stand for.
A return to work and the dark ages
My epiphany this Mother’s Day week comes against a raging return-to-office debate that is dominating my social-media feeds, news articles, and email inbox. I suspect other parents have different moments of this realization, in many cases hastened by a pandemic-era nonstop togetherness that, for some, is being suddenly taken away.
As the pendulum swings too far backward, employers (and media) are not capturing the despair of moms like me and what we might be losing. The problem with all the declarations that remote work was a big mistake? They’re mostly made by men. The lack of mothers’ voices in the decision-making is leading to, well, really poor decision-making.
One of the latest high-profile examples came last week from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman: “I think definitely one of the tech industry’s worst mistakes in a long time was that everybody could go full remote forever, and startups didn’t need to be together in person and, you know, there was going to be no loss of creativity,” he said at a fireside-chat event in San Francisco. ”I would say that the experiment on that is over…”
A Fortune article on Altman’s assessment cites agreement from multiple other business leaders—but every one mentioned is a man. Their failure to listen to and engage with women’s perspectives on this critical issue results in a glaring ignorance of the unique ways we run not just companies, but the lives of our families.
The myth of work-life balance
I’ve been singularly obsessed with finding balance for much of my life as a working mom, which began with the birth of my daughter in 2004. I was better-positioned than most: I’ve been a high performer who used star status to finagle part-time schedules and work-from-home setups (and went into credit-card debt to afford six-month-long maternity leaves with both children). I’m also now an entrepreneur without a boss. Both are positions of relative privilege—and even so, I never was able to accomplish what I was trying so hard to achieve.
Over the pandemic—and increasingly over the last year, once my daughter left for college—I’ve come to understand more why movements like Moms First (founded as the so-called Marshall Plan for Moms to demand structural change to support working women) have picked up so much momentum: Balance is a myth. “It’s clear that the pandemic didn’t undermine a functioning system. Rather, it exposed what women have known for decades: work doesn’t work for moms, and work-life balance is an illusion,” says Moms First’s playbook on what it means to center mothers and their needs in the workplace.
That’s not to say parenting ends when a child reaches age 18, but it changes. And this underscores what employees really need and what they really want and value from their employers: flexibility. My lessons from one child reaching adulthood might apply to colleagues during a parent’s stroke or the addition of a new puppy or a tough period of marriage. Flexibility is actually the new balance, and is something employers actually can provide everybody. The declaration that remote work is over fails to account for the cushion it can represent during the trying times in life—or some really beautiful ones, as anyone who has been to a kindergarten play or fifth-grade science fair can attest.
What parenting groups never tell you
The (mostly male) wave of nostalgia for physical proximity is ignoring what survey after survey tells us. One of the most commonly cited traits of a bad job is workers feeling unable to care for children or their own mental or physical health, 2021 Gallup research finds. Similarly, from McKinsey in 2022: “When people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it. This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies.”
These days, in addition to email forwards of edicts from CEOs telling workers to come on back, I am inundated with queries from women, often mothers themselves, asking how they can negotiate flexibility in this new world order. I offer some tips and confess that these might differ from the parenting tips you see on playgroup listservs or Facebook parenting groups, which seem to value ease and image over the reality of family life. That reality? It’s messy and varies widely from one person to another.
So I tell the advice-seekers not to parent by Google or Facebook. It’s okay if your child doesn’t sleep independently at 7:30pm; maybe he’ll nap on the bus or co-sleep with you, as our children did. Joining the PTA or being a class parent is a great way to not just be involved, but to be in charge of schedules and information. Let the kids see how important your work is to you; bask in their pride and pass on a sense of purpose. Outsource what you can. You will know good child care when you find it, and hang onto it when you do. If you get a raise or promotion, make your child-care providers whole, too.
I notice that my advice does not actually address the question: How do we explain what we need to bosses? Or: How do we negotiate the right to parent, a 24-7 job, as a part of our alleged day jobs? But here’s what I’ve learned after being at this for a while, and I share with hopes that it can be others’ truth, too: Some aspects of our lives, namely the most important job we will ever have, are just non-negotiable.