Monday, September 17, 2012

the elusive work-life balance


Earlier this summer, I read this article in the Atlantic and it really struck a nerve. It was written by a Princeton professor who served a two-year stint in a high government job with the State Department, and was about how women still couldn't truly "have it all" in terms of achieving both professional success and success as a mother raising kids. It's an excellent, thought-provoking piece about how far we've come, and yet how much farther we need to go. Here's one section that really struck me:

After the speech I gave in New York, I went to dinner with a group of 30-somethings. I sat across from two vibrant women, one of whom worked at the UN and the other at a big New York law firm. As nearly always happens in these situations, they soon began asking me about work-life balance. When I told them I was writing this article, the lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize … They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.

The timing of this article coincided with one of my colleagues announcing that she was leaving her job to spend more time with her family. It especially hit home because, like the author of the article, this colleague has older children--for whatever reason, I always associated a parent needing to be at home more with having younger children, but duh, older kids need their parents around, too, sometimes more than babies do--and they can actually articulate that need.

I don't have kids, but I do want to eventually. And as I was preparing to get married this summer, I've also been trying to reevaluate my work-life balance (something that I seem to ALWAYS be doing). I think I'm better at drawing lines now--in fact, when an agent asked if an author could deliver a manuscript the day before my wedding, I told him "that's fine, but I won't be editing it!" and life went on (and instead the author delivered early and I edited it two weeks before my wedding). I also managed to not check work email while away at my wedding and honeymoon (well, except once...). I'm working on not checking work emails when I'm not in the office. Sometimes it's the small things that matter.

This elusive "work-life balance" is a constant theme--I know we've all talked about it several times on this blog already over the years. We all struggle with it, from entry-level assistants to directors, from writers and illustrators who also have day jobs, to full-time freelancers, whether we have kids or families or not.

Publishing is a great industry to be in, and children's books especially is dominated by women, including many working mothers. Many are able to work at home a day or two a week, and many companies (including mine) offer flex time if you need to adjust your work hours for reasons, including child care. As someone who does want to raise a family, I feel lucky to be in this industry, but it still isn't easy.

I work long hours in the office (on average, I work from 9 am till 8 pm unless I have plans after work) and there's still plenty more to do--there's always more to do. I've gotten better about not feeling guilty about not working more, mainly because I know I can't work more than I do and stay sane, and I know the people I work with need me to stay sane. But the thing is, this is a business built on passion, and we want to honor that. I know that each book means any or all of the following to the authors and illustrators: it's your livelihood. It's your art. It's how you want to be remembered after you're gone. It's your heart and soul poured out on paper. It's your life's work. It's your name on the cover. (is it something else? Let me know!)

I know for freelancers the work/life lines can be even harder to draw--when you don't have a physical office to leave, how do you end the work day? Do you refrain from working weekends? Do you force yourself to take vacations? Do you only work in the mornings/afternoons/evenings?

One editor I know told me that she's willing to work late at the office during the week, but refuses to work on the weekends. An agent recently told me that she starts work late, gives herself a break for a few hours around dinnertime, and then works again at night. Saturdays are her days off, but she works on Sunday. Last year I decided that I wouldn't work at the office past 9 pm. Lately, I've been trying to draw the line at 7:30 or 8. And I give myself at least one weekend day off.

I do think it's important for us to keep drawing lines. So, what lines do you all draw? I'd love to hear any techniques that work for you.


Tina Cho said...

Interesting article from the Princeton professor. Working and raising a family is hard work and can become overwhelming and stressful. As a freelance writer, I no longer write on Sundays. I used to write in the afternoons after church. During weekday mornings, I homeschool my kids and write in the afternoons/evenings. But while I'm homeschooling, it's so tempting to check email and Facebook posts from writer friends. So I don't check FB until after school is done. I do better when my focus is on one thing. And my children are more important!!
I'm glad you're able to see this potential problem and draw the line now, Alvina! Way to go!

Anna Alter said...

I've found work/life balance since having a kid to be a lot more difficult than anticipated. The long hours of intense focus are gone, instead I've learned to work in short bursts and make the best of the time I have.

I thought this was a nice response to the article you mentioned:

It poses a different question: do you have enough? I don't think I will ever have it all, but I definitely have enough.

Katana Leigh said...

I do what I want to. Am I tired? I will sleep. Am I frazzled? I need to meditate. Am I full of energy? Maybe I could do some digging, or cleaning, or dancing. Am i feeling creative? It is painting time! Building time! Making Time!

I go with the flow of my biorhythms and I wouldn't trade it for a high power exec or lawyer position; that's just not my path. We have to know what works for who we are.

Naomi Canale said...

As ridiculous as this might sound, I try to organize my life into pods of time and promise myself to follow through. I used to work night shifts at the hospital and would end up working 60 hours a week sometimes, and I had little ones. I went back to work when my son was only six weeks old and my husband and I really had to rely on each other because we didn’t have family close by. I think one of the hardest parts about being a parent is how guilty I feel—about everything. But I’ve noticed when I do have to work, my children are watching and appreciating that mommy is working hard. They really do learn by example and it’s nice to see my kiddos growing up to be so loving and independent. One promise we’ve made to each other as a family though is to always have dinner together no matter the time. :)

Patricia Anderson said...

I agree, drawing lines is one way to have a work - life balance. And sometimes you need to know what is more important so that you could set more time to what matters most.

Great article!

Libby Koponen said...

For me (and maybe for other writers and artists?) my work IS my " my work," I mean: my writing, not client work.

I do have rules for that: no weekends, unless it's a really important deadline, and no mornings -- that's for MY writing.

I don't often take vacations -- I can't afford to! When I was in Scotland, I was working; and that is true wherever I go. My clients need to be in touch with me and I need to be in touch with them. After all, they are the people who make it possible for me to write in the morning and do things like go to Scotland for five months!

Libby Koponen said...

I guess also I 've always been both bothered and annoyed by the idea that "having it all" is a realistic goal. It just isn't! Nobody gets to have all of two contradictory things--"enough" or "the right balance for me" are better ways to look at it, I think,

alvinaling said...

Thanks for all the feedback! Anna, I love that "Do you have enough" question, as opposed to "having it all"--it's true, it's impossible (and perhaps greedy/selfish) to want to have it all! Everyone must have priorities. I suppose my problem right now is figuring out just what those priorities are.