My girlfriend, who is a top executive in a Canadian bank, has two children, runs triathlons and manages to make time for her friends, said to a group of us a few years ago. I have it all, and I want to get rid of some of it! She ran her life like a military mission, and she was truly remarkable in her organization, or attention to detail and her sheer energy. My friends and I marveled at her ability to have it all, and still seem so calm and together. When she finally confessed to her feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion and failure, I don’t think any of us quite believed her. She was the proof, she was doing so darn well at having it all, she gave all of us hope that with a bit of tweaking we could have it all too.
It’s a dream for many of us - a stimulating career, a family, and a fabulous lifestyle that includes taking care of our needs. The truth is, not many Canadians are living the dream. Far more likely we are making compromises at every turn, we are torn not only between our kids and our careers, but between making time to workout and to see our friends, and deciding between doing a couple of loads of laundry or having some intimate moments with our husbands. These are decisions that can be gut wrenching, as anyone who has been close to a woman when she decides to go to work after having a baby, has experienced. The little decisions about working another couple hours but missing a child’s basketball game, or attending a board meeting that falls on a child birthday (I have done that a few times) eat away at us and create feelings of guilt and anxiety.
Years ago a woman who ran her own speaking bureau gave me a piece of advice that I have come back to again and again in my life “you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.” At the times when I need to decide whether to take a consuming contract or spend times doing that afterschool run with the kids, I have thought about her words again and again. What do I want right now? Can I take some concrete steps towards my career goals without missing homework and sports time with my kids? I am very fortunate in that as a writer and speaker, I control a large part of the flow of my day. I actually can work from 5:00 am until 2:00 pm and be as effective as if I worked banker hours. Most people are not so lucky, and as I see it, the work place will have to change a whole lot more before it can truly accommodate those people, mostly women, who want to have it all, but may be looking to stretch that all over a longer period of time, to make room for kids, aging parents and themselves. As the workplace continues to insist on 24/7 availability via Blackberry’s, not truly support flexible hours, and encourage a focus on business versus productivity, I don’t need to wonder long at why so many of the women in my life have chosen to take a step back from their career, at a time in their careers where they have the most to offer their employers. These women are smart, and efficient, and skilled. They are just not willing to give the best of themselves to their careers, and leave the tired leftover bits for their families and loved ones. I did this for years, and it was only one night when my then five year old son William commented that I was always grouchy at night, that I came to save a little for the evening time. This meant shortening my daytime working hours to a six hour day, and often leaving the computer just as I was gaining momentum. Many women can’t have the rewarding career and the time with their kids, not because they don’t have a fabulous amount to give in the hours that they work, but because their jobs will never accept anything but a sixty hour work week. To get ahead, you’ve got to put in the hours, the saying goes. Maybe the saying is right, but perhaps the hours can be spread over a few more years to make space for life, without the person being perceived as unambitious or less capable.
This weekend I spent two days with four smart, intelligent and ambitious women. They all have children and each one has made career decisions that will limit their professional positions for years to come. The reason has always come back to the success of the family unit, and their need to take care of their own health or the health of a family member. It was discouraging for me to see how limited their professional rewards will be because of the choice each have made to spend time with their families. I know that each one could contribute more of their intelligence and skill to the work force if they were given better options on hours, holiday time, and perceived as just as capable and ambitious as their male counterparts. As capable, but just needing some more time.