Ladies, let's stop kidding ourselves: Work-life balance is a fairytale. And the emerging change of nomenclature to the term work-life effectiveness feels a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. It's a futile attempt to put a more positive spin on a thorny issue. My concern with either term/phrase is the notion that work and life are separate. We have one life and work is part of it. So are children, aging parents, illness, household budgets and so on.
My other concern about the working women discourse is the notion of having it all. All what exactly? I certainly want my family to be happy and healthy. I'd like to have more leisure time, too; while at the same time, I'd like to have my dream job, greater financial security and a new car. The discussion in this space often seems to limit, rather than expand, the definition of success. And with a narrow definition of success, we inadvertently limit women's choices.
I worry that we are dangerously close to cementing a cliché of success in the minds of women today. In the fifties, society largely defined a successful woman as a stay-at-home mom, meticulous homemaker and dutiful wife. Most of us undoubtedly cringe at that image of so-called domestic bliss. If we've really come as far as we think, we must acknowledge that the definition of success is personal. And in defining our success, we make choices. Let's not create another cliché.
In June of 2012, there was a cover story in The Atlantic written by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." You may remember it. Slaughter recounted her experiences over a three-year period, including her decision to leave her career in government after two years as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department. In the article, she went on to discuss the challenges of combining career success and commitment to family. Her article garnered a lot of attention and a series of talk show appearances, including a humorous segment with Stephen Colbert. During the interview, Slaughter responded that the primary reason women can't have it all is that we are still doing two-thirds of the housework. Colbert's response was simply, "Then don't."
That's the answer. Don't. Or do. It's your decision. Frankly, I've learned to live with a little mess. I proudly declare on our refrigerator that Martha Stewart doesn't live here. The point is, we make choices in every part of our lives.
While I acknowledge that many gaps exist in the gender discussion, pay among the top, I think we need to take Colbert's advice. We need to stop behaving like, well, victims. I don't use this word lightly and tried to think of a compelling alternative, as I know its use may seem insensitive. I use it to make the point, rather harshly, that we govern our own decisions and define for ourselves what success, including career success, looks like.
Whatever our personal circumstances, we need to own our decisions. Does that mean compromises? Sure. What decision doesn't involve weighing options and making trade-offs? Every aspect of our life and every decision we make is deposited in our "life account" and that account becomes the context for our next decision. We have the ability to ignore some or all of that context when making a decision. We have the ability to prioritize parts of that context when making a decision. And while we may feel that some situations are beyond our control, we still have the ability to decide how we respond.
For working mothers, we need to make decisions that are right for our family, whatever its composition. As I reflect on the decisions I've made through the years, I know there have been compromises. But at the time, those decisions didn't feel like compromises. That's not to say they weren't difficult decisions, or that I got (what I thought) I wanted at the time. But they were my decisions and my context and what I felt was right for my family at the time.
I moved to Asia without a job shortly after turning 27. That was a choice. I've worked in seven countries for six different companies. I've started two businesses. I didn't have a child until I was 34. I would have been a horrible parent in my twenties and am glad I waited. My spouse was 44 at the time and really wanted to be a dad. As his second wife, he thought that he might have missed the opportunity, so when our son was born he was, and continues to be, a very engaged parent. Being a parent takes as much effort as a career, as does a marriage. They don't just work. You have to work at them.
I made decisions not just about my career, but about my life -- all the messy details of raising a child, managing a home and earning a living. Financial decisions are part of the landscape too, of course. I value flexibility and a degree of freedom when it comes to personal finances. So I decided early in my career and in my marriage to live very modestly. That's why we own a 17-year-old Honda.
The decisions I made with my husband about our family meant that my career eventually took the lead and I became the sole breadwinner. Despite that pressure, I know I'm lucky to the have the home arrangement that I do. But there have been plenty of trade-offs along the way to arrive at our current situation. Call them compromises if you like, but they are my compromises. I own them.
I was intrigued to read a recent interview with Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo. The interview, by David Bradley, was held at the Aspen Ideas Festival and he noted that a discussion of Slaughter's article preceded Nooyi's response to the question, "Can women have it all?"
Nooyi's response was direct and unvarnished. She doesn't think that women can have it all. She thinks we pretend to have it all, or pretend that we can. She says that every day, multiple times per day, women are making decisions about what role we are going to play -- wife, mother or, in her case, CEO. She worried that despite her efforts to organize her life to be a decent parent, her daughters may not judge her performance as a mother very high.
As my son gets ready to attend college this year I wonder what his response would be to that same question. He was born in Singapore and I went back to work just two weeks later. For six months, I pumped breast milk in my office, in hotel rooms and in bathrooms all over Asia after meeting with clients. Before his second birthday, I had joined another company and we then moved to France. I had a global role and traveled extensively around the world. When he saw an airplane in the sky, he would point and say "Mommy's work." When he was in elementary school, he told me that when I called home from a business trip that I shouldn't ask to speak to him because it made him sad. Yes, there was guilt. And yes, in hindsight, there were times when I could have made better choices. But I own those decisions. I own my definition of success. I own my career.
And I say 'balance schmalance' to the fairytale of work-life balance.