Chimène Keitner: The Proverbial Parental Balancing Act

When the Rhodes Project invited me to contribute a blog post after I wrote about work-life issues at the prompting of some of my students in the women’s legal organization Ms. JD, I wondered what was left to say. I could certainly find plenty to get worked up about, from women being barred from Cannes for wearing rhinestone flats instead of heels, to the book Primates of Park Avenue about rich New York wives who, in the words of one reviewer,  “have disempowered themselves relative to their husbands not only by family-prioritizing choice but as a form and marker of achievement.”

Then there was the tragic death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg, which reminded us all how fragile life is and how lucky we are to be here each day. Sheryl had advised young women that “the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.” Her eulogy to Dave was both heartbreaking and uplifting.

There were more headlines about work-life balance, from Microsoft’s terrifying ad campaign about how mobile devices let you work 24/7, to the important new book by Josh Levs about the effects of our “work first” culture on dads. There was Wharton Prof Stew Friedman’s survey of recent college grads, discussed in his new book, which finds that “Most young people want children, but many feel it’s not possible to have both a successful career and children.” As I suggested a few years ago, much of this turns on how we define success.

If you search for stock images of the expression “wearing many hats,” you’ll find hats comically piled up to the toppling point, because hats are worn one at a time. Blending roles is far from easy, but there are factors that can make it more or less doable. These factors include: (1) adjusting expectations; (2) building a team; and (3) setting limits.

Adjusting Expectations

Adjusting your expectations about work-life balance is not about “settling” –  it’s about being realistic. A young Rhodes Scholar’s use of the term “‘family-friendly’ bias” and accompanying description appears to suggest that parents are using family commitments as an excuse for dodging workplace responsibilities, while everyone else picks up the slack. I’m encouraged to hear that, in the author’s experience, “Without question, the team will be supportive and help [parents] manage their competing priorities,” but I’m afraid this is still far from the reality for most working parents. It’s fitting that Sheryl Sandberg said there is “no better way” to honor Dave Goldberg’s memory than for working parents to make time to have dinner with their families.

Certainly, employers should accommodate a range of personal commitments, not all of which have to be child-related. They will have happier, more productive, and more loyal employees as a result. But if, as the Scholar laments, “a 34-year-old, single woman who is a consultant … wants to prioritize finding a partner” and her employer won’t assign her to a project in one place long enough to build relationships, she (or he) should decide what is more important: the perks of the consulting gig, or a social life that is more deeply embedded in the community. Being empowered doesn’t mean not having to make choices, and we do ourselves—and the younger generation—a disservice if we perpetuate the myth that anyone can have it “all,” all at once. Put more positively, we each need to define what “all” means in light of our personal circumstances and stage of life.

Sometimes we determine our own priorities. At other times, those priorities are set for us, as they are when we become caregivers for our parents (as Rhodes Scholar Joanne Cave poignantly describes), or for children or other loved ones with special needs. The women and men I admire the most are the ones who don’t feel sorry for themselves, who find the beauty and pleasure in every day even if it isn’t what they bargained for, and who aren’t ashamed to reach out for support when they need it.

Adjusting expectations and setting priorities can also involve the mundane. As a mom of three, I will be forever grateful for Jennifer Garner’s response to rumors about her “baby bump”: “I am not pregnant, but I've had three kids and there is a ‘bump.’ From now on, ladies, I will have a ‘bump’ and it will be my ‘baby bump’ and let’s just all settle in and get used to it, it’s not going anywhere.”   

Building A Team

Finding “balance” really does take a village. Whether it’s carpooling with neighbors, finding schools with before and/or after school care options, or hiring people who can help, there is no realistic way to have two full-time careers and manage family responsibilities alone. If our society is serious about supporting families, we need to make a major investment in affordable housing (to reduce long commute times) and affordable, quality childcare.

Not everyone who wants to raise children has the option of doing so with a partner. For my part, like Sheryl Sandberg, I feel like I won the jackpot in the life partner lottery. Some men think they want to have a strong woman as a partner, but they turn out to be insufficiently self-confident and secure to take genuine pride in a woman’s independent accomplishments (I say this from personal experience). Others are truly committed to equal partnership (perhaps thanks to their mothers). “Equality” in this sense can’t be reduced to minutes spent or opportunities foregone. It’s about a genuine feeling of shared value and contribution both inside and outside the home.

To be sure, there are challenges in what has been called a “companionate marriage,” and at times I’ve been resentful that I still play the role of what one of my colleagues calls “General of the House.” Even now, during an extended work trip, I’ve left detailed hour-by-hour schedules of the kids’ activities and who needs to be where. But the one who has been most ambivalent about this trip is me, not my husband—in fact, he has urged me to prolong it, even though this means restricting his own work travel and being responsible for three young kids for longer than either of us has ever been away before. Some people will say this is unremarkable, but it is still far from the norm, at least in Silicon Valley where we live. (He sent me a wonderful picture of him with the three kids the day after I left, but I’ll refrain from the temptation to post it, lest it end up on a supermarket billboard.)    

Setting Limits

How can we empower women to set limits – whether the demands come from the office, their kids’ schools, or elsewhere? In my experience, the biggest internal obstacle is guilt. No matter how we try to construct our own narratives of what it means to be a “good” worker or a “good” spouse or a “good” parent, we inevitably view ourselves at least in part through other peoples’ eyes—and more often than not, we imagine them to be more critical and judgmental than they actually are. (In popular media, moms are more judgmental than most—just think of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother or the caricatural Similac ad that Mayim Bialik appropriately disses here.) The desire to please can be a powerful motivator, but it can also wreak havoc with our ability to define our own internal sources of meaning and validation. My husband often chides me for being “too accommodating.” Sometimes he’s right; other times, I’ve made a conscious decision to prioritize someone else’s desires over my own, and I’m OK with that. But he’s right that I shouldn’t prioritize others’ needs reflexively. We’re constantly reminded as care-givers that we need to put on our own oxygen masks first, and for good reason.

At work, setting limits means choosing how best to serve my institution by speaking up about what I’m most passionate about and where I think my maximum organizational “value added” lies; choosing which outside organizations I want to devote my time to, and emphasizing quality of involvement over quantity of affiliations; and being very selective about accepting invitations to write and speak in various contexts. It also means recognizing that some periods will be busier with teaching, others with travel, and still others with writing and research. The danger (for me) is forgetting that I also need to set aside some time for pure vacation, which is something my husband and I don’t do nearly enough.

I’m not as good at setting limits for myself at home. I still too often put work and kids before self-care. This isn’t entirely altruistic—I derive a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from both, and in the moment it’s often easier to keep working on an article or acquiesce in a request to pick one of my kids up early from their after-school program than it is to make time to go to the gym or schedule coffee with a friend (which can literally take weeks, given that many of them are juggling as much as I am). Again, it’s about choices. If my husband and I hadn’t decided to have a third child, we’d still be busy, but relatively less so. As the Jewish folktale about the couple who thinks their house is too small until the rabbi tells them to bring their farm animals inside—retold in the secular children’s story “A Squash and a Squeeze”—reminds us, it’s largely a matter of perspective.

In sum, there are times to Lean In, and there are times to Recline! As Rosa Brooks has written, “If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better. … Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, ‘Enough!’”   

Time to start planning that vacation.

Chimène Keitner (Maritimes & New College, 1996) wears many hats – one of which is as Harry & Lillian Hastings Research Chair and Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Her Rhodes Project profile is here, and she can be found on Twitter here