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Balancing Your Life; An Interview with Ann Crittenden

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In the 80's, it was the "Mommy Track." The 90's brought us women who cracked the glass ceiling, and the 21st century has us wondering how we can handle having it all. Back in 2001, I was at a Yale school of Management conference and Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsico, was there. I asked her what she thought was the biggest challenge facing twenty-first century business leaders, and she said balancing work and family. In this column, I'll introduce you to some of America's most interesting women and share their ideas and strategies about managing the work/life balance.

My guest here is Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job In the World is the Least Valued.

Ellen Susman: Young women often ask me, "How do I balance it? " How can they have a kid and stay in the workforce if they want to, and how can they stay at home and not feel guilty?

Ann Crittenden: That's about the hardest question facing anyone who has a child and has a career, or work they need to do, or income they've got to keep. I think one of the problems in our country is that we've virtually lost the forty-hour workweek. If you have a serious profession, you can't work only forty hours and get away with it. You have no time for life so a lot of people just give up the ghost and stay at home.

ES: There are stories in the media about women who have stayed at home until their kids are at an age where they can return to work- but they're encountering a lot of difficulty. Some companies are starting to wake up to the fact they're losing a valuable part of the workforce when women leave work to stay home and are trying to welcome these women back. Do you think this is a step in the right direction?

AC: Yes, it's very exciting, and I think we're going to see more of that in the future. There's a famous phrase batted about that we have a lot of "off-ramps" or as I've heard more recently, there's a lot of talk about "leave policies." We do need policies where you can take leave when you need it, but we don't have any "stay policies." How can you stay or how can you come back on--you know a lot of "off ramps" but not a lot of "on ramps."

ES: You've traveled the world, you're married, and you have a grown son. How did you manage it all when you were younger and trying to make it ?

AC: I didn't! I failed, like so many women! I was at the New York Times, which was a wonderful place to work, but they had no flexibility in those days. I was expected to go back after my son was born as if nothing had happened. I couldn't do it. I was madly in love with this baby and I couldn't go back and turn him over to someone else. So I quit my job. I didn't realize how serious this move was, and I never got back in. After that, I started freelance writing so I really lived what I'm talking about.

Several years later I was at a cocktail party and this guy comes across the room, very friendly and says 'Hey, didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?' and I thought, I've got to write about this...you know I went from being moderately famous to being invisible. It was a pretty big shock.

ES: Did that shake your self-confidence?

AC: Yes, it did It's truly unnerving to suddenly be "nobody." I can't tell you how many people have identified with that experience. There's just so much less recognition or appreciation when you're raising a kid.

ES: Raising children is the hardest thing you'll ever do. You'll never hear somebody say it's easy. You hear them say, "Gosh I can't wait to get to work."

AC:Yes! Monday morning a lot of people are thrilled to be going to the office. It's a secret little truth.

ES: What are two or three tips that come to mind about how to transfer leadership skills at home to business or larger society?

AC: Well, one of the first skills is listening respectfully to other people. You can't be a good parent if you don't listen to what your children really need and want to tell you. So the same goes in the business world or any other profession. Former governor Ann Richards, one of the most popular governors in Texas, once told me that she raised four kids and she said the biggest lesson she learned from being a mother was listening.

I would also say encouraging people to do their best. You know, the best management style isn't criticizing people, demeaning them, bullying them. That's not as effective as saying, "Here's a challenge I know you can handle it. Go for it." I think a lot of people learn that from raising children.

ES:So how can we really mentor each other through some of these problems that we face? Staying at home, getting back to work, getting a part-time job, creating flex time--there are so many issues. How do we help each other?

AC: I think the way you begin helping each other is by not hurting each other and not criticizing one another. Women who work are often critical of or condescending to women who stay at home. And women who stay at home are often critical of mothers who work full time and say, "Oh, they must be neglecting their children." We need to stick together because divided we're conquered. If we don't hold together that way and help support each other we're never going to get the kinds of social policies that really make it easier to combine work and family.

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I'll close with Ann's advice to young women who think they can have it all: "Stand up for yourself... be yourself... and if you feel that someone is making it more difficult than it ought to be, speak up because that is the way change is made."

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