Work-life balance is still hard to manage

January 11, 2012

Two words of advice to moms and dads out there: Put the phrase “not now” in your vocabulary for 2012.

While kids all over the world may be thinking that “no” is every parent’s favorite word, the reality is that it’s very hard for many parents, and especially overachieving moms, to say no.

Hard to say no to supervising hot lunch at school. Hard to say no to making goose costumes for the school play. Hard to say no to taking on a new project at work.

Advising people to say no is like telling people to quit smoking cold turkey, to never eat another piece of chocolate cake, to never watch another HGTV design show. It’s just too much to expect of one human being.

But “not yet” or “not now” closes no doors, slaps no labels on you as being unwilling to pull your weight. In fact, it’s really saying “yes,” just with conditions.

I had my own “not now” moment several months ago when I was asked to think about a new job. I had cut back on work a year earlier to see my sons through high school, and after years of struggling with the old “work-life balance” chestnut, I finally felt I had the issue under control.

But there were competing interests. First, I felt flattered to be asked to consider a new position. Second, in this economy, I didn’t want to say “no” and perhaps jeopardize a job I truly needed. Third, as much as I knew that curtailing my work had been the right decision, I hated, really hated, the admission implicit in the move: that I couldn’t do it all.

Twenty-five years ago, Arlene Rossen Cardozo wrote a book called “Sequencing.” The subtitle says it all: “Having It All but Not All at Once . . . A New Solution for Women Who Want Marriage, Career and Family.” Viewed through the long lens of the last 21 / 2 decades, there’s a quaintness to the advice, a naivete to the idea that you don’t have to keep all the plates twirling simultaneously. But there are also fundamental truths within its covers, which helps explain why I picked the book up nine years before I had kids and still have it on an easy-to-reach shelf in my living room.

I spoke to Cardozo last week about what she thinks “sequencing” means in 2012. “Basically it means what it meant when we talked about it 25 years ago. It’s . . . a question of how to juggle a career and a family within a lifetime. . . . Sequencing was then and still now is all about timing. You have to make the decision.”

Cardozo knows that sequencing can’t work for everyone, but she wants women to feel that it’s an option they can explore. “Nobody can solve the problem for somebody else. You need to customize for yourself.”

This is not to minimize the difficulty of saying “not now,” but it is to say that sometimes, just sometimes, we as parents expect more of ourselves than anyone else does (except, of course, our kids). We worry what the PTA president will say if we decline to help or that we’ll get the accursed “mommy track” label on the job.

I uttered the phrase “not now” about the new position. Two years from now, when my boys will be high school seniors instead of sophomores, it would be an ideal challenge. In the meantime, I take my bosses at their word that they understand, and I’m appreciative of that understanding.

Of course it doesn’t work for every job or every life circumstance. There are times when the only answer is, in fact, “yes.” There are women I know who manage to be den mothers while covering presidential campaigns and relish it all.

But if you can, and you’re inclined to, give yourself permission to utter the phrase “not now.” In all likelihood it will close very few doors, but it may open a small window on your soul.

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week. Send ideas and rants to grantt@washpost.com.

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