Before having children, I hardly thought about work-life balance or the challenges working moms face. I was one of the last of my friends to have kids, and I never really understood the gut-wrenchingly difficult decision many of them made when they left promising careers to stay home. In most cases, they didn't feel supported enough at home or work to manage both.
I'm an only child, born to a middle-class family in a small, agricultural community in Texas. My mom stayed home to raise me until I was in high school and then went back to work to help pay for college. She and my dad ingrained in me the need to be independent, or in their words: "learn to support yourself; don't expect others to take care of you." I internalized that message. But, what I didn't get from my parents or anyone else was, how do you make it all work? I wasn't prepared to juggle the demands of a career, two small children, marriage, and everything else a full life entails. Who teaches you that?
After reading my friend Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, and serving on her Steering Committee for the Lean In Foundation, I felt inspired, but also anxious. I found Sheryl's handling of these delicate topics to be completely accessible as told by Sheryl in her funny, candid way. But I wasn't sure how best to utilize her great epiphanies. More importantly, I wasn't comfortable talking about my anxiety.
After reading the book, I couldn't stop thinking about Sheryl discovering head lice while on a business trip, crying at work, and being judged for failing to dress her child in green on St. Patrick's Day. Eventually, I started discussing the stories in the book with those around me. I quickly realized that with each conversation, I felt my anxiety lift. For me, Lean In served as a conversation starter -- an opportunity to discuss these tricky, personal issues that I had avoided talking about. Whether I chose to avoid these conversations, or didn't move in circles in which it was acceptable to talk about them, is still unclear to me. I think perhaps it was both.
I'm a Republican. I spent years working for Republican lawmakers, but I have many close friends who are Democrats. I've noticed my fellow female Republicans are often uncomfortable talking about these topics, while Democrats seem more at ease doing so. On the one hand, I think Republicans fear the conversation will drift into taboo social topics or might suggest sympathy with policies typically associated with the political Left. On the other hand, they may simply be less prepared to discuss these issues with confidence, much as I have been. I'm working to change that and have recruited several prominent Republican women to share their Lean-In stories. I'm also actively trying to contribute to these conversations myself -- with others at PwC, with clients, professional contacts, and with friends. This is especially critical for younger women -- and our own daughters -- who will follow in our footsteps. The reality is, politics shouldn't matter when trying to figure out how to succeed in the office and at home.
I recently invited a group of working moms of both political persuasions to dinner at my house, along with journalist Lisa Belkin, who writes brilliantly about work-life balance for The Huffington Post. Lisa facilitated a discussion about balancing careers and families and as different as those of us in the room were, we all agreed the conversation matters. We also agreed there are rarely easy answers when facing work-life decisions. The more we grow comfortable with the conversation, the better prepared we'll be when those tough choices come... because they will.
A year or so ago, I faced a fairly typical working-mom dilemma. My son's class was taking a field trip to visit a "real" Pirate ship, and Ben insisted I go. I was also expected in Colorado for a meeting. I struggled weighing the options. But looking into my son's earnest, brown eyes, I realized this was clearly important to his 4-year-old self. I alerted my team I would be late to the meeting (hoping to make up for it when I arrived).
The day of the field trip, Ben seemed glad I was there, but not overly so. I wondered whether the field trip really mattered to him. After the adventure, I asked Ben what the best part of the day was. He thought for a minute and said, "Well, I liked knocking the pirate down with the water hose (what boy wouldn't?), I liked the chocolate coins they gave us, and I liked that you were there."
That got me. That day reminded me there will always be trade-offs. You can't miss every meeting for field trips, and you can't be everywhere you want to be, but, you can choose those events that are important, and you can personally build upon the groundbreaking work of leaders like Sheryl Sandberg.
First, get comfortable with the dialogue. Whether you just started your career or have been building it for a decade, make your priorities clear to your boss and to your team. Work within your organization, as many of my colleagues at PwC and I are doing, to make it OK to talk about these issues and build flexible structures that enable you to be engaged at home and at work . I know it's easier said than done. But the more organizations and employees embrace a new way of thinking, the more we'll be able to capitalize on a diversified and better balanced workforce, while still keeping our little pirates happy at home. I think that is something worth striving for.
Laura Cox Kaplan is a senior Executive at PwC, overseeing US Government, Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy. She previously served in leadership positions at the Securities & Exchange Commission and Treasury Department., and served on the launch committee for the Lean In Foundation.
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