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Two Essential Questions Working Parents Need To Ask Themselves

Mastering the art of positive sacrifice is a far better alternative to “having it all.”

Two Essential Questions Working Parents Need To Ask Themselves
[Photo: Flickr user David D]

In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a lightning-rod article for The Atlantic declaring that women in fact can’t “have it all.” The essay became one of the most widely read and dissected articles in the publication’s 150-year history.

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Andrew Moravcsik, Slaughter’s husband, later offered this liberating male perspective:

We know that a top regret of most men is that they did not lead the caring and connected life they wanted, but rather the career-oriented life that was expected of them. I will not have that regret.

If plenty of professional women–myself included–could just as feasibly have written that sentence, too, it’s a measure of the progress women have made. Yet that nevertheless points up the double bind that both Moravcsik and Slaughter wrote about. For just about all working parents today, it seems there’s always some need to feel our way back to the center–to decide what matters to us, since we can never really have everything.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t unique and disproportionate challenges facing working mothers–there are–but for me, anyway, I go to bed content when I can answer two questions affirmatively:

  • Would my daughter say I was there for her today?
  • Did I find the space in the day to serve myself?

“Having it all” might be a holy grail, but it’s our prerogative as parents to decide what’s meaningful to us in our professional and personal lives alike. Here’s how I’ve tried to do that in mine.

Define Your “It”

After my daughter was born, in 2007, I passed a good portion of the time I spent nursing her or rocking her to sleep reading books on motherhood and parenting. At the time, I was a manager at IBM, which offered a book called This Is How We Do It: A Working Mother’s Manifesto as part of the kit of goodies in its parenting program. I can’t say I learned from that book how to do “it,” just that I was expected to somehow make it work, at all costs.

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Part of the trouble was that “it” was both ill-defined and impossibly broad. I decided I needed to redefine that for myself.

When my daughter was a few years old, I was offered a role working for an impressive female executive. During my interview, I told her it was important to me that I protect my family time every night, from dinner through bedtime. If that would be a problem for the role, I didn’t want to pursue a bad fit for either of us.

I got the role, and her respect. Some of the women with whom I share this story are surprised that I asked for what I wanted; many understandably see such a bold approach as risky. But if I’d placed a higher priority on landing the role than on the time I could spend with my family, I might have gotten the job while failing to get everything I truly needed–my own definition of “it all.”

Some things will fall off when you become a parent–or just when you pursue that next promotion, for instance–but the parts that fall off shouldn’t be the bits that matter to you the most. Each of us has to define for ourselves what “having it all” really means. For me, being able to say that I was there for my daughter each day was a non-negotiable piece of it.

Do Less To Get More

In the United States, women are often reminded that we’re lucky to have so many choices, but that creates enormous and unfair pressure. Society permits us to talk about how hard it all is, but the expectation is still largely that we’ll be martyrs for our families.

After my daughter’s preschool graduation–to which I arrived late and was distracted the whole time with a work crisis–I realized that while I’d made it there physically, I was absent mentally. I’d far rather set an example for how to make choices than be lauded for doing a poor job at two things simultaneously.

So a year later, when my daughter walked across the stage at her kindergarten graduation, I was on a different stage delivering a talk at a prestigious speaking engagement. I was proud to be benefitting the company I’d helped build and the people in it, knowing my husband and sister were celebrating the day with my daughter.

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And I was fully present the next day, when my daughter and I snuggled up and watched videos of one another’s big moments. Another time, I took a red-eye home early from an event in order to make it to my daughter’s first chorus concert. The great leaders in my company stepped up and managed the last day expertly without me.

I’m learning to master the art of positive sacrifice. I protect time on my calendar to give people and tasks my full attention, and I stopped packing our weekends full of activities. Most importantly, I don’t feel guilty about it.

Spend your energy like you spend your money: Invest wisely, and make sure it buys you something. Whether you’re a working mother, or a supportive father, or a parent or caregiver of any other description, there’s no universal litmus test for “having it all”–only what you decide that means to you. Luckily, the easiest way to pass the test is to begin by giving yourself the answers.

Related: How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

Stephanie Lynn Trunzo is the chief operating officer and chief digital officer for PointSource. Previously, she spent 13 years at IBM as a project manager and senior development manager, among other roles.

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