Learning How To Balance Work And Family Once And For All

by Lisa Heffernan
Originally Published: 

Not long after my second child was born, I went back to work. I was grateful to have a new job, thrilled for the opportunity to be back on a trading floor and determined that having young sons would not hold me back. One day shortly after I returned to work, my nanny called—and I know you saw this coming—to say that she had been sick all morning and could no longer watch my boys.

There is no way I could tell my boss that I was leaving work, so I called my husband and asked him to go home. As soon as I hung up the phone, I had the thought that has derailed so many careers: I will never be able to manage this, will I?

For every woman who has wondered how—or if—it is possible to combine life, work and family, Laura Vanderkam’s new book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, has the answer. She asked 143 highly successful women who are mothers to record exactly how they had spent the 336 half-hours of one week and explains, “Everyone has opinions on having it all. I want to show, moment by moment, how it’s really done.”

Although the study is small, her findings are big. These women over the course of perhaps not a day, but certainly a week manage to get enough sleep, spend quality time with their families, do leisure activities and have the big career. They do it by paring their lives down to what matters most and then with much forethought carefully fitting those activities into their week.

Vanderkam’s point is an essential one. There are days, sometimes even weeks, when it seems impossible to shoehorn everything we need to do into a single day. But this does not mean that our lives cannot be full of the work, family and leisure that we want. It simply means that for any given day the balance might not be optimal, but that over time it certainly will be.

Vanderkam tells women to let go of the idea that your house or the appearance of your life needs to be perfect. Let go of the notion that you need to do everything yourself and seek out and accept help. Let go of the tape in your head that keeps telling you that you don’t have enough time—it’s getting in the way of creative solutions.

Her most important point is not simply that you can have the high-flying career and the family, but that most of us have far more time than we think. And while I wanted to push back against the notion, I know that she’s right.

When I discovered one day in June that a book I thought was due to my editor on November 1 was actually contracted to be delivered September 1, I knew I didn’t have enough time. But my family had been visiting England and our first day back I was so jet-lagged that I fell asleep at 8:30 p.m. and woke up at 3 a.m. But in my silent house, I discovered that my productivity was twice as high at 3 a.m. as it was at 3 p.m.

For the remainder of the summer, I lived in New York on Greenwich Mean Time. I awoke every morning at 3, worked until 7 a.m., dropped my kids off for their various summer activities, and wrote until I picked them up. I put my youngest to bed at 8:30 at night and went to sleep, leaving my husband to sort out our older sons. I got the book in on time and discovered, as Vanderkam makes clear, that time is fungible and if managed right will yield hours you never knew you had.

Vanderkam wants women to know that they can successfully combine family, career and time for themselves. If you ever doubted whether it could be done, she will show you how. If you ever doubted whether you could do it, the answer is yes.

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