I live a double life.
In the morning, I roust my kids from bed and walk them to school, wearing yoga pants and a T-shirt. Then I return to my home office to conduct phone interviews for the articles I write for magazines, newspapers and online publications. Once in a while, I'll actually put on nice shoes and a suit to cover a congressional hearing or White House summit. But that's a rarity.
Most of the time it's easy to mistake me for just another stay-at-home mom -- which puts me in the position of experiencing first-hand the stereotypes and assumptions that many people make about mothers who don't work outside the home. In honor of National Work and Family Month, I'd like to share a few of the observations I've made in three years as an undercover working mom.
1. People value your time less
As a self-employed writer, I think a lot about the value of time. I'm often paid by the hour. But even if I'm paid by the word or column inch, I translate that into an hourly rate to be sure that a given assignment is worth my time. I try to batch my errands and avoid driving in rush hour, so as not to waste time that I could be spending writing or with my family.
When I go to the pediatrician's office or have an appointment that involves waiting, I dress in a suit. Because when you show up in yoga pants and a T-shirt, people assume you don't have anything better to do than wait for the school health forms or the customer service agent's nails to dry. It's sad but true -- and I'd rather pull on pantyhose than wait that extra 45 minutes.
2. We all judge each other
There's nothing more personal than how you choose to run your family and raise your children. So it's natural to put lots of time and thought into your decisions -- and then feel defensive when you see people make other choices. I confess that I am bewildered by my friends who have left exciting, thriving careers to spend 100 percent of their time raising babies. But I'm also puzzled by those who travel so often for work and spend so much time at the office that they don't see their family during the work week -- and sometimes not on the weekend either.
For me, observing the choices of the people around me helps inform the decisions I make about my own life. When I see a child struggling to get Mom's attention away from the BlackBerry screen, I resolve to multitask less when my children are present. When a friend decides to go back to full-time office work, I question how long I want to remain self-employed, and whether I'm well-positioned to land a job like the one I left three years ago. (Or, ideally, a better one.)
3. Ultimately, you only answer to yourself
But as much as we judge each other's decisions, nobody is as interested in the inner workings of your work life and family relationships as you are. So when you decide to step off the career track for a while, own that decision and its consequences. If you are in the midst of an exciting, high-potential project and you want to work all Saturday, seize the day without guilt.
And if you're in the mood for an interesting social experiment, consider trying on the clothes of someone who's chosen a different path for work and family than you did, and walking a day in her shoes. You just might discover something about the world we live in -- or yourself.