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Changing the Narrative on Working Motherhood: “I Know How She Does It”

strawberries-660432_1280I was at the airport on my way to a conference, travelling solo for once, and visited the bookshop. I had brought along papers to read, but the thought of reading an actual book seemed so much more appealing. And I was intrigued by the title of Laura Vanderkam’s book. It seemed smug, as did the promise of finding me extra time in my busy week. Hah! I thought. The last time I read a time management article that promised the same, I found out it was written by a childless, single woman. I did a quick tally of what I did every day and found that on average I had twenty minutes to myself after work, commuting, the whole dinner and bedtime circus, and housework. I texted a friend saying that I felt like punching this woman in the face. Metaphorically, of course.

Then I turned the page and read Vanderkam’s bio. She has not one, but four children. Ok, kudos to you, lady. Then I read her compelling introduction, punctuated by the sweet line, “The berry season is short“. And read about joy. And bought the book.

Vanderkam’s book is no quick fix, no magic strategy repeated over and over again in different forms just to fill the book, unlike the offerings by many lesser beings out there who manage to wrangle a book deal. Vanderkam is the real deal. I love that her book is based on data (actual time diaries) not assumptions, and not anecdotes. Anecdotes are biased snippets that may not represent the whole truth. I know this deeply as a researcher. Cold hard data, however, tells the real truth. And we have been sold anecdotes for a long time – we only hear and remember the negative ones, of course. We have based the narrative in our heads on this hodge podge of cautionary tales from others. Namely: Having a career and raising a family at the same time is hard. Only exceptional and very rich people manage it. It’s not possible. You won’t sleep. You’ll have to work long hours. Your hair will fall out from stress. You might as well lean out now.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve bought into this narrative increasingly this year. I’ve read, and internalised, articles on how hard it is to “make it” as a postdoc, the gruelling hours that an academic must put in to build that CV and research output, the uncertainties with funding, the disappointment, the long hours you must put in in order to finish your PhD. At times, this has led me to stomp around the house feeling resentful as I put away dishes or laundry, fuming internally. I’m doing a PhD, dammit! I don’t have time for this! And I certainly don’t have time for myself! I’ve been operating on a a time scarcity model, never feeling like I have enough, and yet find myself frittering away bits of time (“time confetti” to use Brigid Schulze’s analogy) by endlessly rechecking email and Facebook. And increasingly worried about my workload as a postdoc – yes, no more PhD, but a return to clinical work, new responsibilities, and the ever-present “publish or perish” rhetoric  harping at me like some monkey on my back.

Vanderkam’s book is a game changer. Peppered with examples of how incredibly busy women “do it”, it’s a goldmine of practical and well-tested strategies together with a massive shift in the narrative. Yes you have time. Everyone has time, even these women. Most of all, we have a choice with what to do with it. It’s these choices that make the difference between being able to “do it” and feeling like you need to “lean out”.

The women in Vanderkam’s book are from a variety of backgrounds, and all command a salary of over $100,000. Clearly this offers them an advantage in terms of being able to outsource, and in particular use nannies or au pairs if needed. However, not all of them did, many choosing to work “split shifts” instead, and using flexibility to the utmost. I was pleased to see I already carried out quite a few of these “successful” habits with work, but chagrined when I got to the “Home” and “Self” chapters. Here is where I have fallen behind. Sure, I have wrought plenty of time with my children, I leave weekends free for family time, and I exercise regularly, but it has been with a sense of duty. The fun has gone from my life, replaced by an almost military sense of needing to keep everything in precise order, and again with the background excuse of “I don’t have time for that” when a fun activity is proposed. I have become a party pooper. I cannot recall the last time I read a book. Yet, I must have spent hours every week sinking into Buzzfeed browsing and Facebook re-checking.

I have believed the anecdotes over the truth. Vanderkam’s book also surprised me with the level of involvement these women had in their children’s lives. We all hear and believe stories of parents being so out of touch that they don’t know their child’s teacher’s name, but Vanderkam’s book gives examples to contradict this stereotype – women who volunteer to go on school excursions, for example, something I had previously pooh-poohed with the familiar phrase “I don’t have time for that!

Encouraged and somewhat embarassed by the fact that these enormously successful women work more hours than I do, shuttle their kids around to activities, have hobbies and exercise an average of 3 hours a week compared to my piddly 1.5 (and still appear somewhat sane and coherent), I have resolved to make changes. Firstly, making a list of fun things to do – for myself or with the family. A list of things to do with my time confetti – watch a TED talk, breathe deeply, go for a quick walk, listen to music. A plan for the exercise I could be doing. Most of all, renewed confidence that I can do it, even as a postdoc working fulltime with two children. I can lead the good life. Undoubtedly, my life is getting easier, whereas in the past it truly was difficult and I had significantly less time. My children are becoming more independent, so I have been left with pockets of time which I then spend “puttering around” or doing laundry. But I don’t want to die and have on my tombstone “Here lies she who did a lot of laundry“. I want to tick things off a bucket list, not a chore list. Most of all, I want to be free from the narrative of not having enough time and not being able to have it all.

Vanderkam’s book is not about promoting the image of an impossible supermum. She chronicles the lives of women who are ordinary women like you or me, no superpowers except for having more disposable income. A number were single mothers. Yet, these women were leading full and happy lives and importantly, they were working far fewer hours than expected. Granted, they worked more hours than the average person (44 hours) but this is much lower than the 70-80 hours that many successful people claim they work. Instead of trying desperately to reach some mythical “balance”, Vanderkam encourages thinking of our lives as a mosaic, with tiles of different colours and hues. It’s up to us how to fashion this mosaic, and decide which colours go where. Doing a time diary and logging your actual time spent on different activities can be illuminating.

Most of all, Vanderkam’s book validated my life while highlighting exciting areas where I could change. I already have and use flexibility. I fit self care in. I read to my children. I take breaks. But the berry season is short; and I could do more, while doing less of the useless stuff. I can turn the canvas of my life into something even more vibrant than ever before. It is possible, once I get rid of the narrative and use data instead. I will lead the good life. I invite you all to come along with me once more on this journey.

Some super strategies from the book:

Think about your life in terms of the 168 hours of a week rather than 24 hours in a day. You may not tick all the boxes in work, home and self every single day but over the course of a week it’s possible to fit in time for all of these.

Rethink the need to have meetings.

How to strategically use “face time” to your advantage, without spending hours at the office. (For example, being seen at the end of the day is valued more than coming in early. You can use the middle of the day for “self” care).

Ten secrets to happy parenting including making breakfast the family meal of the day, thinking through and planning your evenings, and playing with your children.

Apply the “Let It Go” technique to housework and emails. (Do not attempt Inbox Zero).

How to make the most of a commute.

Make time for a hobby. It’s so nice to create something by the end of the night instead of watching TV. (But watch TV if you find this enjoyable).

The berry season is short. Seize it and create a good life :)

Disclaimer: This is my first book review, and the links will take you to Amazon, providing me with a small commission off anything that you buy on the site. This will support my blogging work as I navigate my way through the last few months of my PhD and then into the glorious Post Doc period and beyond! If you buy the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it :)

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