“Happy Birthday Mom!” I look at the handcrafted drawing with the words, “I love you! You are the best Mom!” My six year old daughter cheerfully delivered this artwork to me, proud and happy to celebrate. “Look, I drew a picture of you in the card I made, with you and your computer.” After the shock of it, I remember my heart sinking as I wondered if I was doing this so called balance thing all wrong. Yes, I do work incessantly, but I try to be present.  Did I have my priorities that messed up? Are my kids going to grow up emotionally maimed because they think that they come second to my work?

I have recounted this incident many times, and mostly people chuckle and laugh at the absurdity of it. There was one time when the story elicited a scowl and expression of disgust from a woman (who was not a mother, not that it matters), and I definitely understood that response too.

Guilty as charged

My life as a working parent is a whirlwind of chaos, and this has taken about a decade to get adjusted to. As a meticulous planner who was once borderline OCD about life details, I have surrendered to living in the real-time. While each life stage has its own challenges (infant stage the most intense), life is certainly easier because I’m past the phase of spoon feeding them and brushing their teeth. As they get older and more independent, it’s the onslaught of extracurricular activities that we take day-by-day now. I can’t keep pace. “Enjoy it now, as they grow up fast,” is the echoing advice from just about everyone. It’s true, as the last twelve years have been a complete blur. It’s absolutely fun and deeply fulfilling, and I love my family – as well as my work.

  • Do I feel like I have to slip out of work incognito at 6:30pm to pick up my son on time after his karate class? Guilty
  • How about taking my turn one day a week to drive a posse of girls to Club volleyball in the late afternoon? Guilty
  • Was I once so zombie tired with a ten week old newborn that I went to a meeting totally unprepared, bringing the wrong folders and yet pretended to follow along looking at phantom papers? Guilty
  • Have I been late to evening work functions because I’m sitting in the car on the phone making sure the kids run down the repertoire of homework and test prep? Guilty
  • Did I accidentally flood the airplane overhead compartment with melted icewater because my insulated breast milk bottles had been out with my all day client meetings and I had no choice but to get airport restaurant ice? Guilty
  • Did I drive illegally and maniacally in the carpool lane from LAX to catch a recital on time? Guilty
  • Have I done many a weekend/vacation day conference calls in the quietest corners in Disneyland (with less background music) and the soccer fields? Yep!
  • Did I feel guilty because I actually didn’t feel guilt about going back to work (and looked forward to it)? Guilty!
  • Or how guilty did I feel when my mother-in-law declared that her single main purpose in life and reason she was put on this Earth was to be a mother (and I didn’t feel that way and I still don’t feel that way)? Extremely!

But you know what? It’s all good in the end. I’m guilty of just about everything. I’m guilty of obsessing about others’ needs sometimes, and other times I’m selfishly trying to fulfill my own.

I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior.

The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.

— Brene Brown

Guilt May Signal Leadership Potential

As women, we often harbor higher levels of guilt that may come from the embedded nurturing element of our DNA and societal forces that teach girls to be “good.” We can be excessively concerned with how our actions affect others, family, colleagues, peers, and consumers. We may often feel guilty when we take the time to do something for ourselves, such as building our career, getting more education, or starting a business.

There has been some discussion about the “women’s guilt epidemic.” According to research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, women experience significantly higher amounts of shame and guilt than men. For women, both emotions are linked to self-criticism, whereas perfectionist tendencies came into play with men.

However, Stanford GSB researchers find that “guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders,” says Becky Schaumberg. This can be an advantage and may also make us more empathetic to situations, employees, partners, and customers, as well as more apt to stay high integrity.

Women Have Mastered Guilt. Now, Let’s Master Happiness.

More choice for women is hands-down a good thing. But as our options increase, so do the ways in which women can imagine failing or coming up short. Women feel a pressure to “have it all” — to pursue work and family with equal fervor at all times. Then, we fear that we are not doing either one well enough, and we worry about the judgements of others. If women fall into the trap of trying to please all the people all the time, or being guilt-ridden by both the choices they are making and the choices they are not making, then happiness is going to keep tanking.  Women have mastered guilt. Instead, we need to master happiness.

—  Jessica Herrin, CEO and Founder of the Stella & Dot Family Brands

Life is about tradeoffs

Living the life of an entrepreneur is already intensely complex and busy. When you are a parent as well, the job becomes even more unremitting. Maybe you aren’t a parent and have to take care of elderly parents. Or maybe you have some other competing priority. There is no end, and there is not physically enough time to do everything. Work and family compete for our attention, and we can feel guilty for doing just the best we can at any given moment. Harmonious balance becomes an unattainable lofty idea, the thought of which causes pangs of remorse, anxiety, and resentment.

Conjoint analysis is a survey-based statistical technique used in market research that helps determine how people value different attributes (feature, function, benefits) that make up an individual product or service. Rather than rating all attributes very important, the technique forces you to make a prioritized choice between attribute A or attribute B (e.g. car safety or speed?).

So this is what I choose to do. Choose to speak at a conference or attend an award night? Go to work related cocktails or help her study for an Algebra exam? Lead the entire Cubscout Pack? Ok, but for just one year only. I try to chaperone one school field trip per year per kid, volunteer one time per year in the classroom. Non-negotiables: I attend all of the teacher conferences. I won’t miss back to school nights, open houses, recitals and performances (missed one). I’m not always there for every single night of homework or award assemblies, but I’m mostly there and when it counts.

As imperfect as our behavior and decisions can be, it’s essential to commit to your mission wholeheartedly. Look past the judgments from others and yourself, and pursue the dreams that you have. Make adjustments to accommodate life stage needs, but be comfortable doing the best you can at any given moment. Everyone struggles with balance in whatever situation they are in.

Don’t apologize about making sacrifices because it’s ultimately a win-win.  You are following your own North Star, building something that is a part of you.  You’re probably changing the world in some small way. Meanwhile, you might be impacting little citizens of the next generation and encouraging them to be independent thinkers and determined dream pursuers. In other words, don’t quell your ambitious plans. Push hard and harder so that you can accomplish your goals and fully enjoy the exhilaration of the ride. Following your passions will result in a more fulfilled you, and your kin will be able to appreciate you even more.

Role modeling

A recent study from Harvard concluded that contrary to conventional wisdom, mothers who work can increase their daughters’ future career prospects. The study also found that with the “working mother effect,” women who grew up with working and entrepreneurial moms earned approximately 23% more than women whose mothers didn’t work. They were also more likely to hold down a supervisory or leadership role. Great news, this is worth it all!

Last year, I participated in the Career day at our entire elementary and middle schools. Kids rotate classrooms and select various career presentations throughout the day. My kids were ecstatic to attend my session on entrepreneurship and venture. A bit nervous to be able to relate to the kids on this topic, I was put at ease when I caught their eye. They brought all of their friends along to watch, and they seemed genuinely captivated. Their little excited grins made me feel proud and jubilant. Afterwards, both said that they all loved the presentation. I have to say that of the many presentations I’ve done, this one was really gratifying in a different way.

My kids are a little bit older now, and I have since learned to put the laptop away when it comes to important QT. I still have the tradition of saying good night to them, half of the time asking them about what their favorite and least favorite moment of the day was.  It’s a great way to get to some meaty insights about what is going on in their lives. Occasionally they will ask come back at me with, “So what about you, Mom? How was your day? What did you do all day at work?” Recounting my typical response describing meetings, collaborations, consultations, problem solving, as well some drier aspects like doing emails – I’m always happy to hear them probe deeper to try to understand. “What was the meeting about? How did you solve that problem? Why did you choose that decision? That sounds interesting.” I can only hope that someday they will also find meaningful work that inspires and challenges them. To me, the balancing act of this crazy lifestage is not a myth or an expectation, not a curse or an unrealistic goal. It is what it is, and it’s simply a matter of trudging through  (no!) embracing it while trying to maximize those moments of bliss.


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