Today, there’s a prevailing belief that working and mothering are somehow at odds, that doing both means you’re doomed to a frazzled, sleep-deprived, regularly-overwhelmed existence. But, while parenting is hard and comes with certain challenges, these assumptions are very far from fact. And buying into them can lead us to make choices that make us feel unfulfilled.
After becoming a mom myself, I’ve been especially interested in how different women make work and family work: What do their days look like? How do they navigate different challenges? What lessons have they learned?
This is why I wanted to interview Laura Vanderkam, a journalist, bestselling author and mom to four kids (ages 3 to 11). Her excellent, eye-opening book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done recently came out.
I’ve been a big fan of Laura’s writing for years and have written about her books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, here on Psych Central. I also love her podcast, “Best of Both Worlds,” which she co-hosts with Sarah Hart-Unger, a physician and mom of three.
Below, Laura shares the most helpful strategy for getting meaningful work done when you have kids, the details of her workdays, the biggest mistake moms make when juggling work and family, the most surprising finding from her time diary study, which appears in Off the Clock—and lots more.
Q: You have a successful, demanding career, that includes writing books, blog posts, articles and features for various websites and publications, and traveling to one or two speaking events almost weekly—and you have four kids. What strategies have been especially helpful for you in getting meaningful work done and spending meaningful time with your kids?
A: To be honest, the most helpful strategy for getting meaningful work done is to have very good childcare. I think a lot of creative sorts who mostly work from home assume that they don’t have to shell out much in this category, but this is not a place to try to save money. It’s an investment in building a career. Knowing my kids are safe and well cared for means I’m not stressed out if my plane is delayed and my husband is also out of town.
Because I can focus on work when I’m working, it’s easier to be present during my time with my kids. I am not constantly trying to multi-task.
As for the kids, I have found, with a bigger family, that it’s easy for kid time to become an exercise in crowd control. One of my favorite strategies for creating meaningful time with my children is scheduling in one-on-one time. I do a solo day trip with each of my kids during the summer, and I try to do smaller things (a puzzle with one, a bike ride with another) here and there as well.
Q: What does a typical work day look like for you?
A: On a work-from-home day, I aim to get up before my kids (generally between 6 and 6:30) and shower and have at least a few sips of coffee before I need to make breakfast. If it’s a really good day, I’ll get a little work in too before everyone’s up. We currently eat breakfast around 7:30. Our nanny comes to work at 8, mostly to take care of the 3-year-old. I get the big kids on the bus at 8:30, and by 8:35 I aim to be at my desk and working.
I generally do my writing in the morning, and do phone calls and emails and such in the afternoon. I’ll take a break in the early afternoon to run. My big kids get off the bus at 4:05. While I’ll still do some work here and there over the next few hours, it’s often interspersed with driving to kid activities. Everyone is in their bedrooms at 9 p.m. (or at least they should be) and I aim to spend the next 90 minutes or so reading.
When I’m traveling to give speeches, much of this is different, though there are a few constants. I run every day (at least a mile). I also write 500 words of fiction every work day. It’s like a musician practicing scales. It’s good to keep the skills sharp.
Q: We often hear the narrative that your career will slow down when you have kids, and your creativity will sink and suffer. What do you want women who are worried about this to know?
A: If you want to make it work, you will probably make it work. On the other hand, if you walk around with a story that kids will ruin your career, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve seen people enamored with this story undermine themselves through very shortsighted choices: inadequate childcare, forgoing all networking opportunities because parents “can’t” go to conferences or cocktail parties, etc.
I don’t think parenthood necessarily changes people. I think it magnifies who you already are. So if you’re a dramatic sort who gets a rush by procrastinating right until a deadline, you’ll still be that person after having kids, only the added variables of children will mean that strategy doesn’t work. You’ll wait until the deadline, and then a kid will wind up in the ER getting stitches. This doesn’t mean that “no one can have it all.” It means you didn’t plan your work flow for the inevitabilities of life.
If you’re the sort who’s disciplined enough to start work ahead of your deadlines, building in buffers for whatever comes up, you’ll still be able to get stuff done. Honestly, creativity is all about discipline. I know I get better ideas when I commit to writing a certain number of words per day than if I hope the muse will strike.
Q: What mistakes do you think moms make when trying to navigate and juggle work and parenting?
A: A big one: assuming you have to do everything. Women have all sorts of stories they tell themselves about what a “good” mother does, but most of these fall apart under cross-examination. You probably know amazing mothers who don’t bathe their children nightly or make lunches daily, and whose partners have proven themselves capable of doing laundry and making pediatrician appointments. Choosing to change one’s stories can free up all kinds of space.
Q: You’ve written five non-fiction books and a novel. What have you learned about what works and doesn’t work in your own creative process?
A: I like to write drafts fairly quickly, and then give my work time to marinate. When I come back to my writing a few days later (for shorter pieces) or weeks later (for longer works) I can see things that I couldn’t before.
I also really value feedback from the target audience. With my non-fiction books, I’ll blog about ideas and write articles about ideas before committing to a whole book. If no one cares about a topic, best to know that ahead of time! With my fiction, I’ve recruited test readers who read a lot of similar books to give me notes on what works and what doesn’t. If almost everyone says a scene drags…it probably does.
Q: What takeaway do you think will surprise readers the most from Off the Clock?
A: One of my most surprising findings from my time diary study of 900 busy people is that people who had the highest time perception scores — that is, who felt relaxed, and like they had time for things they wanted to do — were highly likely to have done interesting things on the March Monday I had them record. We are talking salsa dancing lessons, a big band concert, a fundraising dinner…on a Monday night! This seems counter-intuitive, because planning in salsa dancing lessons means you can’t just veg out all evening, but time perception is a funny thing. Knowing you are the kind of person who can go to salsa dancing lessons on a Monday night makes you feel like you have all the time in the world.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.