Night-thinking deserves a quiet night
It was 3am. 9 days into breastfeeding my new twin babies. I was supposed to be on a panel at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) the next morning. I had a backup on standby. My older kids (6 and 3) would be on their first day of Spring Break. Social media showcased a mix of parties (SXSW industry friends) and paradise (family vacations). I felt alone. Paralyzed. I was thinking in circles: Is it a bad mothering decision to go? A missed career opportunity to skip? A good parenting decision to model resilience? A Marissa Meyer decision to race back to work?
What should I do?
Am I right to think I could just run over for an hour, wing it on adrenaline and get back without missing a feeding?
What do you think? Am I crazy?
This is typical for me - the conflict, angst, indecision, early and late night (over)thinking - in between mothering and career.
It’s the 6pm happy hour. The executive retreat you fought (leaned in) to be included on. The volunteer opportunities at school. The field trips. The decisions about how to go or not go to each these. Figuring out coverage - be it childcare or someone to “play you” in front of a client. It’s all the things that represent what it really means to be a working mom, to me.
The emails you write in your head while reading Goodnight Moon. The woman you become excessively close with when she tells you you’re lactating at a meeting. The hope that the client on the other end of the line doesn’t recognize the sound of your breast pump keeping meter on your conference call. Wondering whether these things are normal. This is what it means to be a working mom, to m.
And yet we often keep these thoughts to ourselves. We let them paralyze us. We let ourselves be the designated worrier for the whole household’s worry work. We let ourselves think we’re alone. We believe, if not romanticize, our friends in social media bragging perfection and happiness. Worse yet, we think we should be able to manage it all-- find the illusory balance. All this makes it especially hard to have honest exchanges with friends, despite them being at our fingertips more than ever.
The Illusion of Balance
Over the past two years, I’ve realized that one of the biggest barriers to achieving “balance” is that we don’t admit what we’re balancing: What’s going on in our heads. What our version of being a working mother means. We each have our own- the hours we work, where we do that work, childcare type and schedule, varying and varied support from our partners, “permissions” we grant and/or justify for business or leisure, priorities we establish, sacrifices we make...
They’re complicated, our situations. There are reasons we don’t pick up the phone and call a close friend every time we get stuck. There’s the MUM Effect: We like to share positive things more than negative, not only because of the burden it bears on the receiver. We like to think we know ourselves better than other people know us, despite evidence otherwise. We don’t ask for advice because we fear being judged incompetent. We don’t like it when our friends-- or anyone-- tell(s) us what to do because it threatens our behavioral freedom and sometimes even strengthens our initial stance. I could go on. I know people. I’m a social psychologist.
Back in my Bedroom
I remember staring into my phone that lonely March night, at odds with all the psychological biases I knew so well. The more perfect the vacations, the more serendipitous the SXSW (selfied) encounters I saw, the more ostracized I felt-- and the more incapable I was of determining what I wanted to do. I wanted to share the negative. I was certain someone else knew me better than I knew myself. I was willing to sacrifice my behavioral freedom. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do. I craved a script of what to do and say to each member of the village it would take to go to my SXSW panel.
That moment has become something of a flashbulb memory - the moment I think of when I talk to friends, colleagues, sisters, and strangers about going back to work after having a baby/babies. In that one moment, I had blown everything out of proportion. It was an hour I was deliberating on-- speaking on a panel about my favorite topic: applying psychology to business. But in my mind it was a full blown identity crisis. I was plagued by the thought that my decision could mean forfeiting my identity as a working mom. This decision was about becoming-- or being seen as-- a mom only, someone who ‘leaned out’ because of kids; something that felt indulgent and yet not enough.
I did the panel. It was great, if only because I felt like I was keeping my options open, perpetuating the big decision that had just seemingly journeyed from my amygdala (our brain’s emotion center) to my prefrontal cortex (judgment, planning). And thar I stayed, waiting for judgment, like a beached whale awaiting a nudge (shove?) back into the professional waters.
Thar She Blows
A friend of mine came up with this genius classification of the working status of her mom friends: some are happily back at work, some are on the beach, and some are happily at home. In consulting jargon when you’re “on the beach,” you’re awaiting assignment. Traditionally, it means you’re off of an intense private equity case and “on call” for whatever assignment comes next. It’s a paradoxical time of R&R and major stress. Like a physician on call for an ER. Like a volunteer firefighter in a small town. Like a woman on maternity leave.
A mom who’s on the beach is typically filled with angst about what to do and when. A beached mom, as I was that night and as my friend, later, described,
“[is] so angsty about all the choices she has and how much to do or not do at any given point. Ramp up? At what cost? Wait? At what cost? Full days? Half days? Travel or not? How to share housework when schedules are variable, etc.”
Apparently I wasn’t alone in my paralysis. I was sunbathing with hundreds of thousands of other moms on a beach not featured in my friends’ social media posts. I still am.
For Mother’s Day last month, my 8yo son wrote me a poem. It started off with the usual: you’re as pretty as a rose, as smart as Albert Einstein, as funny as daddy...” and eventually, “as helpful as a babysitter.” When he saw my eyes open wide expressing shock, he clarified “because, you know, you pay babysitters to do a good job, so they’re really helpful.” As I stood there, looking back into his expectant eyes I didn’t know whether to be flattered, proud, disappointed in myself, guilty, or embarrassed. Thar I was, again. Back on the beach.
The Water Beckons
My approach now is to ask for advice. I use a simple formula of Emoting - admitting I feel like a beached whale or otherwise, Asking - sharing what’s on my mind with the right people, and Anchoring - putting stakes in the ground for what I’m considering. I structure the response by saying specifically what type of advice I want: action, opinion, validation. This gives me freedom to feel defensive when someone tells me what to do when I just want to know if I’m right to feel the way I do. You know the drill... What I’ve found is that the feeling of connection you get when people give you good advice goes far beyond the validating endorphins from a “Like,” RT, or comment-- and the subsequent action flows smoothly, confidently. Advice shifts you right back into the ocean, be that ocean a table, nest, panel, trip, conversation, happy hour, etc.
We have to help each other get by. Sometimes little things loom large in our heads, especially late at night. Our blindspots can be so hidden from ourselves and so apparent to others. We can’t let each other talk ourselves into thinking we’re alone, or crazy.
We have to start telling it like it is. We cannot talk about “work-life” balance without being honest about what really goes on in work and and in life. We can show our best selves on Facebook and Instagram, we can reach out to a friend when we hit rock bottom, but we must admit to the ugly of everyday life in order to make it better.
We have to have solutions and not just vent. We need to bring the same focus on efficiency and problem-solving that we do as mothers and business women to ourselves, to each other. We won’t get anywhere if we just rant.
I’m making an effort to do more of this starting today. Please, join me.
This post is cross-posted on Medium