I work full time. I have relied on myself to earn a living since I turned 18. I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Not at the top of my class but not at the bottom either. I worked hard and it was an unbelievably difficult experience but I survived mostly unscathed and ready to take on the world. I have competently (I think) led Soldiers in combat on more than one occasion; as a platoon leader in Baghdad and later as a Company Commander in Diyala. It was a burden and stress that I quickly realized no amount of schooling or training can prepare you for. It was also incredibly rewarding and I proudly survived that experience too.
I am also a wife. I married a wonderful man who has happily put limits on his own career to support my ambitions for years now. He is my rock and despite the pressures of work and life, we have survived. And, just 18 months ago, I took on the most challenging assignment yet. I became a mother.
Nothing about my previous experiences prepared me for motherhood. It is exhausting, stressful, overwhelming, intensely rewarding…did I mention exhausting? I love it. I don’t think that I knew just how much I would. I had spent years focused on me; travelling the world on a whim, taking on more and more challenging positions in order to push myself further. I found myself amazed at how much I was accomplishing at such a young age and pretty pleased with how much opportunity there was for me, a woman, in a man’s world. So after my daughter was born and the time came to go back to work, I was surprised at the amount of anxiety I felt about leaving her. I was physically ill for weeks as the date approached.
Like the good Army officer I was raised to be, I decided that there had to be a logical solution for my problem. I decided to develop a plan. I moved my entire family out to the suburbs to get a bigger house, found and moved an au pair into our home, and then pushed the limits as much as a I could every single day to spend as much time as possible with my daughter. It wasn’t enough. That twinge of anxiety just wouldn’t dissipate. So I went on to phase II of my operation; I researched the problem and continued to seek out a better way. There just had to be something I could do to make my guilt and anxiety subside. So I read articles, journals, entire books about motherhood and separation anxiety (since I was at this point convinced that I must be afflicted with some type of disorder since I hadn’t ‘gotten over’ my mommy guilt yet). I talked to senior leaders too. They (mostly men) all said variations on the same thing; ‘don’t make any rash decisions, your kids will grow up one day and not need you so don’t give up your career’ or (and this was my favorite) ‘it’s about work-life balance.’ The latter argument only frustrated me more because it seemed like another way in which I was failing. Aside from not being a great mom (by not being there every day), a less than satisfactory wife (I only halfheartedly listened to anything my husband said anymore as I rushed home to reconnect with my daughter everyday), and not being able to focus at work, I was now failing to achieve this ‘work-life balance’ everyone kept referring to.
But a few weeks ago, as I transitioned to a new job that threatened to break the morning and evening routine I worked so hard to develop for my daughter, I had a groundbreaking realization. What is ‘work-life balance’ anyway? Furthermore, how could I work so hard to achieve something I couldn’t even define? It was then that I realized what, to me, is the truth; there is no ‘work-life balance.’ It is merely something created by overwhelmed mothers who spend too little time with their children or ill-advised men (and sometimes women) who are trying to encourage a valued woman employee to stick it out or (more likely) step it up at work. I know what you’re thinking. If work-life balance is a myth then why do all of those corporate or executive mothers seem so happy? Why are their kids so well-rounded and wonderful? All of my reading on the subject wasn’t useless after all. After hours of scrolling through blogs, websites, and ebooks on my kindle I understood. Those mothers are probably suffering from just as much anxiety and guilt as the rest of us.
Now because I am a solution driven women, here are my thoughts (I’m probably not qualified to give tips) regarding how we quit propagating the work-life balance myth and start solving this problem or at least admitting that it is one.
1. We need to be more honest with ourselves, each other, and most importantly, with our daughters. The women’s liberation movement was a wonderful thing. I have clearly benefited from the hard work of the many women that came before me and cleared the way for all of my opportunities; from graduating from West Point to leading Soldiers in combat. That being said, the feelings that I am having are okay. I don’t have to ‘suck it up.’ I don’t have to pretend that I’m on a business call when really I’m listening to my daughter giggle on the phone. I don’t have to let the word ‘mommytrack’ become this horrible thing that I have to avoid. By the way, why is motherhood now something to be embarrassed about? We need to tell our daughters what is true; you can do anything you want in life and, more importantly, you better because when you have your own children your priorities may change and that’s okay! Until then you need to push yourself and take advantage of your time to focus on you. I have done more in the 12 years between leaving my parents’ home and having my daughter than most people (men and women) do in a lifetime. I think Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO turned mommy mentor to thousands) said it best in her recent address to Barnard College’s graduating class of 2011. “…do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
2. If you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s speech that I reference above, do yourself a favor, go read it. While I believe that she is certainly one of the prominent women out there who could stand to be more open about her personal struggles with being a mother and a high-powered executive, I have a feeling she would agree with the following…if you don’t love what you do, it’s a lot harder to leave your child (who you do love) to go do it. This was a tough realization and is not realistic for everyone; especially in these difficult economic times. But again, we need to quit acting as if you can achieve ‘work-life balance’ with a job you just aren’t passionate about and a child you are absolutely in love with. That seesaw starts out imbalanced from the get go and will never even out.
3. There is one absolute advance from the women’s lib movement that we must continue to fight for and never allow to lose its momentum; that men, fathers, need to be as involved and invested in their children’s development (physical, mental, emotional/spiritual) as mothers are. There is absolutely no one that I trust more with my daughter than my husband. He is an incredible man and loves being a father as much I love being a mother. When I proposed that he stop working to stay home with our daughter he genuinely considered it but after much discussion we realized that he was so passionate about his work and had so much potential there that it would be a bad idea/bad timing to pause his career. My point though is that he was willing to consider it and have the discussion. In too many houses in this country the idea of a man staying home with his children is out of the question. Why?
So maybe all those days of juggling too much at West Point did prepare me for this after all. Because right now, amidst the fatigue of short nights and long days filled with trying to be a good mother, a good wife, and a good Solder, I’m still getting by. For me, there is no work-life balance but for now I’m getting the job (Mother, Wife, Soldier) done.
-Rachel Breslin is a graduate of the United States Military Academy. She has her masters in Policy Managment from Georgetown University and is currently serving on the Army Staff at the Pentagon. For more discussion on this topic, one of many to be addressed at the 2011 Officer Women Leadership Symposium, register to attend today! Just go to www.academywomen.org.–