I am fond of telling people that I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference. Actually, what I wanted to do was change the world. I suppose to some whose stories I've told over the past 40 years, I have made a difference. But the goal of changing the world didn't come from my typewriter; it came from the decision to adopt two older special needs kids from China a decade ago.
I love what I do for a living and am blessed to be able to earn a living doing it. But I also love my children. I actually love them way more. I am part of the ranks of women and men who walk the fine line of serving multiple masters, who experience the tug-of-war between work and family daily, who more than once have thrown their hands up in frustration at our inability to do it or have it all.
I live my life perpetually attending to the squeakiest wheel. Whoever complains the loudest gets my attention, while I use smoke and mirrors to momentarily deflect the demands of the rest. I am the queen of multi-tasking. I answer office emails while I sit in the car waiting for the school bus to arrive. I cook dinner with one hand on a keyboard and the other grasping a spatula. I schedule school appointments, work interviews and medical appointments using Mapquest to diminish driving time. I know where to stop for milk at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m. and can tell you which takeout restaurants don't have long lines on Thursdays. I am a professional time juggler and I never miss a deadline although sometimes I am so tired I drive past my freeway exit by mistake. Once the horse has left the work-week starting gate, I also sometimes need my phone to tell me what day it is because the treadmill, well, the view from treadmill all looks the same once I am in forward motion.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
What gets lost in the equation of all this is, of course, ourselves. This isn't about getting manicures or massages or even finding time for the occasional lunch with friends. It's about the totally unrealistic goal of trying to be all things to all people and inevitably failing. Even Sheryl Sandberg knows that.
But in 2009, a wonderful thing happened to me: I lost my job of 18 years in the recession. No, it initially didn't feel very wonderful. I was devastated at first. I had no idea how to support my family, keep my house, or even how to look for another job because it had been decades since I last tried. And then there was my age to consider -- I was almost 60 which only increased the degree of difficulty of finding work; my soul shook with fear.
I did fine. In fact, I did better than fine. My unemployment wound up energizing me; it tapped my creative juices in a way that had been lost to the complacency of my long-time steady job. I also learned the difference between my wants and my needs and let's just say that there is nothing like a little adversity to help you prioritize what's really important. I emerged from the experience two years later a better worker, a better parent, a better person. I also developed a greater grasp of the life-balance thing.
Unfortunately, I don't think corporate America learned much of anything in the recession except that maybe it could squeeze a little more blood out of the workforce and get away with it.
This week, Huffington Post is launching a movement to look for a different way to define success in our lives. Imagine what work success would look like if it didn't come with dark circles under our eyes. The visual of success today is exhaustion, ignored families, burnout at 30, and sleep deprivation that leads to health problems. The effort is called The Third Metric and Huff/Post50 is jazzed to be a part of it.
Midlifers have special demands on their time, compounded by our role as caregivers to multiple generations -- our kids and our parents.
What would I like to see come out of the discussion is this: A more responsive corporate world that acknowledges how it contributes to the problem and starts to change its behavior. Here are some ideas to get started:
How about giving workers a paid sabbatical for recharging -- not just time off on the occasion of the birth of a child or the death of a parent, but something that lets them travel for a few months, work on a project of special interest, gives them some time to catch their breath and actually think?
How about a benefits package that ages along with us? I'd love to see some understanding overall that our elderly parents need help managing their lives and that responsibility currently falls on midlifers. Help in helping our aging parents would be a wonderful benefit from corporate America. Seriously, just include some elder care counseling services in addition to the free snacks and gatorade.
How about a mandate that on their days off, employees must disconnect from their phones and will not respond to emails sent after-hours?
Why is it such a big deal to provide flex-time and work-from-home options to those trying to balance family demands? For that matter, for everyone when they need it? Working at home while you wait for the cable guy shouldn't be a cause for scorn -- or the stress that scorn engenders.
The big change of course would be for employers to remove the expectation of an employee's 24/7 availability as the standard for advancement.
Some of us know how to get the job done because we balance our time well. We have also accepted though that our careers will be capped at certain levels unless we are willing to give the job more of our time -- and we are unwilling to. I am unwilling to. But why should that diminish my value in the eyes of corporate America?
For me, clarity came in something my daughter asked me after we visited the Chinese orphanage where she spent her first five years. She asked me why it took me so long to come and get her. "I waited five years for you to get there Mama."
I didn't want to say "I was busy working."
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.