THE BLOG

The Real Threat to a Mother's Work-Life Balance

07/04/2013 06:05 EDT | Updated 09/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Perhaps the biggest tug-of-war in a mother's life is finding a balance between work and motherhood. Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have become the faces of the discussion. But questions about motherhood also dominate interviews with celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who in December vowed she was giving up her A-list acting career to spend more time at home with her growing children.

Sharing perspectives and understanding that this dilemma is shared by all women is a helpful thing. However, that's about the limit of most of our shared experiences with these women. After all, they're not dealing with the financial realities of most families. Marissa Mayer, for example, returned to work after only two weeks of maternity leave. But she was also able to build a nursery in her office so she could bring her baby to work. While it's laudable and inspiring that Mayer has found HER OWN solution and approach, it's unrealistic to think that these same options are shared by all.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggested a more "realistic" approach for women juggling motherhood and career: Have just one child. The article was framed from the perspective of creative women and cites many successful writers, from Margaret Atwood to Joan Didion, who had just one child. Another writer, Alice Walker, is quoted in the article as saying, "They [women] should have children -- assuming this is of interest to them -- but only one." Why? "Because with one you can move," she said. "With more than one you're a sitting duck."

I myself have just one child -- my son, Justin -- so I was naturally interested in this perspective (and the fallout from it, on both sides). I can definitely say that having one child was not necessarily part of my "plan." In fact, there was a time when I always assumed more children would come down the road. And although I accept (and embrace) the path I'm on, if there's one thing I wonder about it's whether I should have prioritized more children.

That said, I can relate to a lot of what was said in The Atlantic. I had Justin when I was very young and this meant he was older by the time I reached my peak career years. While so many of my girlfriends were struggling with striking the balance between babies and careers (or struggling with the dilemma to have children), my path was looking a lot clearer and in my thirties I was able in to concentrate on building my career and my business. Again, this wasn't by design, but with hindsight I can say that that's how it panned out.

We all agree that motherhood is the most difficult job of all, as well as the most rewarding -- but we seem reluctant to acknowledge that a job this all-consuming, at times heartbreaking as well as heartwarming, and fulfilling has an impact on our capacity to do other things. It's part of the "you can have it all" myth -- a myth that our current role-models of Mayer, Sandberg et al continue to propagate -- not through their own fault but because their live and work set-up is exceptional rather than ordinary. That said, the "have one kid" answer perhaps simplifies the problem?

Actually, I would hate for a woman to think that having just one child is the key to successfully juggling motherhood and career. The real threat to what we want in life is TIME. Whether it's a creative pursuit or having children, travelling or building a home, finding fulfillment in our career or ongoing education... the threat is time. As writer Zadie Smith commented on the Atlantic story: "What IS a threat to all women's freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family." (More here.)

Time is the finite thing in our days. We all make decisions about how to spend that limited time based on our own individual priorities. For some women, that will mean having no children. For others, it will mean having more and giving up on something else. The tragic thing (I think) is when we women judge each other's decisions, adjudicating that one person's choice/sacrifice is "better" than another's. The best decision is rather the one every women makes authentically for herself in the moment she's in. And often, those decisions are not forever fixed... as we move from one year to the next, we evolve and mature and we might change our priorities.

But, it's also worth taking a step even further back from this discussion: I wonder would we ever hear such a discussion framed in terms of men's careers? And where is the partner's role in supporting women, both as mothers but also as creative and professional individuals? I read a tweet recently that said something like: "Daycare benefits BOTH my husband and my career... so why are we always comparing the cost of daycare with MY salary?" Perhaps, this reveals an area where we need to WORK WITH our partners so that we don't feel like these decisions are framed in such either/or terms for women alone? In that respect, it's heartening that more and more men are taking paternity leave!

I believe it's in a woman's nature to want to share and to look for guidance when we're feeling torn by such dilemmas. After all, we're the gender who asks for directions! That said, it's one thing to have role models and quite another thing to put another up on a pedestal to give you answers. Because, really, there's no magical answer for the motherhood versus career dilemma, or for any other dilemma you might struggle with when it comes to prioritizing your own life.

But the silver lining is this: You can make your own choice (remember that the freedom to make these hard choices is a liberty we've fought long and hard for!) So we should support each other making different, individual decisions. And we should each listen to our own voice and make the most authentic choices we can, finding the support we need to help us on our paths. So, if you're feeling torn about how to manage both motherhood and career or creativity, spend more time looking inwards than outwards... While we can't literally have it all, we can choose what feels right and makes us happy... and that's probably the best sign that you're on the right path!

xo Natasha

11 Quotes From Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In"