Top time-management guru: 'Stop complaining, working mums! You've got it good'
Women are actually adept at juggling work and family,according to a top US time-management guru.
Published 26/06/2015 | 02:30
When I began reading I Know How She Does It, snatching moments between kids and work, I liked the sinister ring of the title. To fellow commuters or schoolgate parents I could have been engrossed in a thriller, or at least an exposé of a fraudster magician.
They wouldn't be far wrong. The book is about how high-earning working mothers not only "do it", by which we mean dare to have a job and children, but get away with it.
Its title is a riposte to I Don't Know How She Does It, the novel by the British journalist Allison Pearson, which milked desperate working-mother guilt for laughs. Its most symbolic scene was immortalised by Sarah Jessica Parker in the film version: bashing away at a cake at midnight to make it look home-baked for the school sale. She can't cope.
However, Laura Vanderkam has written exactly the opposite of that feminine style of self-deprecating, self-pitying, British novel. Vanderkam is an American time-management guru and her argument is based on the analysis of the weekly time logs of 133 mothers who earn more than $100,000 (£64,000). Executive summary: these contained zero slots marked "cake-bashing". The spirit of this book is "work more, whine less".
If that proves to be a bracing message for women across the political spectrum, it proved personally tumultuous for me. I ignored my children mewling for their tea with what felt like amoral elation: it was OK to skip a few bedtimes, forget the "sanctity" of family dinner and ramp up my childcare and the kids would be just fine. Or as Vanderkam writes, "there are no points for martyrdom".
Yet by the next page, this time sitting up in bed reading while my partner begged me to turn out the light, I was scribbling crazily in the margins. These time logs were exhausting. They often began with dawn workouts and ended with the "split shift", continuing the day's work at home after the kids' bedtime.
"Who are these women?" I laughed, feeling inadequate. Vanderkam strikes a cool, remorse-free tone for what is a starkly countercultural argument: being a working mother is both more enjoyable and easier than it seems.
Why don't all these women - the blogs and articles banging on about how impossible it is to juggle - stop moaning? It's Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, but without the feminism or guilt.
I first found the word "guilt" on page 250. I poked my partner: "Can you imagine that?" He said: "I just want sleep."
Before interviewing Vanderkam the next morning, I decided to play the breakfast/school run differently. Yes, it was the usual 8am clusterbomb of work prep and school-run crises, but I wasn't some kind of holy martyr. My life was quite nice overall.
This is Vanderkam's revelation: when looking at the weekly time logs of very busy women (now I do not count myself among them), "I noticed something: their lives didn't look that bad".
This is no small insight: Vanderkam feels passionately that too many women quit their jobs or fail to pursue careers because of our "modern Greek chorus: no one can have it all so don't you even try".
She writes, "The larger world delights in telling people that a full life will be harried, leading to one being maxed out or torn. But by only focusing on moments of stress, we miss life in the round. These women may have terrible days within a fulfilling, balanced life."
I thought about this: was my belief that working mothers lead almost impossibly difficult lives just part of a fashion that has now dated, all a bit 1990s? Get over it: "Life has space for business trips and birthday cakes," writes Vanderkam, who insists that "leaning in" does not "require harsh trade-offs".
Yet the I Don't Know How She Does It script still "limits our careers in profound ways". A New York Times review called Vanderkam's book "the most positive take on work and family I've read in a long time".
I start by apologising to Vanderkam for taking up one of her precious time log slots and she laughs. "Life is busy," she says, with understatement.
No one can accuse her of not walking the walk: she has four children under nine, the youngest a baby four-months-old, and between ferrying them from school to the nursery and the nanny, she works full-time from home as a writer and time-management coach.
And, I should not forget to mention, she is already back to half-marathon running. I tell her that she and the executives logged in her book make me feel a bit of a wimp. "We can talk about that," she says.
This book is provocative, I say: "Well hey, that's the idea." Did she write it because she was sick of people whining so much about work-life balance? "There is some amount of whining out there," she says. "I read all these horror stories like anyone else. I call them the recitations of dark moments. They are like a Greek chorus saying, 'You can't have it all.'
"I wanted to write a different book. It's not that I wanted to make it up. This is what I was actually seeing in women's lives.
"As someone who writes about time management, I'd done a lot of workshops at companies known for long hours. I'd look at women's schedules and yes there are stressful moments, but I'd also see other moments, playing with their kids on bikes or doing a book group with their friends.
"That is often the experience. Focusing only on the few stressful moments means we fail to appreciate the many wonderful moments that come from building a career that you care about and having a family too. Those stories have been missing from the conversation about work and life. Partly as it's just not as entertaining. Headline: 'Woman Enjoys Work and Family Just Fine'. That's not something people want to put on the cover of a magazine."
Vanderkam's first advice for any working mother is to complete a time log since it's the best guilt-relief in town. My week showed that I slept 53 hours, spent 45 hours with my kids - more than at my job - 27 hours with my partner and a pathetic zero on adult social life.
As Vanderkam predicted, this did make me feel a better mother. Although I still felt like fist-bumping one woman whose hours Vanderkam analysed: "I told her she worked 40 hours, slept 56, saw her kids a lot and she said: 'On paper it seems I have nothing to complain about but I still do.'
A common reaction of women completing their weekly log was to realise they saw more of their family than they thought and that they could even afford to work more: "They had been spending copious quantities of time with their children and not giving themselves any credit for it."
On certain days they may have hardly seen their kids but this was nearly always balanced out. As Vanderkam likes to say, "The middle of the week is Thursday morning."
There are many thought-provoking analyses in her book, but here is the bottom line: the average woman in a full-time job works 35 hours a week. The woman in a "big job", high-earning and important, works only about nine hours more (research shows that both male and female executives think and say they work 60-plus hours, but few do).
But, I say, parents may choose a lesser job precisely to get those extra nine hours with their family.
"That isn't it," Vanderkam replies. "Here's what it is: those women watch a lot less TV than average, right?" I tell her she suddenly sounds annoyed.
"Because you're making a false argument. That there is inevitably a choice between kid time and work time. The way these women structure their lives means they watch less TV because they do the same bedtime routine but may go back to work after the kids have gone to bed. And they do less housework. You can entirely make up the difference in hours between those two things."
So you may do bedtime, but you never relax. "No. They were sleeping enough, exercising, and they weren't watching zero TV: 4.5 hours a week on average. This narrative of chronic exhaustion: some people are, but many people aren't."
What about, say, the woman who forgoes earning more to be at the school gate every day - they pack in more family hours than you can possibly make up by writing your report at midnight?
"But the other interesting thing, if you look at time diaries, is that women who are not in the workforce do spend more time interacting with their children, but not an order of magnitude more."
Essentially, stay-at-home mothers can't clock all their hours with kids as "with kids" because they are busy with chores or their children are off playing or in extracurricular activities. I tell Vanderkam her thesis is a conservative traditionalist's worst nightmare.
"My politics are moderate conservative. If you look at my family I have four children, I'm married; that's a fairly traditional lifestyle.
"But I believe that women can fully contribute to the larger world and have much to contribute at home. I would hate for any woman to think: 'Oh, if I want a big career I will never get to experience these wonderful moments of motherhood,' or 'Maybe I shouldn't have kids at all, as I won't be part of their lives.' It would be very sad to think that they must inevitably choose. There are women loving both."
Trouble is, I say, some of them seem a little, well, nuts. That woman whose log showed her getting up at 3.30am to work?
"Yeah, that's a little crazy, but she went to bed at 8.30pm."
They seem to me to be "New York women": alpha, time-maximising, high energy. I tell Vanderkam that I suspect she is one of them.
Half of her sample did at least one "split shift" a week; their secret weapon. Vanderkam herself does it and enjoys it. I too sometimes do the split shift, sitting down to continue work at 9pm after climbing the mountain of kids' bedtime, but I feel ill with self-pity. I miss all that TV I don't watch.
Still, her book is refreshingly cheerful. Is it possible to become happier about your life just by deciding it is happier than you considered it before? I was sceptical, but Vanderkam is alarmingly inspirational both in person and prose. She is a woman utterly un-bogged down. When I ask her if she has it all, I know what she's going to say.
"Sure! If you define that as a career you love, a family I'm having a great time with, time to exercise and get enough sleep, sure."
I confess that I still complain. "Why do you think that is?" I was silent. Now, after reading her book, I really do not know why I do that.