Recently, a few fellow social entrepreneurs and newly work-at-home parents have asked me how I handled launching a nonprofit while having two kids while working from home. The short answer: not well. Any one of those things is tough; doing them all the same time is insane. Yet, I did it and somehow survived. I’ve been pointing those friends to the very first blog about juggling work, family, and life that I ever wrote, a guest post for the Echoing Green blog in January 2012. Here it is:
In the last five years I’ve given birth to three babies: two incredible little girls (AR, now three, and E, now 15 months) and one social venture (City Hall Fellows, a non-partisan national service corps preparing a new generation to lead America’s cities). Having kids and becoming a social entrepreneur were both decisions born of passion, not logic. I walked away from a high-paying “big law” job to launch City Hall Fellows, then got pregnant with my first child a few months later. (Not a combo I’d recommend.)
Figuring out how to juggle all three of my babies is a constant work-in-progress. I am by nature impatient. I became a social entrepreneur because I had a vision for changing the world I believed I could make happen, and I wanted to make it happen right now. Before kids, I was willing to work around the clock to achieve this goal. And I was pretty much able to. But, once little people joined my household, I could no longer work on my own time frame. I had to work around theirs.
The thing is, each of my babies demands and deserves 110% of my attention 110% of the time—and I really want to give it. But, as every parent knows, you can’t give any baby 110% of your attention 110% of the time. My two daughters need different things from me, but at least their needs are somewhat compatible—I can feed one and soothe the other or bathe one and play with the other at the same time. But City Hall Fellows’ needs are often completely incompatible with my daughters’.
For example, I’ve had to re-schedule many a meeting because one of my kids got sick. Since it can take months to get back on people’s calendars, this has slowed City Hall Fellows’ progress and hurt fundraising. Of course, it goes both ways. My kids don’t care that I was up until 3am working and need sleep. My 3-year-old is fond of climbing into my bed just before 6am, handing me a stuffed animal and chattering away loudly until I respond.
After my oldest was born, I tried to keep my 24x7x365 work schedule by becoming the queen of multi-tasking. I breastfed her while leading staff meetings. I prepared baby food while on conference calls with Board members. I dragged her on long work trips, begging family and friends to babysit while I took care of business. It took several years before I realized that the constant pressure I put on myself to “do it all” was making me miserable. I was constantly annoyed at my daughter for needing attention when I was trying to work and at City Hall Fellows for needing attention when I was trying to be with her. I was so focused on getting stuff done that I wasn’t really enjoying either her or City Hall Fellows. And forget doing anything non-kid- or work-related. I was completely burned out.
My M.O. also was hurting the people I love the most. Lost in my own struggle, I was often crabby and short-tempered; my husband and I fought more in those few years than at any other point in our nine-year marriage. My daughter’s routine was constantly disrupted by being dragged back and forth cross-country or having Mommy “disappear” for days.
To make matters worse, my multi-tasking also wasn’t helping City Hall Fellows. In my sleep-addled, stressed-out, trying-to-be-superwoman state, I simply wasn’t making good decisions. In one memorable low point, I set aside everything and pulled an all-nighter to craft the perfect application for a major grant, only to have the organization remind me hours after I submitted that they only fund for-profit social enterprises. City Hall Fellows is a non-profit. Oops.
In the summer of 2010, shortly before my second daughter was born, I made the decision to stop trying to work 24x7x365. Four things quickly became clear. One—I had to prioritize the truly important work. Before taking on a new project at work, or avoiding an ongoing one, I forced myself to ask “could this significantly move City Hall Fellows forward?” If the answer was yes, I prioritized it—even if it wasn’t the most “fun” work to do. If no, I didn’t. Two—I discovered that good enough really is good enough. As a litigator, I’d dutifully crossed all “t”s, dotted all “i”s, and triple-checked everything. I’ve let go of that mentality, and invoke it only for once-in-a-while things like financial reports. Three—I had to invest in paid help. City Hall Fellows’ budget is so tight that I’d been relying on volunteers to do time-sensitive, mission-critical tasks. It wasn’t working. Trying to get volunteers to produce was sucking up so much of my time I’d started doing their projects myself. So I bit the bullet and, despite my tiny, infrequent paychecks, invested in my own time—by paying for technology and bookkeepers for City Hall Fellows and housekeepers and full-time childcare for my family.
Four, and by far the most painful—I had to accept that City Hall Fellows just won’t progress as fast as I’d dreamed. Now, 18 months later, I’d like to say I’m fully at peace with this. But I’m not. Pangs of petty jealousy strike when I hear of other social entrepreneurs’ successes, and my mind wanders to “what if” land. When I start spiraling down that rabbit hole, I force myself to stop and reflect on all that I have accomplished. City Hall Fellows has trained 61 urban change agents and changed the way three cities operate. Remembering that I am making a real, tangible difference in the world—even if at a frustratingly slower pace then I’d like—reminds me why I do this. And my two beautiful girls remind me every day that City Hall Fellows is not the only impact I’m having on the world.
I’ve found that the key to sustaining my journey—and my sanity—is being present. It may sound cliché, but here’s what I do: Barring emergencies, when I’m with my family, I’m WITH my family. Blackberry is set aside; work calls not answered. Likewise, even though I work from home, when I’m at work, I’m AT work. Dishes and laundry and toy clean-up be damned. Self-imposed rules like “smartphones down from the minute I walk into daycare until kids are asleep”; imposing a consistent daily family routine that clearly establishes when is “work time”, when is “family time” and which parent has primary child duty at what hours; instructing my staff not to call me during “family time” unless absolutely necessary; and my husband (also an entrepreneur) and I both being committed to negotiating with each other before making work commitments outside of “work time” all help.
I’d be lying if I said I was a pro at this. Staying present is not easy, and I don’t always do a great job at it. I’ve been known to sneak many a peek at my Blackberry during family dinnertime, often hiding in the kitchen or bathroom in the hopes my husband won’t notice. (He always notices.) At least once a week, I have to consciously stop myself from folding that three-day-old pile of clean laundry or tidying up the playroom during conference calls. And, before my kids started daycare full-time, I would slip downstairs to micro-manage the nanny more often than I’m proud of. But, the more I work at being present, the easier it’s getting to switch my brain back and forth. As a result, I’m able to be much more productive at work and much more engaged with my kids. I also enjoy both my kids and my work more because I no longer allow myself to feel constantly pulled in two different directions.
Re-reading this now, two and a half years after I wrote it, brings back the feelings of crushing anxiety, stress, and worry I felt at that time. Yet, it is also reassuring to know I lived through the chaos and came out the other end stronger for it. I’m delighted to say that two and a half years later, all three of my babies are thriving, as am I. City Hall Fellows is now training its 10th cohort of young urban leaders, and while I am on the Board, the organization happily no longer requires my day-to-day involvement to thrive. My kids are doing great, I’ve had extraordinary professional adventures, my marriage is solid, I’m slowly finding ways to do the non-work and non-kid things I enjoy, and I’m no longer a constantly angst-ridden mess. This is not to say that I’ve got it all figured out – this blog is evidence that I don’t!
In restrospect, writing this piece was a huge turning point in my life. It took me several months to write. Putting all this stuff out there was scary . I was afraid of what others (especially potential funders) might think and even more afraid of admitting to myself how much I’d been holding it all together with paper clips and Scotch tape, and how tired I was of living like that. The process of writing this forced me to acknowledge how out of balance my life had gotten, and to hold myself accountable for doing something about it. It was also the first time social angel investor Echoing Green had ever posted a piece on its blog about juggling parenting and social entrepreneurship. The huge response this post received at the time made me realize my family and I weren’t alone in these struggles. In many ways, this piece was the initial kernel that eventually became this blog. I am so grateful for all of that.
What about you? Anyone else out there an entrepreneur or work-at-home parent juggling similar challenges? How are you handling it all?