An open letter to a worried working mom

You know you have reached Wise Crone status when your inbox regularly fills up with heartfelt emails from exhausted and guilt-ridden Working Moms desperately searching for work-life balance.

I’m genuinely touched by these notes; it’s hard to reach out for help—especially when you’re supposed to be the grown-up in the room. And though I always make an effort to respond fully and thoughtfully, there have just been too many emails recently, all asking more or less the same questions.

So I’ve decided it might serve everyone best for me to share a (slightly edited) reply that I wrote recently to a former colleague who asked how best to move ahead in her career after the arrival of her new baby. It covers most of what I like to tell younger women—the stuff I wish someone had told me when I had my kids.

Please feel free to share this post with someone you think might find it helpful…or to leave a question or comment!

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Dear New Mom:

Congratulations on your wee bundle and thanks so much for your note. I’m flattered, frankly, that someone may think I got it right. But it must be said off the top that there is not one clear and fail-safe route for navigating this transition. It’s very much something you do by feel and instinct—and sometimes by luck.

So let me do my best to answer some of your questions. Keep in mind that I am only able to answer through MY lens, so take what I say with several grains—hell, buckets—of salt. It is like parenting: you read a million books; talk to a million friends; and then figure it out for yourself.

You say you “need” to push your career forward. The first thing I would ask is: Why? Do you need more money? Do you need more challenge? Is it something you think you “should” want?

Start with the answer to these questions. If it’s a matter of “should,” stop right there. Do NOT compare yourself to anyone else or their career path. If it’s something else—more money, more prestige, more challenge—then use that to shape your choices. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

If your goal really is to be a Director of Communications, what you need to be able to do is to go into an interview and give very clear and very specific examples (complete with hard analytics to prove your successes) from your past work life that show you know how to: manage complicated enterprise-wide projects with multiple stakeholders; approach communications planning strategically (i.e., not just tactically–let’s do a video! Let’s do a brochure! Let’s do a web site!); set baseline metrics to measure the success of your projects; juggle many fast-moving balls; work effectively with the executive level of administration; work effectively with media relations teams (which does not necessarily mean you have to do the work yourself); manage a budget; manage people; build teams across silos; deliver projects on time and on budget; build a network, internally and externally; understand the strategic application and tactics necessary to support a digital comms strategy; advocate for yourself and others on your team; think big-picture rather than just within your silo.

So: do I think you need an MBA? Nope. And I have very little regard for the so-called “professional” programs that churn out “masters” of questionable skills and talents. I honestly have not been impressed with the calibre of work I see from people who hold these “degrees”, and they certainly do not influence my desire to hire them. What I want is concrete examples from the list above. I do understand credential-creep is an issue these days, but honestly: I think these programs charge too much for too little. You will be busy enough working and raising your baby—don’t waste your time. You would do better to get active in a professional association (such as IABC or CPRS) or something similar, and learn from your peers while building your network.

I am going to answer your questions in order, so there may be some overlap in answers and some skipping back-and-forth. You ask: how did I balance motherhood with career? Well, I never stopped working. For one, back in the day, we only got 15 weeks (!) maternity leave, and if you added on your vacation, you maybe had 18 weeks. And you didn’t get a top-up. They didn’t make it easy for working moms in the ’80s. I went back to work when my daughter (now 29) was 19 weeks, and when my son (now 25) was just four months old. It was horrible, really horrible, but I had good family support and good daycare and I negotiated a four-day work week (and took a 20 per cent pay cut!) and that helped. (I also got a best-selling children’s book—Adam’s Daycare—out of the experience, but that’s another story!)

When my first-born was about 14 months old, I changed jobs. I, too, felt I “should” be climbing the career ladder and went back to journalism, putting in 14-hour-days and kissing my baby good morning while she slept…and good night while she slept.

I worked in a place that called last-minute editorial meetings at 5 pm—just before I had to leave for daycare pick-up. Increasingly I would look around that conference table and think, “Who here has a life that I could emulate? Who could mentor me?” And the answer was: No one.

I cried on the way in to work and I cried on the way home, feeling I wasn’t doing anything well. And during that time an older, wiser friend shared with me a piece of advice that I have shared a million times since: Pick one thing and do it well. And so I decided I would pick motherhood. I started looking around for women I knew who had appeared to get the work-life balance right—and I found many of them worked part-time in professional roles, often as freelancers or contractors. And I did what you are doing now: I met with them and picked their brains and built a plan that would work for me based on their guidance.

Their guidance was, in a nutshell: Have a dedicated office space and teach your children to respect it when you are in it. Work the second your kids are on the school bus and stop the minute they walk in the door. Pick up again, if necessary—and it is usually always necessary—when they are in bed. Be fully present for them when they are present.

Visit an accountant BEFORE you start out on your own to ensure you are claiming everything you can. Get disability insurance while you are young—it’s almost more important than life insurance. (I did and thank God too because when I was 37 I was injured and took three years to recover fully.) Build a network and tend it. Always have your next gig on the horizon. Bill quickly on net 30 terms. Set up a GST account if you expect to earn more than $30K a year. Start with an 18-month financial cushion. That’s about how long it will take to build your clientele. Set a monthly financial target. Save 1/3 of what you bill in a separate account for taxes.

Back then, there was still a real demand for freelance journalists, and I was a good writer (still am haha!) and realized that I could commit to earning a solid monthly income with freelance gigs. Then one thing led to another and I was writing annual reports and speeches and on and on. And then one day, someone for whom I had done freelance work at a local university called and said, “One of our best people won’t come back to us unless we let her job-share…would you be interested?” And yes, I was.

(For the record, I often questioned my decision to stay in the workplace, but I will tell you that when my husband left me at the age of 53 after 33 years of marriage, I was shattered by grief, yes. I was emotionally shattered—but I was not FINANCIALLY shattered, as so many of my friends in similar situations have found themselves. In fact, from the outside, everything looked pretty much normal. My living circumstances didn’t change. I still ate the same food, bought the same clothes, took the same vacations. I was financially solid and independent. I am not saying your marriage will end and in fact, I hope it will just get stronger and stronger. But in my case, the choice to always keep a toe in the world of work was a life-saver. Not all my friends have been so fortunate.)

I worked part-time for almost a decade and it was perfect. But then my kids were in their high school years and I felt ready to take on more of a challenge, so I made it known I was looking for a full-time opportunity at the same institution and was quickly given an expanded role. Four years later, I once again let my network know I was looking for a new position…this time at a director level. And someone I had met over lunch let me know about something coming up at The University of British Columbia—and here I am.

So the lesson here was, don’t try to control all the moving parts. Pick one thing and do it well, and then build your life around that one thing. When you go back to work, could you maybe negotiate a four-day week? Could you talk to HR about job-share opportunities? They’re out there. Are you and your husband in a situation where you could maybe risk consulting? Is there a big project at your current workplace that needs a project lead that could be your first client?

Assuming you stay, be strategic. Start looking around for those big meaty projects that need strong leadership and offer lots of growth opportunities so that you will build skills that you can speak to in future job interviews. Don’t get stuck in the tactical mire—that’s sure death for your goal of wanting to be a director. Anyone can be hired to do tactics. Strategic thinkers are harder to come by.

If you think there is a skills gap on your resume, start making friends with appropriately skilled colleagues in other parts of the organization and learn from them. You don’t need to know how to do what they do…you need to know WHAT they do and how they can support you—and you can support them—to do your jobs well. Ally with them, don’t fight them.

In a job interview, you could deflect from your lack of concrete experience by saying something along the lines of: “Communications is a large umbrella; marketing is a spoke; public relations is a spoke; digital media is a spoke; media relations is a spoke. A good communications director doesn’t necessarily need the precise skills necessary for each spoke to flourish, but she does need to know what makes strong spokes and how to support them.” Or something less forced, but you get the idea. IE: You don’t necessarily have to know HOW to parse Google Analytics…but you need to know WHAT analytics can do for you, how to use them, and whose job it is to get them for you.

Think of your current employer like a mid-size city with lots of opportunities for someone who is engaged and flexible. Sit down with [a colleague we both know] and talk to her about her career path. She has two diabetic kids, and decided to build her career around them and their unique needs. She has done a lot of interesting stuff, and she could do it anywhere, but your employer gives her a good paycheque, good benefits and a shitload of flexibility. She just learned to ask for what she needed.

It’s one of the other lessons I have learned: if you don’t ask for what you need/want, how the hell is anyone supposed to know? So if you aren’t miserable at work, and if you have a reasonable boss, have an honest conversation about where you’re at. See what comes of it. That will inform your next steps. (It will also tell you how good a boss you have. Never underestimate the gift of a great boss.)

Re: whether you need experience outside of your current workplace, you can get that many ways—through joining an association or volunteer work for example. What I look for on a resume is a clear upward trajectory (especially with women, I don’t expect them to jump around because they may be juggling kids, but I do expect to see upward movement if they have stayed put). It really messes with your pension to jump around. You’re still young, but at some point, do pay attention to your pension planning. Even when I was self-employed all those years, I saved for my retirement through RRSPs.

Ok, that’s enough for one go, and I am happy to expand on any of this if you like. Please do not hesitate to ask. Remember, this is all just my opinion—your results may vary! Good for you for asking these tough questions. I know you will find the right path across the river, one stepping stone and a time…

All my best,

Julie

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After drowning, a throat-clearing

I lost my voice. For four years.

Actually, I lost a lot of things between my last post and this one. A husband, to divorce. A neighbour, to suicide. A boss, to reorganization. A mom, to dementia. But I gained a lot in between too: a new job; a new home; a new partner. Oh, and the ability to swim! (But that’s another post.)

Since childhood I have maintained that I don’t really know what I think about anything important until I write it down. The act of writing has always been–or, rather, had always been–my way forward in life. Get it down on the page and all would, eventually, be revealed.

But something happened in the summer of 2013 after my then-husband made the choice to leave our 32-year marriage. The fragile cord that connects my cranium to my keyboard was brutally severed. Suddenly the Technicolor movie of my life was rendered black-and-white.

I could not write.

So I lost 10 pounds and embraced yoga and learned to swim and bought a new journal.

But I could not write.

So I learned to meditate. I offered up prayers in churches across Ireland and Mexico and India. I scolded myself for not trying harder, and for trying too hard. I drank a little more gin than was perhaps entirely good for me. I discovered who my 3 a.m friends were. I fell in love.

And still, I could not write.

And then just as I was starting to make peace with the idea that it was gone for good–that the long-held ability to know myself by scribbling on a page was lost forever–it broke the black surface of my depression, sucked down a long lungful of clean air and declared itself still viable.

I don’t know anything about anything any more.

So let’s do this thing. Again.

 

 

 

 

 

“While I live” vs. “Before I die”

Every now and then my world-view takes a sharp and unexpected turn.

It happened yesterday afternoon, as I listened to a respected younger friend talk about his ambitious life goals, a to-do list that he is committed to knocking off before he…well, before he himself knocks off.

“I know I’m going to die,” he said (earnestly and without a hint of irony), “and there are some big things I want to get done before that happens.”

I understood his urgency. I too have spent a lot of time–decades, in fact–obsessing over what I need to accomplish before I leave the planet.

But as I listened to my friend heap expectation after expectation upon his formidable shoulders, I suddenly realized the flaw in my own thinking.

By concentrating on the finish line–a date in the future I certainly can’t control–I consistently overlook the only thing that is truly knowable: this moment right now.

I woke up this morning to a single clear thought: from now on, I am going to shorten my depth of field.

I will aim to think less about what I must do before I die, and more about what I will do while I live.

So while I still live, I will strive to remember to smile at strangers.

I will say “thank you” sincerely and often.

I will let little children push the button for my floor in the elevator.

I will pay attention to the first buds on trees and the last words spoken between family and friends.

But that’s just for starters. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself…

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Losing things

I was moving too fast: I had just 10 minutes to catch my coach to London from Bristol and I decided I had just enough time to try on a tunic top that was on display in the Debenham’s window.

Tried it on, bought it, made the bus with seconds to spare…and realized I’d left my favourite gloves–a pair of hand-cut, hand-stitched leather ones made in Newfoundland especially for my small hands–in the dressing room. Sigh.

But now, on the long drive back to the city I find myself thinking about all the things I’ve lost before–small things of little value except for the memories they hold.

Earrings. Watches. Once, a purse. Even a special umbrella.

And in the moments after they were lost, each became somehow more precious to me than it had been when it was actually in my custody. I took them for granted, or at least, didn’t cherish them sufficiently, when I actually had them in hand.

And then they are gone, usually by my own stupid negligence, and suddenly it’s as if someone has ripped the locks off my memory vault and the circumstances surrounding the original acquisition of said object come pouring out.

My gloves were bought for $110 at a time many years ago when I was perennially short of money.

They were an extravagance that made me feel sick after I left the shop–a family-run tannery in rural Newfoundland. But I had felt a connection with the young owners who were trying to make a go of it with a young family and a small business in a little-travelled corner of the world.

My husband and I were in a similar position in our lives. My husband ran a critically, but not financially, successful restaurant on a small island in western Canada. I wanted them to succeed as much as I wanted us to succeed.

I think their business, Neptune Leatherworks, may be gone now, but I hope their marriage and family bonds are still strong. Mine are.

I may get the gloves back; I’ll get in touch with the store and see if they can send them back to Canada. And if not, then I hope whoever acquires them senses that they are special and should be treated with respect.

I will buy new gloves in London–it’s colder here than I was prepared for–and I will no doubt take them for granted. Unless I lose them too.

And then I will remember this bus ride and the slant of golden light on the copses in the distance near Oxford where my child-dad once traded gifts with Italian prisoners-of-war. And that’s a memory worth the price of a new pair of gloves.

How about you? Have you ever lost something that became more precious after you lost it?

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Better than we know ourselves

“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own….Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

-from Straight Man, by Richard Russo

I have worked at a university for more than a decade and have come to see the dark humour in Henry Kissinger’s alleged observation that the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.

It’s a funny little world, not unlike the small island I lived on for more than 20 years, with its own etiquette and intrigues.

And whenever I start to take it too seriously, I find it therapeutic to dip into a novel by, say, David Lodge, or  Jane Smiley, or most recently, Richard Russo — that is, authors who can be relied upon to gently and humorously skewer the very academies that employ them.

Anyway, Russo’s 1997 book, Straight Man, about an English professor’s mid-life reckoning in the middle of a university down-sizing, was this month’s tonic.

(It was in fact recommended to me by my president, who has a terrific sense of humour about the ivory tower and its inmates.)

It’s a terribly funny book, which the quote above might not suggest.

But it’s not Russo’s smart-alecky (and sometimes downright snide) commentary on blustering and blister-less academics that lingers, but rather this small tribute to friendship, compassion, and forgiveness.

In the story, a colleague and sometime enemy of the narrator, Hank, has struck Hank’s dog and desperately seeks reassurance from the English prof that he knows it was not intentional.

Hank absolves his colleague in the passage above, defaulting to a technique he uses with his creative writing students to help them develop their written characters more fully: he is not the kind of man who.

The distraught colleague is not the kind of man who would hit a dog on purpose and then sit around and wait patiently for the owner to return.

I like Russo’s — or rather, Hank’s — notion that our true natures, so opaque to us, are so clearly revealed by the tiniest of our actions to those who orbit around us.

I like the idea that we can and must rely on and trust our nearest and dearest to alert us to our essential selves — for better or for worse.

It’s an interesting thought experiment.

Try it.

Think about someone who has recently pleased you — or pissed you off. Your boss. Your spouse. Your neighbour. Your child.

What do you understand about them better than they understand about themselves?

And what might they be able to tell you about yourself that would be truer than you might ever care to know or admit?

You’re the kind of person who.

You’re not the kind of person who.

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Tears, beers or babies

When it comes to online relationships, it’s too easy to confuse the fact that you once chatted with someone in the other bathroom stall at a conference with actual friendship.

So I have devised a simple formula to determine whether I can reasonably accept your friend request on Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever.

Tears, beers or babies. Simple as that.

If we haven’t cried over marriage or mortality together; if we haven’t hoisted one (too many) high at some unpretentious local; if we haven’t laughed or boasted or worried together about the fruit of our respective loins…well then, I’m probably not that into you.

But hey, be honest: without a couple of encounters based on any of the above scenarios, you’re probably not that smitten with me either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally game to make new friends. In fact, I never want to stop making new friends.

But let’s do each other a favour and get to know each other a little better IRL before we start swearing blood oaths online, ok?

If you want to get started, I favour a craft-brewed IPA…;-)

 

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Bring back the black armband

Several times as a child I heard the story of how my father had returned from military service to discover that his mother had died and been buried in his absence.

This story fascinated me on so many levels.

At a time when I was just beginning to understand that families were complicated, and that not all children loved their parents equally–or vice versa–the hard facts of this story spoke volumes about my dad’s difficult relationship with his own father.

That my grandfather had waited, in an age of telegrams and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, until my father stepped ashore in England to tell him that his beloved mother had died just a few days before and was now in the ground…well, I understood that there was something very wrong and probably eternally damaging about that scenario.

Beyond that, there was always the mention of the black armband my father wore for months after his mother passed.

I had only ever seen such things in books and movies, and found the notion of betraying one’s grief and loss as oddly embarrassing. Thank goodness, I thought as a youngster, that we didn’t have to do that any more.

But now I am grown up.

And I am starting to lose my family in bits and pieces.

And I wish I had a black armband to tell the world, “I am bereaved and sad and a little emotionally unstable right now. Cut me some slack, will you? You’ll understand soon enough, if you don’t already.”

There have been several deaths in my life this year, beginning with the loss of my dear dad-in-law, Bob, last November 28th. I am just emerging from the deep first-year funk of grief.

I now understand why the Jewish tradition teaches that you shouldn’t make any big changes in the first 12 months after a death in the family. You aren’t in your right mind.

I’m feeling like I’m back to my right mind now.

I am ready again to socialize and can trust myself (more or less; see the Raffi post) not to burst into tears at the sight of Bob’s old camera sitting on the table, or my Aunt Donna’s elegant script adorning a birthday card.

But for the past several months, it would have been nice to have had the shield of a black armband. Something that served as an early warning system for unassuming friends and colleagues. Something that screamed: Caution! 

I say: let’s bring back the black armband, the badge of broken hearts.

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Blind-sided by Raffi in the morning

So there I was early last Friday morning, pleased as punch to have the car for once instead of schlepping to work by SkyTrain, when CBC blind-sided me with a Raffi song.

I hadn’t realized it was him, the singer of Baby Beluga and Bananaphone and all those other chirpy kid songs that were implanted in my brain in the early ’90s when my own two children started roaming the planet.

I’d turned on the radio mid-interview, and was only half-listening to the friendly back-and-forth between Rick Cluff and the earnest guy who was talking about his Child Honouring Centre on Saltspring Island.

Child Honouring of any sort before 9 am, when caffeine levels are not yet stabilized, is more than I can really handle, so I kind of checked out of the interview.

And then suddenly it was over and the earnest guy was now singing and it was Raffi reminding me that “all I really need is a song in my heart, and love in my family.”

And to my list of 34 symptoms of menopause, I added a 35th: crying uncontrollably in the car to Raffi songs that remind me of how good it was to sing about little whales to toddlers on potties, and how intensely I miss the messy and creative business of day-to-day mothering.

Thanks Raffi. I’m glad I managed to pull over before I killed anyone. I’ve been singing that damn song all weekend.

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