New book claims women can do it all

A new US book says mums working outside the home don’t have it bad at all — and more controversially, it gets easier when you make it to the top. Andrea Mara puts its controversial theories to the test

Working motherhood isn’t so hard really. That’s the message in Laura Vanderkam’s book I Know How She Does It, a conclusion she reached after analysing hundreds of time-logs from working mothers.

Try selling that message to the woman whose children are in crèche for 45 hours a week — a figure that’s branded on her guilt-addled brain — or to the woman who is waiting for the right moment to slip out of a meeting so she can race to pick up the kids.

That was me five years ago, and there were times when I couldn’t breathe with guilt, much less take time out to read about it in a book.

But Vanderkam says we tend to hone in on the horror stories. “We often focus on the crazy moments, which makes sense. They’re darkly entertaining. They get the press. Other moments — like playing board games on the weekend — aren’t talked about.”

Laura Vanderkam, who wrote the book ‘I Know How She Does it’

She found that the women who submitted logs to her were leaning in to their careers, but leaning in to their families too, and actually, their lives didn’t look too bad.

It sounds too good to be true, so we put it to the test. Fiona Dorgan works in the funds industry in Dublin and is a mother of three boys. For five days, she recorded everything she did, then we grossed it up to seven days, to make it comparable to Vanderkam’s study.

Fiona worked for 49 hours, had 16 personal/exercise hours, slept seven hours a night, spent 19 hours on family time/housework, and a further 17 hours exclusively with her children — watching them play sport or out on day trips.

This puts her on a par with the women in Vanderkam’s survey: She works long hours but manages to spend a decent amount of time with her children — 21% of her weekly hours — not bad for a full-time worker with an hour commute each way.

“Until I started writing all this down, I would have thought my time was all work, and then housework,” says Fiona. “The results help to take away some of the guilt that’s always there for me as a working mum. Still, I’d like to do more one-on-one stuff with the boys, so I’ll continue the diary for next few weeks to see how I can make some more time.”

Vanderkam’s message is about looking at your life more objectively — what seems difficult may appear less so once you have proof that you’re spending more time with your kids than you think you are. That’s a very valid message for those who have it pretty good already, people who work flexibly, can afford a cleaner, and have great childcare.

It may indeed be a case of looking at life differently. But for the many parents who are struggling with long commutes, inflexible work, and inflexible childcare, the time-log just confirms what they already know: The balancing act is pretty damn hard.

Ciara Conlon, a productivity coach, agrees.

Ciara Conlon, a productivity coach

“It’s challenging to have a career and raise a family — to give work your all after a sleepless night, to give your children your undivided attention when you’re stressed about a work deadline, or to simply find time to relax when you never seem to be giving enough attention to work or family. That’s not to say that it’s not satisfying and rewarding to do both.”

In my own case, as my career progressed, I got braver about asking for flexibility, and life got a lot better. Five years on, my time-log would have looked completely different — a third child in the picture meant that in theory life was even busier, but a four-day week and remote working made it much easier.

So perhaps there’s truth in Vanderkam’s message. Although I didn’t fall in to the category of the women she surveyed, I did find that as responsibilities at work increased, so too did my ability to negotiate flex-working.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many factors that determine whether or not it’s easy to balance career and family.

It depends on the job, and crucially, the immediate boss. Some are generous in allowing flexibility, while others see presence in the office as a measure of productivity. So the parent who leaves at 5pm is viewed less favourably than one who stays late, no matter how much of that time was spent on Facebook.

Presenteeism is still rampant in Ireland, and the remote working that enables Fiona Dorgan and Vanderkam’s subjects to leave the office on time is not facilitated in every job.

Dorgan and her three sons enjoying some much-needed family time.

Seniority is a factor, too. People in “big jobs” have the means to pay for cleaners and nannies, as well as the autonomy to come and go as needed. To be fair, Vanderkam’s survey is of women earning $100,000 — she’s not trying to say her findings are valid for everyone.

“Much of the literature on women and work implies that demanding, high-paying jobs are off limits to women because you won’t have time for a personal life,” she says.

“I think the time data shows that in fact women with big jobs have far more balanced lives than the popular narrative conveys. I would entirely believe that women in lower paying jobs would have a harder time making all the pieces fit. But I think young women should know this: Don’t fear the big job.”

Whether the book’s findings are valid for you also depends on what you’re prepared to give up. Fiona Dorgan’s personal time was higher than usual (for her) due to a night out — aside from that, her downtime each evening was less than an hour.

The women in the study watched an average of 4.4 hours of TV per week, and many considered exercise to be “me-time”. They tended to be early risers and very driven.

Realistically, combining a big job with lots of quality family time probably means not so much room for binge watching Orange is the New Black or scrolling through Twitter.

“I think we need to be careful about generalising what is OK for women,” says Conlon. “Women are a diverse bunch with differing needs, goals, and motivations. Vanderkam is looking at high-income earners who probably have nannies, housekeepers, and personal trainers; it’s a lot easier to fit in me-time with so many people to delegate to.”

And what about the men in all this? Perhaps if some day the focus shifts to books for working dads, we’ll know that things have got a whole lot better for working mothers.

In a nutshell: Women can do both roles well

Women in senior positions are quietly getting on with managing work and family – turning up at the board meeting but not missing out on sports day.

Working mothers complain but it’s often not as challenging as they perceive it to be – they focus on the horror stories and forget the good bits.

Most people assume they work more hours than they do, and spend less time with their children than they do.

Many people claim to work 60-hour weeks, but few consistently do.

Women don’t necessarily have to make huge sacrifices to take a “big job” – on average, senior roles require just nine extra hours of work per week (44 instead of 35).

It’s about perspective – calculating how much time you spend with children versus work over a week will surprise many and assuage guilt.


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