A couple of weeks ago, I made my way into a couple of twenty-something female colleagues’ lunch outing. When my analytics brain is going super fast all over the place, the best thing I can do sometimes is jump into someone else’s pool to get out of my own head. But what followed was amazing fodder for this #StartupParenthood series.
Both are in that marriage-is-new phase. One colleague asked about the details of the Montessori program my daughter is in. This is one of those questions that I always wonder how much detail is too much detail when responding. I could go on and on about it, but at what point is there eye-rolling going on under the surface? Yet, I keep finding that the non-parents (male and female) at my work are genuinely interested in these things they have yet to experience. So I did go on and on about it. And then, the other asked about how I was able to “balance it all”. BRAKE! Balance? There’s no balance! She then shared with me that she and her male partner were having active conversations about whether she would continue to work or quit when they had a child. They were discussing cost of childcare vs. salary (real stuff, and I’m so proud of them for thinking about these things already) and also whether or not she’d want to be a stay at home mother.
The light bulb went on in my head: this woman had framed the issue as an either-or. As something where she could have either the child or the work, but not both. Fearful at the thought that the industry would lose another talented tech contributor, I said that the most important thing I wanted her to hear from me was that any either-or construct like that in her head ought to be challenged. I said that anything she decided would be fine and was her decision, but that the framing in her mind ought to be “What do I want my life to look like?” and it will happen. In this knowledge economy where tech talent is so hard to find, believe you me – women can define what they want and make it happen. I know very well this isn’t true for all women, but if you are in this industry (and all the more reason to get into this industry), shake the old-school construction of choices and think anew! My mother, and these women’s mothers, were all stay-at-home mothers, or very close to it, because they didn’t have these options. We do.
And that’s when it really hit me: these women, and many others, need a real sense of what work-life flexibility looks like, and what it means. It isn’t just the workplace flexibility we talked about this month on the RJMetrics blog, but the personal and relationship flexibility it takes to architect a life that allows you to have a mix of things you want. So here goes…let me share what work-life flexibility looks like for me.
There are the widely-known things:
- Spatial flexibility – I work at the office (in a multitude of locations but never the gigantic bean bags – if I get on one of those, it’s lights out for me!), at home, in rustic French-West African coffee & crepe houses and so on. The one thing I can’t be flexible on spatially? Natural light at the office. We move desks around at the office every couple of weeks since we’re bursting at the seams space-wise. The one thing my team members know – you can’t move me from my windows. I WILL wilt.
- Child-related flexibility – My kid has always slept, a lot. This was a toddler who would *need* to be in bed by 6 pm, wake up 6 am, take a 2 to 2.5 hour nap at 9 am and then again a 3 – 4 hour nap at 12:30 pm. My child slept so much that my mother (God bless her) said “Wow, you really don’t have to parent that much, do you?” (That’s another story.) It might sound great, except that you can imagine that a child who needs to be asleep by 6 cannot have me walking in the door at 5:30 pm from work. So, for awhile, I had to go into the office at 7 or 7:30 (waking up at 5 am to get her meals and myself ready) and leave by 4 pm. And then one fine day, poof! Her routine changed again and she wanted to sleep in longer, so I had to come in later, but still leave at 4. And so on, it has kept changing. Through all of that, I have had the flexibility to define those schedules at the office so that the basics of life (getting up, dressed, everyone fed and out the door, and then all in reverse) can be met without more stress than raising a 2 year old needs to have. And this part of the parenting routine I find to be much more in need of flexibility than the doctor’s appt, sick days, school changes, etc. Those out-of-routine days come out of nowhere and do hit you (like “bring your sick daughter to work day” below), but if you can’t make it out the door at the start of your day, and back to bed at the end of your day, in a way that feels like it works without killing yourself, it just really really sucks.
- Time flexibility – this is not dissimilar to the above two, but it’s worth noting that some of my best work is done at 12:30 am and 4:30 am. Not every day, but it does happen. Last weekend, it was my turn to help my child to bedtime, and I was so exhausted I decided to not fight the “mommy don’t leave” plea and instead laid down in her room. No sooner had I finally turned off my brain and fallen asleep, was I awoken to “OK, mommy, you can go now”. Ugh. So I laid down on our living room couch hoping I could fall asleep so deeply again – but it was too late. I spent 30 minutes or so having detailed conversations with @krisis in my head (our director of account management), and finally I said to myself “this is useless, I am just going to get up and send all of this thinking to him”. And lo and behold, what transpired – since he was online as well – was one of our most productive exchanges this year yet. I am not advocating for any particular work-life mix, but that night, that timing worked for me and him, and for our work.
So, what’s the not-so-widely known stuff? The most critical work-life flexibility is the flexibility that is internal to you, to your own perceptions of how things should be. And I think this is where we need to shine more light.
- Work role flexibility – When I joined RJ, I took what some might think is a step back. I went from managing my own company to managing my team at the company that acquired us, to being an exec at RJ with no team. I had the opportunity to build a business unit, but no team. You know what? I may not have known it then, but it’s exactly what I needed. I take managing very, very seriously, and at the time, I did not have as much to give as I do now as the head of Customer Success at RJ with a very large team. Managing this CS team is the kind of huge challenge that I’m mentally ready for at this point. And because I didn’t judge myself or fear “stepping back”, I was able to jump aboard the RJ ship with open arms and take the wonderful ride it has been.
- Life setup flexibility – This one is huge. I was pretty damn focused on having a home that was close to my work and my daughter’s care/school. (I once did a commute that was like an hour bus ride after she was born and I was just miserable!) When I joined RJ, it took me 19 mins to walk with her to her daycare, then 8 mins to walk to work. All in beautiful, fun Center City, Philadelphia. What that meant for me and my family was that whenever there was the smallest of issue, everything was just about 15 mins away walking. No worrying about road conditions or train delays. No extended length of anxiety on the way to school about why she is feverish. No trying to figure out how I’m going to work and get to her 2 times during the day to give her medicine. No debate about whether it was worth it to go into the office in the afternoon when she was at home sick and my business-owner husband needed to work in the AM. And when it was time to move her to preschool, we found an amazing school that is a 22 mins walk from our house (or a 7 min drive), and then another 19 minute walk to work. Keeping this tight knit circle of needs and access to everything we could possibly want on our weekdays and weekends was very important to us. But, what’s the catch? The catch is that we live in a pricey neighborhood where we have a very small condo – we either like each other, or we probably shouldn’t be here – because there is no getting away from ourselves! And this is the choice we made. This is where we showed ourselves flexibility around what we want and what we need. I know we will get a bigger place someday, but right now, this is the trade-off we are willing to make to have no “life setup” anxieties in our daily lives.
My final “word of wisdom” to these young women was to make sure they had some successes under their belt before they had kids. They then asked me what counts as a success. Brilliant question. Not so brilliant answer I had: “the kind of thing that others will perceive as being a unique value-add. A remarkable data point in your professional story.” I wish I had also said this: Get the kind of experience that gives you confidence. Not ordinary “you’re a professional person who knows skill X or Y” confidence, but the kind of confidence that allows you to say “I have to stay at home for the 3rd time this week because my kid just can’t shake her illness” and not worry that you’re not worth it to your company. The kind of confidence that lets you focus on figuring out how breastfeeding and pumping is going to function in your life without screwing up that emotional/physiological process by worrying about blocking time off your calendar. The kind of confidence that lets you focus on getting amazing shit done in the time that you have rather than on proving yourself in the time that you don’t. Ask others who are senior to you, and who are willing to be honest with you, whether they think what you’ve done is remarkable. When you have done these remarkable things, you have a sense of acknowledged worth that makes your power in workplace and hiring conversations undeniable. You can then create your own work-life flexibility on your #StartupParenthood journey.