The Balancing Act

The Balancing Act

We were so excited to reach that day – college graduation – the world was awaiting our valuable contributions, our youthful energy and idealism. We were poised for success as we left the gates of the Ivy League campus.

When the speaker walked to the podium, we were not expecting her solemn and humbling message that having it all – a successful career and a family – is nearly impossible to achieve. We might have to give up one dream to achieve the other. She had risen to the top of the corporate ladder and had missed her chance to have children.

Who chose this speaker? We all wondered, to ourselves. She is challenging the  foundation of the belief system that we have learned forever. Girls can also achieve success – I was going to be President one day.  Of course we can balance a career and children. My mother did it, pipes in an only child. So did my friend’s sister – she has kids and she’s a lawyer. We could cite myriads  of women “having it all.” How could this speaker choose such a boring and morose topic?  We tuned out her speech and felt sorry that she had not managed to achieve in both realms.  The speech was memorable though and we would laugh about it once a year.

Time passed. I worked hard – many nights nearly around the clock – travelling to Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis and Frankfurt; attending trade shows and analyst conventions, eating fruit for days, for the lack of kosher restaurants. When in New York I squeezed in time for dating and finally marriage.

Bliss. Companionship.  I had prayed so hard to find a soul mate with whom to build a family.  We had elaborate plans for our yuppie life in Manhattan’s Upper West Side: dinners out, doorman buildings, and plans to travel together to work on the subway.

I arrived at work the first day after the wedding-vacation, surprised by the silence that greeted me  – more than half the staff had been laid off, I discovered - me as well. 

Pregnant, I searched for a job and got several rejections, but no offers, due to my bulging belly. I faced the first real challenge to my core assumptions that work and family blend together so fluidly without sacrifice.

Then came the kids. I had heard of a book entitled, The Irreducible Needs of Children by T. Berry Brazelton.   How irreducible they are!  How exhausting those first few weeks could be! Pregnancy brought on the condition of pregnesia – I kept forgetting things, ,never remembering them later, until a friend called with the news that I left my purse and all of its contents at her house the night before.

Suddenly, that speech came back to me as I interviewed yet another person to care for my baby. I think I interviewed 30 women from all over the world with a variety of child care experience and philosophies.  One potential nanny informed me that the most important idea she would impart to my 10 month-old daughter was discipline. I decided that only I would respond carefully to her cries.

So I stayed home for a few years until I could once more find my bearings. I tried a variety of part-time career options.  Each time I interviewed countless nannies from many international locations: Trinidad, Bulgaria, Mexico, Russia and left with a knot in my stomach.  When the paychecks barely covered the extra household help – in one case turning up about $50 short per week, I wondered – what am I doing this for? To prove the graduation speaker wrong?

Not only. I still had a buzz inside that pushed  me to succeed outside the home – especially as I tend to struggle with consistency, schedules, cleaning -- the stuff of life with kids that can help to make a successful mommy.  After deciding that I really could tackle the laundry efficiently and have supper cooked by noon, I got a job offer – marketing consulting part time around the corner from my daughters’ school.  An added bonus that clinched the deal was the agreement of a young woman from Israel, the eldest of many siblings, to live in our house and babysit the kids while I was away. Finally: a situation that could make sense… I really could have it all!

But there were some big empty spaces: the time the babysitter told me she threatened the kids by saying she would leave them alone if they did not stop fighting and the gnawing pressure in my chest every time my boss asked me to stay late for that key meeting which started two hours late and during which I did not even get a chance to share my views on the situation and all the while the babysitter is calling to share the loud shrieking in the background. I plow through the meeting saying everything is okay and can only continue half-listening to the next steps on the million dollar project we are launching next week. 

Two years later I gave notice. I had grown to become the director of my department. I thrived on the intense emergencies, staying up until two o’clock in the morning working on a key report to meet the clients’ needs. One night too many, rushing home, apologizing to the kids for being late, supper on the run –shlepping the heavy pizza box with spicy fries up the street, 20 minutes after the babysitter was set to leave. I did not even have a second to cut up any fresh fruits and vegetables – I was hoping the babysitter would see to that.

For nearly two years – I think I kept the bagel store in business. I was buying so much coffee -- the message of the graduation speaker haunted me: you can’t have it all. But I did have it all. Exhausted, but achieving in both realms. I came to realize that although it felt good when things went right with the client, I could not relieve the panic when things were not calm at home. I had conceded that the speaker was right on a certain level. That it is not easy and that there were certain sacrifices in both realms.

I happened to work for a family-friendly company this time around, with a pay cut for the flexible schedule and location. I was very respected for having a family, but did miss out on some of the action. Additionally, there was a choice I made, three kids later, that try as hard as I might at work, my family is my priority. I am sure that this did not always feel true to my kids or my husband, but there was a limit established in my being that had not been present before. There were pressured moments when I ignored the flashing-light feeling in my stomach that I needed to go home right away. Sometimes there were consequences and sometimes the consequence was my fear of there being a consequence. 

I shifted yet again, to pursue freelance work from home. Now if we miss the bus in the morning, I don’t scream and scramble to send out an email, but rather enjoy the extra minutes with my girls, pack a special snack for them and embrace the hour or so I will be running late. My husband always watches my relationship to my work with a quiet distance: one day you will find work that is an outlet and that fits your schedule, without twisting yourself into a pretzel, says he.  But the speaker was right that “having it all” does not happen automatically and without costs. In fact, life doesn’t happen automatically.

I hear a different message from that speech these days: be conscious of the choices we make. Many of them have a lasting impact.

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