2021 Can Be a Do-Over Year

We can just start over. And over. And over. Photo by Matthew Landers on Unsplash

I had a rough 2019. No, you read that right. 2019. Some changes happened in my organization that required a ton of time and energy to be spent on tactical logistics that we had not planned for. The second half of the year got derailed and as I got to about November I was feeling exhausted and depleted. But I also felt that all the work had actually set us up for a better future and I was eager to get started on a big plan for 2020. 

I’m guessing you know what happened next. 

We navigated 2020 and got through it. In fact, 2020 ended for us with some real bright spots in a way that seemed to auger a better future in 2021. 

Despite that I found myself again feeling a bit depleted at the end of the year. And while good news at the end of 2020 was giving me some renewed energy and hope, there was still a lot of trepidation coming into January. And grief. The holidays marked a year since we’ve seen my parents. My kids were particularly distressed about that. 

I usually love making plans at the end of the year. In 2019 I bought the Big Life Journal New Year kit and we even brought our printouts to Florida to plan as a family. I bought the 2021 version but they sat, untouched, throughout the two-week holiday as the four of us sat at home, one day melting into the next. What was the point?! My 2020 goals and resolutions were still sitting there, taunting me. 

And then, of course, the first three weeks of January 2021 felt like 2020 had not left us. I kept joking that it felt like December 38th. (I’m sure that’s not original.) 

But as we come to the end of what is, normally, a go-away week for us, I feel the darkness lifting, just a little. I feel a new burst of energy coming. 

So as I head into the last week of February I’m reminding myself of three things:

1. 2021 can be a do-over. We didn’t make progress in 2020. THERE WAS A PANDEMIC. It’s okay. (And we did make progress, despite that.) We can pull out the plans, goals, resolutions and whatnot from 2020 and make that the 2021 plan. It’s okay.

2. We can begin now. There is no magic to January anyway. The year can start now. Or on March 1. 

3. And if the plans we make on next week or next month go sideways, as they so often do, we can, as Brad Feld regularly writes, Simply Begin Again. And again. And again. 

Ambition, Food, Love, Loss

The bar at Prune, courtesy of their website.

It’s not really fair for one person to be so ridiculously talented in two wildly different disciplines. Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef’s chef, cooking food that is inventive, unpretentious and sublime. And her writing is lyrical, evocative and moving.

Her piece in the New York Times Magazine about closing down Prune, her East Village restaurant of 20 years, in the wake of the shutdown of New York City is sad, beautiful, bracing and somehow still hopeful.

The first paragraph will make you catch your breath. She is about to layoff all her employees and she dreams that she is unable to save her two children from dying. It is arresting in its powerful imagery. And it lays bare the lie we’ve all been made to believe about mothers and ambition (namely that motherhood damps down women’s ambition — it doesn’t).

I ate at Prune twice. Once in its early years. Once almost exactly a year ago.

After 9/11 I remember thinking about Windows on the World. I’d had an amazing meal there and often thought I should go again. But anytime we were able to go out we picked somewhere else. New York has so many restaurants. There will always be another time. Until there isn’t another time.

New York can be a hard city to love. You can go to a restaurant for years — decades! — and then, one day, poof! and it’s gone. The list of places that I still miss, still think about … Mayrose, Tramps, Da Silvana (a local place in Queens), Les Halles, Bluewater Grill, Coffee Shop (now a Chase bank!).

And yet, the reckoning has come. What will be left when we can finally lift up the grates again? Hamilton’s hope that she can reopen, reimagine, revive. It’s a hope I share. I’ll go back! This time I promise I won’t allow myself to think that there’s always more time.

It’s not easy, but it is possible

Photo credit: Jared Soares for The New York Times

In the tributes to Cokie Robert there were many mentions of her pioneering work as a women in journalism. 

But I was struck by a comment from Mary Louise Kelly, a reporter for NPR on the Brian Lehrer Show:

What resonated with me here in the NPR newsroom yesterday was listening to all of the 20 and 30 something women who as I say many of whom did not know her or did not know her very well they were all talking about her as a mother and as a woman as much as her journalism. And how she did not make it look easy or effortless to do both, to be a great journalist and be a great mom, but she made it look possible. Which, when she was doing it, her kids were young, was revolutionary. And which is still really hard. Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.” 

Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.

I try to model this in my own life and career. No, it’s not always easy to be the CEO of a start-up nonprofit, with two kids, a husband with an equally demanding career. But it IS possible. And it’s also full of joy, at least for me. 

So, thank you, Cokie, and the many other amazing women who show us that it is possible to have a rich, full life full of professional accomplishments, warm family relationships and faith (she was a devout Catholic). When you focus on what matters to you and to those you love you can have it all, all at once.

Is Vacation Homework Training Our Kids To Be Workaholics?

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

My family and I took a trip to Miami for February break. We did something we don’t always do, which is we decided to really try to max out our time in Florida. Meaning we took an early flight out on Saturday morning and weren’t schedule to come back until Sunday afternoon.

It’s worth noting, before I go on, that this vacation scheduled stands in contrast to Europeans who tend to take two-week “holidays” — as often as three times per year! — and many of them book the travel such that they are just barely skidding into work on Monday morning. Work to live, as they say.

So it’s safe to say I was feeling a bit dismayed when my 11-year-old daughter, a sixth grader, came home in a flustered panic with a collage project that was due the Monday after the break. Are you kidding me? We rushed to print out pictures since it wasn’t really practical to try and bring this kind of project on a trip.

And I found myself wondering — does homework during a school vacation teach kids to be workaholics? Many Americans bring their work with them on family trips — you see them on laptops by the pool, on phone calls at the beach. We both praise and lament this state of affairs in our typically schizophrenic way. Is all this frantic work-work-work good for us? Almost certainly not. So why can’t we give our kids a break for a week?

By the way, I think work done over the summer is a totally different ball game. Of course I think the fact that schools close for three months of the year — when the majority of parents work — is insane on its face. We’d be far better off if American schoolchildren had year-round school with regular breaks that were real breaks. There be no need to worry about skills eroding if school vacations where only a week or two at a time.

But even in the current reality, there’s no reason to give projects during regular one or two-week long school vacations. Maybe they can learn a more valuable skill — how to relax!

Why Is This Schedule “Crazy”?

Photo Credit: Rugile Kaladyte for The New York Times

As a working mom I’m pretty obsessed with other people’s schedules and routines. So the headline Sarah Sellers and the Craziest Schedule in Running caught my eye. It’s the story of the young woman who came in second in last year’s Boston Marathon and also happens to work 30 hours a week a nurse anesthetist.

It is certainly unusual for someone to be an elite athlete and work near full-time hours. But is it “crazy”? The evidence that it is: She gets up at 4am to run on the days she works (she generally works 3 days a week in 10-hour shifts).

But putting aside the early wake up for a second, let’s do the math. If she works 30 hours as a nurse and puts in another 40 hours of running/training that’s 70 hours. I’m guessing she doesn’t actually work out 40 hours, but I’m throwing in time spent getting massages, foam rolling, stretching, whatever else she needs to do to be an athlete at that level. I’m probably still over estimating, but let’s go with it since, for some people, elite running is their full-time occupation.

Now, let’s say she sleeps 8 hours per day, that’s another 56 hours per week. Let’s throw in another 21 hours per week for the stuff of life — housework, eating, grooming, etc. That’s 3 hours per day, likely more than adequate given that neither of her jobs requires the elaborate grooming that a woman with a corporate job might have and she doesn’t have children. That leaves her with 21 hours per week — 3 hours per day! — for whatever else she wants to do. Read, knit, write, paint. You can do a lot with 3 hours per day.

Yes, the days she works at the hospital sound long. A 10-hour day is long no matter what else you are doing. But the other 4 days of the week sound — again, to quote the Times story — “downright relaxing.” (I see that snark, NYT.) But they do! She does hard workouts on Thursday and Friday, does a long run on Saturdays and doesn’t run at all on Sundays. Presumably if she found the early wake ups on Monday through Wednesday that terrible she could trade at least one of them for runs on Sundays. I’m going to trust that it works for her.

Look, the truth is that the average American watches 35 hours of TV per week. A point that Sellers hints at with this quote: “Nothing against full-time runners,” she said. “I honor what they do, but it seems like they have a lot of Netflix time.” What’s crazier — continuing to build her medical career or watching 30 hours of Game of Thrones?

Why Aren’t There More Women CEOs?

It’s one of the more depressing stats I’ve come across: The S&P 1500 has more CEOs named John than women CEOs. Across the broader landscape of the C-Suite women make up about 16%. And we are now, in 2018, 30 years since women began to outnumber men in college.

One answer that is often offered is that women just don’t want to be CEOs. And one reason given for this lack of desire is the punishing schedule of a CEO.  This is seen as untenable with motherhood — either because men don’t do their fair share at home or because mothers just aren’t as wiling as fathers to spend so much time way from their families.

That’s a pretty big “or” in the middle of that sentence. But let’s take the second part. Women, mothers, just want to spend more time with their kids than fathers do. (Wow, when you write it like that it kind of makes those CEO dads sound like monsters, right? Hmm. Funny how a quick a little change in the POV of a sentence can totally change the frame.)

Is a CEO job really so all-consuming? This HBR study suggests yes … and also no.  The study, which examined time diaries of 27 large-company CEOs found they worked an average of 62.5 hours per week. That’s not a small amount, to be sure. But it still leaves plenty of time, in a 168-hour week, for sleep and family. In fact the study found the CEOs averaged nearly 7 hours of sleep per night. That leaves them with about 58 hours a week of time spent awake and not working. In one sense their lives are perfectly balanced between work and life. And the diaries show they spend a good portion of that nonwork time with family — about 3 hours per day. They also spend about 45 minutes per day exercising and a little more than 2 hours on leisure activities like reading, TV or hobbies. Yes, they did work on weekends and vacations. How much? About 4 hours on a weekend day, about 80% of the time and about 2.5 hours on 70% of vacation days. Importantly that leaves roughly 12 hours on a weekend and 13 to 14 hours on a vacation day.

Here’s my point: Does everyone want to work this way? No way! Plenty of people would find this absolutely grueling. But there’s no specific reason why women should be uniquely unsuited.

I also think it’s worth reminding ourselves that we don’t question whether or not the CEOs who keep these hours can be good dads. Why do we assume — both of ourselves and of others — that you can’t be a good mom and work this way?

Challenging The Myth That Children Derail Women’s Ambition

Rachel Carson speaks before the Senate in 1963. Photo credit: United Press International

A recent New Yorker had a piece by Jill Lepore about a new volume of Rachel Carson’s writing.

Rachel Carson did not have children but she took care of several, including adopting her four-year-old grandnephew after the death of her niece. Some of her biographers have lamented the toll this caretaking exacted on her output. If only she hadn’t had that responsibility imagine what she could have produced, the line goes.

Let’s think about this critique for a moment. Carson published “A Silent Spring,” the book credited with kicking off the modern environmental movement. The book directly led to the passage of five major pieces of legislation, including The Clean Air Act and the The Clean Water Act and also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a lot of impact for one person to have.

Jill Lepore rightly pushed back on the biographers lament of her caregiver role, noting that ” caring for other people brings its own knowledge.” The “insight” that came with caring for both the young and elderly members of her family made her work what it was.

I like this point a lot because it does something that is rare in the media — it actually gives value to the caregiving role. The idea that caregiving confers skills, experiences and wisdom that is valuable beyond the work of care is something our society is remarkably reluctant to acknowledge.

I also think that this idea is that caretaking diminishes a woman’s output is just slanderous. Carson is one of the greatest writers of all time, if you measure greatness by impact on the world. It’s impossible to know if she would have produced more and even more impossible to know if it would have been as great, to Lepore’s point, had she not had obligations. The biggest reason her career was cut short was her untimely death from cancer.

I think this fiction — that only those undistracted by care can reach their full potential — does a disservice to men and women alike. It pushes men to suppress their desires to nurture and care and pushes women out of the public spheres. A life that has both elements — family and work, however you define either of those terms — is richer and, I would argue, more productive in the ways that matter most. Sure, single-minded focus on anything can be a strategy for success. But it is absolutely not the only strategy. And anyone that believes that probably achieves less than they could and lives a life that is less than it could be.

Why Asking the Wrong Questions Yields the Wrong Answers

In a series on women’s ambition, The Atlantic asks “How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain?” The question itself suggests that the answer is a fixed amount that get apportioned across two people in different ways — either equally or with one spouse having much more while the other has much less.

But what if this is the wrong question? What if the question, instead, is “How Can a Couple Build a Life They Both Love?”

The problem with asking how much ambition the marriage can take is that it treats the players like they are sitting across from each other on a seesaw — they can be equal, but then each can only go as high as the middle, or one can be much higher and one is on the ground. This seems like a uniquely unhelpful way to view marriage, right? But more importantly it treats three different states — equal, man up/woman down, and woman up/man down — as if they are the same. But is that so? Are all three of those states essentially the same?

I’d suggest they aren’t. The key reason we all discuss ambition as it relates to marriage is because of the oft-asked question “But what about the kids?” While many (though not all) people tend to believe it’s “okay” if Mom works there is  belief that if both Mom and Dad are working all that time, that would be bad. That seems like a reasonable conclusion. But then it gets murky — is it okay if one parent works “all the time” and the other doesn’t? Does it matter which one? If one parent works “all the time” does that mean the other parent must not work at all to even the seesaw?

What’s interesting to me is that the research on the effect on children if Mom works is pretty clear — they do fine. There is some research on the effect of Dad’s career and it finds that kids do fine with a Dad who works a reasonable amount, but that Dad’s who aren’t around are missed (I know, right?).

If that’s true I think it fundamentally changes the question. Because clearly one parent around “all the time” doesn’t actually make up for one who isn’t around very much. And now we can ask, instead of how much total ambition can the marriage take, how much ambition in either parent can the family take?

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to that last question is “More than most of us think.” If you use your time with your family well and create wonderful and loving memories, those will loom much larger in the minds of your children than the missed dinners or a weekend away for business. Yes, there’s likely a limit to how much a parent can work and still be effective. But that’s true regardless of how little the other parent works, which means the marriage (and the family) can likely sustain ambition in both partners and turn out fine.

Megyn Kelly Shows Us How You Can Have a Big Career and a Life

Megyn Kelly chose NBC over Fox News, in part, for work/life balance reasons. NBC offered her a daytime slot which would allow her to have dinner with her family more regularly.

What’s interesting is that Claire Zillman reports in Fortune that this isn’t the first time Kelly has made a career move for the sake of her family. She quit a lucrative legal career, with its crushing hours, for a $17,000 entry-level job on television news, because she perceived a journalism career to offer more flexibility.

Two points I feel compelled to make. First, journalism is actually not famous for being a family-friendly endeavor. The hours can be just as crushing, without the upside of big salaries, and can often require big moves to find the next great opportunity. Second, while law is famous for chasing out smart, talented women, there are certainly ways to make a law career work for your life. I know women who go into private practice, for example, so they can have more control over their life and work.

What I like about the Kelly story, though, is that it advances the idea that you can make a career “sacrifice” for the sake of your family that still allows you to have a big and fulfilling career. She left the law, in part, because she didn’t find it very “interesting.” The fact that it also made it impossible for her to be the kind of mother she may have been a big factor in her move, but I bet she would have quit law anyway. By moving into journalism she found a career she liked more, was better at, and got herself into a position where she can could negotiate the kinds of jobs that also allow her to have the kind of life she wants.

So often the media narrative around career sacrifice for the sake of family — a sacrifice almost exclusively made by women, of course — posits the idea that our heroine must pare back her ambitions. Ideally she quits, because that’s really the only response we can imagine when a woman is working crushing hours and not seeing her children and has had enough. If she doesn’t quit then she takes a job that is somehow “less” — has less responsibility and power, requires fewer hours and less energy.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with paring back on career in favor of family. It’s a choice many women, and some men, make and it works for them. There are all kinds of ways to build a life and many definitions of success.

But I think what Kelly’s story illustrates, for me, is that when you decide that BOTH your family and your career are important it opens up a lot more possibility. Yes, there are still a lot of systemic problems that make it unnecessarily difficult for working parents to balance their home obligations with their professional ones. But it’s even harder when you are told by the culture, over and over, how very hard it is. So hard that you probably can’t do it and shouldn’t even try.

I don’t make tens of millions of dollars a year as a television journalist. But I do have a big, interesting career. I’m building a nonprofit from scratch. I work hard. I travel pretty frequently — I logged more than 50,000 air miles in 2016. But I also have dinner with my children most nights of the week. I spend weekends seeing movies, taking them to the zoo and doing other fun stuff. My husband is also home most nights and takes on many tasks that aren’t typical. For example, he is 100% in charge of setting up our daughter’s summer camp. He also has a big and demanding career. We have a rich, full life. It’s not always easy but it isn’t miserable either. On the contrary, it’s filled with a lot of joy — both personally and professionally.

Mother’s Day 2011

What a difference a year makes.

Last Mother’s Day Sam was just shy of 6 months old. Maddie was almost 2 1/2 and had only been walking a few months. I can’t remember if he was sleeping through the night. I don’t think so. I’m guessing he was still getting up once. But I know he was sleeping in his crib with Maddie in her new toddler bed. In part I remember because the one and only time that Maddie got out of her bed and came to our room was on Mother’s Day last year.

This time last year I had been back to work for about two months. I was in that stage where mommyhood was still consuming me — literally, as it were, as I was breastfeeding or pumping throughout the day and night. I was tired. So, so, so very tired.

This year Maddie is 3 1/2 and smart as a whip. She loves preschool. This year I got the special joy of getting a gift made at school — a necklace made of plastic beads strung on yarn. I’ve promised that I will wear it to work tomorrow.

Sam is 17 months and delightful. Happy, mostly, though guarded with new people in a way that Maddie never was. Eating anything that doesn’t eat him first.

I’m still tired, but not like then. Mostly I just feel like I have a bit of my life back. I was able to go to the gym yesterday and today. I can wear normal bras again. I’m finally back to my pre-baby weight. I didn’t overly stress on that point either time — it took about a year with Maddie and longer with Sam. But still, it’s nice to be back into some of my favorite clothes and to even buy some new things.

I love being Mommy, but I also love being Tami. The past three Mother’s Days have been all about the Mommy piece — in 2008 Maddie was 6 months old, in 2009 I was pregnant again and last year Sam was very little. This year it finally feels like the balance is swinging back, just a bit, to the Tami side.