Rather than handwringing about “having it all,” Laura Vanderkam encourages women to recognize the balance they already have and consider how much more is possible.
Social media and websites dedicated to child-raising and women’s issues create a rich virtual community for women. Much of this is helpful: Women get important reassurance from fellow moms about the common challenges of pregnancy, babies and caring for kids; we get ideas for crafts, kid-friendly dinners, and places you can go for family time; we can voice our complaints and share our joys with an empathetic audience.
These forums also shape how women view their lives and what’s possible, and sometimes it’s for the worse. They can feed the narrative that women, particularly working mothers, are chronically over-stressed, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed. Rather than serving as an outlet for frustrations, this narrative encourages women to accept such a condition as inevitable, achieving a satisfying career and family life as a near impossibility, and ultimately to settle for less.
Laura Vanderkam’s new book, I Know How She Does It, rejects this storyline, and encourages working women to take another look at their lives. This isn’t just a buck-up, put-your-first-world-problems-in-perspective tome. Rather she encourages readers to actually examine how they spend their time. With 168 hours in each week, Vanderkam explains, even women with relatively heavy work schedules still have time for sleep, family, and even leisure or “me” time. And, perhaps more surprisingly, many high-achieving women are doing just that.
Vanderkam grounds her work in data derived from time logs of 1001 days created by high-earning (over $100,000) working mothers. She acknowledges that these women aren’t a representative sample: Women willing to participate in a time-log project are undoubtedly different in some ways than those who won’t. Women with lower-incomes undoubtedly have different pressures and challenges than these high-earning women. People don’t always record their time accurately, and may change their behaviors because of what they want their time logs to show.
Yet Vanderkam’s findings reach conclusions supported by other data sets: People tend to sleep more and work less than they think. Very few people regularly work 50 hour weeks, and most get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. That means that we have about 70 hours each week for family, leisure, and other pursuits—that’s more time than you’d expect from the headlines about the working mom’s time squeeze.
Many women who completed their journals told Vanderkam they were surprised by how much time they spent with their children. My own time log provided a similar sense of relief. That nagging guilt that I don’t spend enough time with my kids eased when I tallied up the hours that were dedicated to family time and even to each individual child. I found time that could have been used better. Vanderkam urges women to recognize their leisure time, not because there isn’t a moment to waste, but so you can consciously enjoy it, rather than pretend it didn’t happen. One can indulge in aimless internet surfing and social media, but we should also recognize that that time is there, if we want it for exercise, creativity, and other pursuits.
Vanderkam encourages women to prioritize what’s most important, warning that email and household chores will fill the time they are allowed. She counsels women to make their workplace meet their needs. Presume flexibility, and demonstrate that flexibility helps your boss too. Flexibility can not only allow for more family time, but also enable greater productivity. People vary in when they work best, so rigid expectations for work hours can backfire on employers as well as employees.
It’s our worst days and moments, she warns, that tend to linger, and can obscure the bigger picture. Missing a child’s performance because of a work obligation is awful, but it doesn’t tell the story of your life or who you are as a parent. She writes, “Focusing only on the stressful moments ignores the other sweet moments.” This applies not just to those worrying about balancing work and family, but to everyone. It’s easy for me to focus just on yesterday’s 15 minutes where my toddler had a tantrum and I snapped at my 6-year-old’s ill-timed, but perfectly reasonable request for milk. That was a low moment, but it’s no more emblematic of our day than our pleasant playground trip and cozy bedtime hour. We have to reject our natural tendency to let our failures and stresses make a rather very full glass look half empty.
Vanderkam suggests we look at our time logs, broken into 30 minute blocks, as tiles in a mosaic. We have a greater ability to paint the picture we want than we often think.