I've been intrigued by Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010), since she left a comment on a post I wrote last March about the dearth of working moms in mainstream media stories about "mommy bloggers".
I mused then that the absence of professional women from these stories might stem from society's inability to "see beyond the stereotype of the frazzled working mom who has no interests or thoughts beyond work deadlines and dinnertime. (How could she possibly work, parent, and blog? How could she think?)"
Laura picked up on this theme, commenting on the "stereotype of working moms as frazzled, sleep-deprived and time-starved." Criticizing the stereotype, she wrote, "We need more examples in stories of people having no problem fitting together their work, their families, their personal lives and, oh yeah, their blogs."
Since then, I've followed Laura as she's filled in the gap, giving us true-life stories in 168 Hours (and on her blog) about working moms who have figured out how to live full and satisfying lives. (Kind of like Laura herself, a 2001 Princeton graduate with two books, two babies, and a host of hobbies to her credit.) 168 Hours, by the way, is much more than a typical time-management tome: it's an inspirational call to action packed with acute observations on the social pressures that have led many women to buy into the "bleak notion of mutual exclusivity between work and family" and practical tools and tips you can use to chart your time and plan your goals.
So, I was thrilled when I learned that Laura would be joining CurrentMom's own Katherine Reynolds Lewis for a free webinar on managing back to school without back to crazy on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 12:30 pm. (Click here to register for this event.) Armed with Laura's advice about making the most of every moment, I seized the opportunity to chat with Laura myself. Here are some snippets from our conversation:
Stacy: In the opening of your book, you write about your realization that "while we live our lives in abstractions, a life is actually lived in hours." What do you mean by abstractions and how did this lead to 168 Hours?
Also, from my own perspective as youngish mom, I had heard so much about how hard it is to do it all, how moms are always sleep deprived and frazzled, how hard it is to build a career and a family at the same time. So, I wrote 168 Hours to examine that as well.
Stacy: I'm glad you mentioned that because I wanted to ask you about what you've termed an an ongoing "cultural narrative" of time crunch often aimed at working moms. What's that about and how can working moms keep from internalizing it?
Laura: We want to feel that what we’re doing at home and at work is valued and we want people to know that it’s not easy, so we tend to tell stories of the worst days - the nights when we didn’t get much sleep, the kids were sick, the backup babysitter canceled. So that’s how we can tell people that’s what we’re doing, but it creates the impression that’s what life is like every day, rather than on the worst days. But it’s not like that. Most days are not miserable. If they were, we’d change them. So, that’s one of the issues.
Stacy: On the other hand, sometimes there really are bad days and there really is a time crunch. I can remember feeling overwhelmed when some big deadlines before a work trip, one of my kids' birthdays, and out-of-town guests all coincided. And then one of my children got sick. Any advice for getting through those times?
Even if you’re going through a really tough year, it won’t be forever. Your kids will not always be little. This year has been a tough year sometimes - I have a three- year-old and an almost one- year-old, and I've had a book just come out, but it will be better next year.
Stacy: You sound like a real optimist.
Laura: I am. I am constantly amazed at power of narratives to shape the way we feel. If you think that you are oIf you think, I am a competent woman, you will be. We do shape our actions by our thoughts.
Stacy: I notice that many of the people profiled in the book "go it on their own" - they work for themselves or have jobs that have a lot of autonomy, such as the young college professor, but not everyone has that type of job. How can working moms who work in more structured environments maximize their 168 hours?
Laura: The first step is to keep a time log. You can start to see patterns in what time is. If you look at some of that office time, you might ask whether you really do have to be in the office. If you really do have to be in the office from 9-6 because that's the culture, the expectation, then what you can do is shift the rest of the 168 hours. Instead of being rushed in the morning, get up earlier with your kids and have a leisurely breakfast. Or go out and play in the yard. (Of course, that works with little kids but may not work so well with teenagers.) Also, in the evenings, even if you only have two hours with your kids, you can say I have two hours and plan them instead of saying, I don't have enough time. Don't just go lockstep through the dinner, bath, bed routine every night, go somewhere together with your kids. Those are things you can start to do even if you do have a very traditional schedule.
Stacy: One of the lines in your book that struck me was this: "If you’re trying to build a career while raising a young family, you have more energy for your children if you work 50 hours a week at a job you love than if you work 30 in a job you hate." I certainly get that - doing something that you hate is incredibly draining. But what about women in the middle - working moms who don’t hate their jobs but aren’t in their dream jobs because they want the flexibility or schedule of their current job. What’s your advice for them? I would have liked to have read more about that in the book because I think the reality for many women is complex.
Laura: I think there are ways you can turn your job into the dream job you want. Think about whether there are some projects you want to take on, things that will help you transition to the next level. But the problem with that is that you may need to work more. I think that a lot of women make the mistake of thinking that part-time is the answer when sometimes you just have to work more to get more control of your time. (And make more money, which is also good for your kids.) Sometimes it’s necessary to do the hard work to get into a job you really want. But if that’s the trade off you’re making and you're happy with it then embrace it. And maximize your 168 hours. I am always amazed at the people who watch television from 8-11 pm every night and don't take full advantage of their time.
Stacy: Me too. I don't watch television - except for Mad Men. [Read about my obsession here.] But I've fallen into the habit of spending a lot of time on the Internet after the kids' bedtime. Especially with blogging. What about that?
Laura: Set a time limit for yourself. Maybe an hour and half. And then go do something else you really want to do.
Stacy: Good idea. I also like your take on the "new home economics." I share your view that while we’ve certainly downsized our domestic standards (for the better) we’ve upsized - dramatically - our parenting expectations. What’s your advice for working parents living in a culture of helicopter parenting? How can/should they deal with the pressure to be the perfect parent, especially for moms who often feel more of the pressure than dads?
Also, it doesn't make sense to be a helicopter parent - your children are separate from you. You can try to shape them, make sure they develop morals, make sure they're educated, but they are not you. What I’m finding amazing, is the amount of new research showing that overparenting doesn’t make a difference in the way that being a role model for your children does. It could be disconcerting, it could be liberating. The question to focus on is whether you're living your day to day life in a way that’s pleasant for you and your children.
Stacy: Your idea of finding opportunities for nurturing your kids by re-deploying low-impact time as high-impact time makes sense. But sometimes its hard for working parents to do that at the end of a long day or even early in the morning. How do you keep yourself going?
Laura: I want to clarify that I am not the example of all things time management. I am still working on this. Usually, I finish work at 6 pm and my husband gets home at 7:15. That’s our regular weekday routine. Sometimes I just hang out with kids and sometimes it devolves into a whinefest with people wanting to watch Dora the Explorer. So, I’m trying to work on that by planning what to do and putting it on the calendar rather than wait until 6:00 p.m. to figure it out. Then, it’s easier to do it than just be tired because you’re always tired at the end of the day.
Stacy: Tired but happy, right.