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Chapter 9 The Myth of Doing It All
HAVING IT ALL.” Perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phrase. Bandiedabout in speeches, headlines, and articles, these three little words are intended to be aspirational butinstead make all of us feel like we have fallen short. I have never met a woman, or man, who hasstated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful weare for what we have—no one has it all.

Nor can we. The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics andcommon sense. As Sharon Poczter, professor of economics at Cornell, explains, “The antiquatedrhetoric of ‘having it all’ disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs.

All of us are dealing with the constrained optimization that is life, attempting to maximize our utilitybased on parameters like career, kids, relationships, etc., doing our best to allocate the resource oftime. Due to the scarcity of this resource, therefore, none of us can ‘have it all,’ and those who claimto are most likely lying.”

“Having it all” is best regarded as a myth. And like many myths, it can deliver a helpful cautionarymessage. Think of Icarus, who soared to great heights with his man-made wings. His father warnedhim not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus ignored the advice. He soared even higher, his wingsmelted, and he crashed to earth. Pursuing both a professional and personal life is a noble andattainable goal, up to a point. Women should learn from Icarus to aim for the sky, but keep in mindthat we all have real limits.

Instead of pondering the question “Can we have it all?,” we should be asking the more practicalquestion “Can we do it all?” And again, the answer is no. Each of us makes choices constantlybetween work and family, exercising and relaxing, making time for others and taking time forourselves. Being a parent means making adjustments, compromises, and sacrifices every day. Formost people, sacrifices and hardships are not a choice, but a necessity. About 65 percent of married-couple families with children in the United States have two parents in the workforce, with almost allrelying on both incomes to support their household.

Being a single working parent can be even moredifficult. About 30 percent of families with children are led by a single parent, with 85 percent ofthose led by a woman.

Mothers who work outside the home are constantly reminded of these challenges. Tina Fey notedthat when she was promoting the movie Date Night with Steve Carell, a father of two and star of hisown sitcom, reporters would grill Fey on how she balances her life, but never posed that question toher male costar. As she wrote in Bossypants, “What is the rudest question you can ask a woman?

‘How old are you?’ ‘What do you weigh?’ ‘When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner,do you have to pretend to be lesbians?’ No, the worst question is ‘How do you juggle itall?’ … People constantly ask me, with an accusatory look in their eyes. ‘You’re fucking it all up,aren’t you?’ their eyes say.”

Fey nails it. Employed mothers and fathers both struggle with multiple responsibilities, but mothersalso have to endure the rude questions and accusatory looks that remind us that we’re shortchangingboth our jobs and our children. As if we needed reminding. Like me, most of the women I know do agreat job worrying that we don’t measure up. We compare our efforts at work to those of ourcolleagues, usually men, who typically have far fewer responsibilities at home. Then we compare ourefforts at home to those of mothers who dedicate themselves solely to their families. Outside observersreminding us that we must be struggling—and failing—is just bitter icing on an already soggy cake.

Trying to do it all and expecting that it all can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment.

Perfection is the enemy. Gloria Steinem said it best: “You can’t do it all. No one can have two full-time jobs, have perfect children and cook three meals and be multi-orgasmic ’tildawn … Superwoman is the adversary of the women’s movement.”

Dr. Laurie Glimcher, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, said the key for her in pursuing hercareer while raising children was learning where to focus her attention. “I had to decide what matteredand what didn’t and I learned to be a perfectionist in only the things that mattered.” In her case, sheconcluded that scientific data had to be perfect, but reviews and other mundane administrative taskscould be considered good enough at 95 percent. Dr. Glimcher also said she made it a priority to gethome at a reasonable hour, adding that when she got there, she refused to worry about whether “thelinens were folded or the closets were tidy. You can’t be obsessive about these things that don’tmatter.”

A few years before I became a mother, I spoke on a women’s panel for a local business group inPalo Alto. One of the other panelists, an executive with two children, was asked the (inevitable)question about how she balances her work and her children. She started her response by saying, “Iprobably shouldn’t admit this publicly …,” and then she confessed that she put her children to sleep intheir school clothes to save fifteen precious minutes every morning. At the time, I thought to myself,Yup, she should not have admitted that publicly.

Now that I’m a parent, I think this woman was a genius. We all face limits of time and patience. Ihave not yet put my children to sleep in their school clothes, but there are mornings when I wish I had.

I also know that all the planning in the world cannot prepare us for the constant challenges ofparenting. In hindsight, I appreciate my fellow panelist’s candor. And in the spirit of that candor, Iprobably shouldn’t admit this publicly either …Last year, I was traveling with my children to a business conference. Several other Silicon Valleyfolks were attending too, and John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay, kindly offered us a ride on the eBayplane. When the flight was delayed for several hours, my main concern was keeping my kids occupiedso they would not disturb the other adult passengers. I made it through the delay by allowing them towatch endless TV and eat endless snacks. Then just as the flight finally took off, my daughter startedscratching her head. “Mommy! My head itches!” she announced loudly, speaking over the headset shewas wearing (as she watched even more TV). I didn’t think anything of it until her itching grew franticand her complaints grew louder. I urged her to lower her voice, then examined her head and noticedsmall white things. I was pretty sure I knew what they were. I was the only person bringing youngchildren on this corporate plane—and now my daughter most likely had lice! I spent the rest of theflight in a complete panic, trying to keep her isolated, her voice down, and her hands out of her hair,while I furiously scanned the web for pictures of lice. When we landed, everyone piled into rental carsto caravan to the conference hotel, but I told them to go ahead without me; I just needed to “picksomething up.” I dashed to the nearest pharmacy, where they confirmed my diagnosis. Fortunately, wehad avoided direct contact with anyone else on the plane, so there was no way for the lice to havespread, which saved me from the fatal embarrassment of having to tell the group to check their ownheads. We grabbed the shampoo that I needed to treat her and, as it turned out, her brother—and spentthe night in a marathon hair-washing session. I missed the opening night dinner, and when asked why,I said my kids were tired. Frankly, I was too. And even though I managed to escape the lice, I couldnot stop scratching my head for several days.

It is impossible to control all the variables when it comes to parenting. For women who haveachieved previous success by planning ahead and pushing themselves hard, this chaos can be difficultto accept. Psychologist Jennifer Stuart studied a group of Yale graduates and concluded that for suchwomen, “the effort to combine career and motherhood may be particularly fraught. The stakes arehigh, as they may expect nothing less than perfection, both at home and in the workplace. When theyfall short of lofty ideals, they may retreat altogether—from workplace to home or vice versa.”

Another one of my favorite posters at Facebook declares in big red letters, “Done is better thanperfect.” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfectioncauses frustration at best and paralysis at worst. I agree completely with the advice offered by NoraEphron in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech when she addressed the issue of women havingboth a career and family. Ephron insisted, “It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will becomplicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will belike, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. Iknow: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

I was extremely fortunate that early in my career I was warned about the perils of trying to do it allby someone I deeply admired. Larry Kanarek managed the Washington, D.C., office of McKinsey &Company where I interned in 1994. One day, Larry gathered everyone together for a talk. Heexplained that since he was running the office, employees came to him when they wanted to quit.

Over time, he noticed that people quit for one reason only: they were burnt out, tired of working longhours and traveling. Larry said he could understand the complaint, but what he could not understandwas that all the people who quit—every single one—had unused vacation time. Up until the day theyleft, they did everything McKinsey asked of them before deciding that it was too much.

Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stopmaking demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was ourresponsibility to draw the line. We needed to determine how many hours we were willing to work in aday and how many nights we were willing to travel. If later on, the job did not work out, we wouldknow that we had tried on our own terms. Counterintuitively, long-term success at work often dependson not trying to meet every demand placed on us. The best way to make room for both life and careeris to make choices deliberately—to set limits and stick to them.

During my first four years at Google, I was in the office from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day at aminimum. I ran the global operating teams and thought it was critical that I stay on top of as manydetails as possible. No one ever demanded that I work this schedule; typical of Silicon Valley, Googlewas not the type of place to set hours for anyone. Still, the culture in those early days promotedworking around the clock. When my son arrived, I wanted to take the three months of maternity leaveGoogle offered, but I worried that my job would not be there when I returned. Events leading up to hisbirth did not put my mind at ease. Google was growing quickly and reorganizing frequently. My teamwas one of the largest in the company, and coworkers often suggested ways to restructure, whichusually meant that they would do more and I would do less. In the months before my leave, severalcolleagues, all men, ramped up these efforts, volunteering to “help run things” while I was gone. Someof them even mentioned to my boss that I might not return, so it made sense to start sharing myresponsibilities immediately.

I tried to take Larry Kanarek’s advice and draw my own line. I decided that I wanted to focusentirely on my new role as a mother. I was determined to truly unplug. I even made this decisionpublic—a trick that can help a commitment stick by creating greater accountability. I announced that Iwas going to take the full three months off.

No one believed me. A group of my colleagues bet on how long I would be off e-mail after givingbirth, with not a single person taking “more than one week” as his or her wager. I would have beenoffended, except they knew me better than I knew myself. I was back on e-mail from my hospitalroom the day after giving birth.

Over the next three months, I was unable to unplug much at all. I checked e-mail constantly. Iorganized meetings in my living room, during which I sometimes breast-fed and probably freakedseveral people out. (I tried to set these gatherings for times when my son would be sleeping, but babiesmake their own schedules.) I went into the office for key meetings, baby in tow. And while I had somenice moments with my son, I look back on that maternity leave as a pretty unhappy time. Being a newmother was exhausting, and when my son slept, I worked instead of rested. And the only thing worsethan everyone knowing that I was not sticking to my original commitment was that I knew it too. I wasletting myself down.

Three months later, my non-leave maternity leave ended. I was returning to a job I loved, but as Ipulled the car out of the driveway to head to the office for my first full day back, I felt a tightness inmy chest and tears started to flow down my cheeks. Even though I had worked throughout my “timeoff,” I had done so almost entirely from home with my son right next to me. Going back to the officemeant a dramatic change in the amount of time I would see him. If I returned to my typical twelve-hour days, I would leave the house before he woke up and return after he was asleep. In order to spendany time with him at all, I was going to have to make changes … and stick to them.

I started arriving at work around 9:00 a.m. and leaving at 5:30 p.m. This schedule allowed me tonurse my son before I left and get home in time to nurse again before putting him to sleep. I wasscared that I would lose credibility, or even my entire job, if anyone knew that these were my new in-the-office hours. To compensate, I started checking e-mails around 5:00 a.m. Yup, I was awake beforemy newborn. Then once he was down at night, I would jump back on my computer and continue myworkday. I went to great lengths to hide my new schedule from most people. Camille, my ingeniousexecutive assistant, came up with the idea of holding my first and last meetings of the day in otherbuildings to make it less transparent when I was actually arriving or departing. When I did leavedirectly from my office, I would pause in the lobby and survey the parking lot to find a colleague-freemoment to bolt to my car. (Given my awkwardness, we should all be relieved that I once worked forthe Treasury Department and not the CIA.)Looking back, I realize that my concern over my new hours stemmed from my own insecurity.

Google was hard charging and hypercompetitive, but it also supported combining work andparenthood—an attitude that clearly started at the top. Larry and Sergey came to my baby shower andeach gave me a certificate that entitled me to one hour of babysitting. (I never used the certificates,and if I could find them, I bet I could auction them off for charity, like lunch with Warren Buffett.)Susan Wojcicki, who blazed a trail by having four children while being one of Google’s earliest andmost valuable employees, brought her children to the office when her babysitter was sick. Both myboss, Omid, and David Fischer, the most senior leader on my team, were steadfast supporters and didnot allow others to take over parts of my job.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that my job did not really require that I spend twelve full hours aday in the office. I became much more efficient—more vigilant about only attending or setting upmeetings that were truly necessary, more determined to maximize my output during every minute Ispent away from home. I also started paying more attention to the working hours of those around me;cutting unnecessary meetings saved time for them as well. I tried to focus on what really mattered.

Long before I saw the poster, I began to adopt the mantra “Done is better than perfect.” Done, whilestill a challenge, turns out to be far more achievable and often a relief. By the time I took my secondmaternity leave, I not only unplugged (mostly), but really enjoyed the time with both my children.

My sister-in-law, Amy, a doctor, experienced almost the exact same evolution in attitude. “When Ihad my first child, I worked twelve-hour days while trying to pump at work,” she told me. “I wantedto feel connected to my baby in the limited hours that I was home, so I made myself her sole caregivermany nights. I believed that others were demanding this of me—my bosses at work and my daughterat home. But in truth, I was torturing myself.” With the birth of her second child, Amy adjusted herbehavior. “I took three months off and handled my return to work in my own way, on my own terms.

And despite what I had previously feared, my reputation and productivity weren’t hurt a bit.”

I deeply understand the fear of appearing to be putting our families above our careers. Mothersdon’t want to be perceived as less dedicated to their jobs than men or women without familyresponsibilities. We overwork to overcompensate. Even in workplaces that offer reduced or flextimearrangements, people fear that reducing their hours will jeopardize their career prospects.

And this isnot just a perception problem. Employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalizedand seen as less committed than their peers.

And those penalties can be greater for mothers inprofessional jobs.

This all needs to change, especially since new evidence suggests working fromhome might actually be more productive in certain cases.

It is difficult to distinguish between the aspects of a job that are truly necessary and those that arenot. Sometimes the situation is hard to read and the lines are hard to draw. Amy told me about aconference dinner she attended with a group of fellow physicians, including one who had given birthto her first child several weeks earlier. About two hours into the meal, the new mom was lookinguncomfortable, glancing repeatedly at her cell phone. As a mother herself, Amy was sensitive to thesituation. “Do you need to leave and pump?” she whispered to her colleague. The new momsheepishly admitted that she had brought her baby and her mother to the conference. She was lookingat her cell phone because her mother was texting her that the baby needed to be fed. Amy encouragedthe new mom to leave immediately. Once she left, the young mother’s men............
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