“Stop complaining working mums, you’ve got it good!” was the headline on one of a number of recent articles about Laura Vanderkam’s book I Know How She Does It.
The headlines are provocative, and message in the book is prompting mixed reactions from working mothers. For anyone struggling to keep it all together, hearing that it’s all fine, when it’s very clearly not fine, might grate.
Partly out of curiosity, and partly because I was writing about it for a feature in the Irish Examiner, I bought the book to see for myself. And actually, when you step away from the not-quite-in-context headlines, Vanderkam makes some interesting points.
First things first – what’s the premise of the book?
Vanderkam is a time management consultant, and in the course of giving corporate talks, she used to ask the audience to fill out time log sheets in advance – detailing how they spent their time, in half-hourly slots. Most of her audience were women, and many had children.
She realised that in spite of the popular belief that working mothers are guilt-ridden, harried, paragons of misery who are always on the hamster wheel and rarely see their kids, that actually the women in her audiences were seeing quite a lot of their children and had quite a good balance.
Deciding to analyse in more detail, she gathered time logs from hundreds of women, and wrote a book about her findings.
Critics have pointed out that the women surveyed are high-earners, employing nannies, cleaners and personal trainers, and their lives are not relatable. Vanderkam says that she specifically chose high-earners because she wanted to show that it’s possible to have a “big job” and a family. So younger women starting out, who might assume they can’t pursue top-tier roles if they also want kids, should know that it’s not an either-or choice.
There are plenty of women who say it doesn’t matter what a time-log sheet says – if you’re miserable, you’re miserable. I think that’s true. Having read the book, I think it’s for people who are already pretty happy, but have niggling doubts – worrying that they should be working fewer hours. The time-logs show them that actually they are seeing quite a lot of their kids, and therefore the guilt is kept at bay. I don’t think the book is going to help anyone who is really struggling. If it’s not going well, no spreadsheet is going to change that.
Some have pointed out that the women in the study don’t have a lot of downtime – it’s all very busy, very timetabled, almost regimental. Yes, they see their children, but they’re logging in to work after the kids go to bed, they’re fitting in exercise at 5am, and they’re calling that me-time. I suspect that’s just how it is – there has to be a trade-off, and in this case, rather than choosing work or kids, these women are choosing both, and forgoing other things – like the kind of me-time that lots of us love – TV and magazines and reading the entire internet. And I suspect that the women in the big jobs who have given up the me-time are completely fine with it. They seem very driven, very ambitious, and are possibly happy to log back in after the kids go to bed. I think that makes sense. We’re all different. Some thrive on work and don’t crave downtime. Others need box sets and iPads and a few chapters of a good book, after a long day of work and kids (I’m in column B.)
And what about the men? Vanderkam explains that she focused on women because statistically, men in high-powered roles are more likely to have a stay-at-home partner, whereas women in senior roles are much more likely to be in a dual-career family. And if we’re honest, it tends to be women who worry about the hours spent away from kids, and women who suffer from guilt. If men were encouraged and incentivized to take more parental leave and seek flexibility at work, perhaps we’d be having a different conversation, but we’re not there yet.
The most interesting messages I took from the book were these:
Look at the week not the day
As working mothers, we tend to focus on how little we see of our kids on any given work-day. And of course, if you think too much about being gone from 8am to 7pm, with just an hour for bedtime, it doesn’t feel great. When I was working full-time and had two in crèche, I was constantly adding up the hours I spent away from the kids. But I never took into account that I had all weekend with them.
So while it might not balance out very well on a typical Monday or Tuesday, if you take the whole week into account, it changes things significantly (especially if you work a four-day-week.) Vanderkam says we should look at how we spend the 168 hours of each week, and not the 24 hours in each day – and indeed, the results are much more appealing. She also points out that the middle of the week is midday Thursday – that made me see things differently too.
Don’t turn down the big job
This is the key point that Vanderkam is trying to make. If the rhetoric says you can’t combine a stellar career and family, there’s a possibility that women will hang back – not go for the promotion, not pursue that job with greater responsibility and longer hours. Her point is that often, the big job doesn’t involve as much sacrifice as we assume.
Don’t focus on the negative
The working mother horror stories are much more interesting than normal, everyday life when things go perfectly fine. Like Sarah Jessica Parker trying to make a shop-bought cake look homemade in I Don’t Know How She Does It. We tend to focus on the night the baby didn’t sleep and we had to be in at 8 for a meeting and then the childminder was sick. Even if that only happens once. So the message is to take stock – to notice that most of the time things are pretty good (if that’s the case!), and enjoy it.
And of course, there are no solutions or messages that are valid for everyone. For years, we were told that women could have it all, then we were emphatically told that women most certainly could not have it all. Nobody knows what “having it all” actually means, but there’s pressure for everyone to fit neatly in one box – it has to be one way or the other. And of course that’s not the case. It can’t be. We can’t possibly all have the same expectations or experience of balancing family and career, no more than have the same definition of “having it all”. Trying to pin working motherhood down to a few universally applicable soundbites just doesn’t add up.
The feature for the Examiner, which includes a testing of the book’s time log sheet by one working mother here in Ireland, is here: Women Can Do It All