This is Part 1 of a three-part series called “When Mom Returns to the Workplace”. Beth worked at Procter and Gamble, Apple Computer, and Levi Strauss, Inc. in marketing communications before taking a career break to focus on family, ministry, and pro-bono non-profit leadership for over a decade. She returned to the workplace in November 2015 and has four kids, two in college and two at home, ages 10 and 14.
Shuddle Happens. It’s Sunday night and Downton Abbey sorely missed as I fire up my Google Calendar to start planning who needs rides where for the week. The transport challenge. It’s like J.K. Rowling’s Wizards’ Chess with Mom instead of Ron directing the moves on a menacing, morphing board. “You there, you to D(ay) 3. I’ll cover back here. Hope we survive.”
My two kids at home are active pre-drivers and one attends a special needs school 30 minutes away, so achieving transport success requires a diverse skill set including: forecasting, data analysis, complex problem solving, strategic partner recruitment, and, ultimately, trust in one’s team. All to grow and nurture the most precious and irreplaceable asset, my children.
My solution is a mash-up of me, my partner, a periodically-available college kid (ours, a friend’s), other parents, and professional hired help. I never thought I’d try nor trust the latter, but now thank the Universe there are dependable, vetted service providers who have come to care for and carpool my kids. And my kids get a chance to meet, hear stories, and even learn languages from the care-full people who regularly rotate through their lives.
Food and Stuff Sourcing. It’s 5:30pm and everyone is looking at me. What’s my new answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?” Doordash, Munchery, and Blue Apron have become frequent dinner companions; Safeway Delivery, Instacart, and Google Express drivers are familiar faces; the slow cooker is a savior (great recipe for slow cooker whole roasted chicken), and I dream of the day drones will be on 24/7 prescription delivery duty.
Breakfast-as-dinner also makes regular appearances and there is always peanut butter banana sandwiches and smoothies as back-up. If I worry while I wash up an excessive amount of cereal-as-snack bowls during a busy week, I have to remind myself what’s really important here. Nutrition versus presentation. Connection vs. perfection. And soul sisters I can call on.
When my teen daughter recently turned up her nose at a home cooked food offering, a friend suggested I respond in an even ‘beige’ tone, “Ok. You don’t have to eat this. People can go a really long time without food. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi once went for 21 days. Just make sure to drink some water. And, you still need to sit down and tell me how your day was.”
I was PTA President, now I sign-up to bring utensils. You know what I mean. Imagined or real, I feel like a Middle School girl navigating seismic shifts in school-based social relationships. I feel it when I decline events I used to lead, select the drive-through lane rather than parking and interacting, and know fewer and fewer people at parent and sporting events. This is definitely my problem vs. others’ yet it reveals deep insecurities many moms carry regarding “Am I doing the right thing?”
In 2015, Michele Obama wrote a moving essay for More magazine entitled, “What Women Owe One Another”.
In it she contends, “The truth is that too often, as women, we simply refuse to acknowledge the complexity of one another’s lives. Even worse, we assign layers of meaning to other women’s choices that may or may not have anything to do with what they’re actually thinking or feeling: ‘She’s underutilizing her professional skills and selling herself short’ or ‘She’s furthering her career at the expense of her family.’ But all those judgments and accusations are nothing but stories we impose on each other.”
Obama continues, “The real story is what happens as we struggle, agonize, compromise and make the best decisions we can with the information and resources we have. And it’s time that we all stepped back, took a deep breath and started really listening to one another rather than viewing one another through the layers of our own judgment, insecurity, and anxiety. When we do that, we can finally start to understand the challenges other women are facing and the doubts they’re wrestling with. Only then can we respond appropriately: with compassion, support, and respect.”
Taming the Monsters I’ve Made. I had choices, which is not a given for most women, so I take full responsibility for creating the monsters I now need to tame at home. Achievers tend to set the bar high wherever they work: careers, volunteering, and at home.
I returned to work with the bar over-optimistically high, and no home help, so I’m now facing reality and renegotiating family expectations, including my own, about what’s required (a cleanish safe environment, cordial communications, planning ahead), what’s flexible (personal space aesthetics, organization and communication styles, weekends), and what’s no longer available (spontaneous during-school deliveries, after-school changes requiring transport).
As a neatnik and recovering perfectionist, lowering bars can drive me crazy, yet I’m learning to relax my personal preferences and opt out of habitual tasks so my family can help more and grow. I won’t ever understand why some prefer to live out of their (folded) laundry baskets rather than drawers, and I can’t believe I text my sons when they’re just upstairs, but open dialogue has become more important than debate over differences like these.
Finally, Trading in the Yoga Pants. I’m a size twelve on my best day and have never felt comfortable with PDYP (public display in yoga pants), but could still find myself running kids and errands in sweaty black lycra until dinner. This has been one of the easier transitions for me. I like fashion and I love getting dressed for work. It’s a creative process and prepares me mentally for what’s ahead.
A ReBoot panelist once told a great story about this transition. After a decade pause she was returning to paid work to start her own boutique law firm. All her relationships, now her network to potential clients, knew her as a “tennis mom.” The first thing she did was lose the weekday tennis garb and yoga pants. She said, “If you are serious about reclaiming your professional self, you will have to change your presentation to the world.”
For those who find this a challenge there is help available. Amy Fink at Stonestown Nordstrom is a no-nonsense and free personal shopper who will shop the food chain (repurpose what’s in your closet, mix it up with regular and sale priced new items); and there are more and more companies like MM.LAFLEUR offering work-style consulting and well-priced investment pieces delivered in a “bento box” to your door.
With those last tips, we conclude Part 1: the lighter look at “When Mom Returns to the Workplace”. We welcome your comments and stories! Please send them to [email protected]
And we hope you’ll come back for Part 2 in a couple weeks when Beth will explore some of the more challenging aspects of returning to the workplace following a significant career pause: Relevance, Mom Guilt, Partner Power Dynamics, and the Myth of Self-Sufficiency.
Finally, in Part 3, Beth will tackle “If/Why it’s Worth It”.