It was a few weeks before my due date, and I was chatting with my director—an accomplished professional with a resume I’d die for and a wonderful mother to two young children—about our plans for the evening. When I mentioned that I might organize my hall closet, she gripped my forearm and said, “You need to go home, order Chinese takeout, sit on your couch, and watch Entertainment Tonight—while you still can.”
What she meant, of course, is that I should enjoy those last few weeks of unstructured free time. I was about to transition from a “young professional” into a “working parent,” and I knew that my new life would leave little down for spontaneous naps and mindless television (although, admittedly, during those first few weeks when my son stayed awake for a grand total of 70 minutes each day, I watched a lot of HGTV).
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was how I would have to re-think “personal time.” And I mean this in the administrative sense—the leave employers give you to take care of personal tasks like doctors’ appointments and oil changes and endless lines at the DMV. Things that must be taken care of during business hours.
Before I had children, I rarely took advantage of personal time, or even vacation for that matter. The startup I worked for had a generous, unlimited leave policy, knowing that the ferociously ambitious young people it employed would never use it. In both of the jobs I worked in my mid-20s, I worked from early in the morning until late in the evening, taking calls on the weekends and, of course, responding to email as soon as my phone chirped. Even though my bosses encouraged me to tune out after hours, leave work at a reasonable time, and take the personal time I needed, I didn’t.
I thought that busyness and stress meant that I was doing something right. As Jan Bruce, founder of meQuilibrium.com, points out in her recent Forbes Woman article, “We’ve made it worse for ourselves by associating [stress] with success. After all, the more stressed you are, the more successful you must be, right? And if that’s the case, then busy must be the new black—it’s in fashion, and it goes with everything.”
This 24/7 work mentality made me feel like a young professional headed in the right direction. Now that I’m a mom, though, I don’t exactly have this option.
Specifically, I can no longer opt out of leave. I must take care of a number of necessary errands during business hours, like pediatricians’ appointments and daycare registrations. And of course I make the time to do these things for my son: I feel no remorse for leaving work an hour early on a Friday to take him to the park or driving across town to take him to the pediatrician that I prefer. But I haven’t been to the dentist in three years because I just don’t have time.
This prioritizing of personal or family activities is often perceived as weakness or lack of professional drive. For its September issue, U.K.-based magazine Red performed a study about parents in the workplace in which they asked parents and “non-parents” about their workloads and stress levels. They found that 40% of non-parents “claimed they work harder than colleagues who have children,” and that 41% of non-parents felt it was unfair when they had to “pick up the pieces” when parents left for family-related conflicts. You can read a synopsis of the study, but the gist of it is that, at least according to the 5,000 people surveyed, there’s serious tension between people with and without children in the workplace when it comes to personal time.
I can’t attest to experiencing this tension first-hand. Before I had a child, I didn’t resent my co-workers with children for working from home when their kids had colds. But I do wish, in hindsight, that I had stayed home when I had a cold.
The point is: It took becoming a parent for me to realize that we’d all be better off if we adjusted our cultural worship of the busy life. Employee health and wellness is an obvious benefit, but in addition, companies could attract driven professionals with personal commitments and passions (a.k.a. a life they’d like to support with stable employment), while simultaneously creating an environment that encourages colleagues to support—not monitor—one another.
What’s more, if we abandoned our obsession with working 24/7, the problematic and innately gendered category of “working mother” (which I use frequently but acknowledge is somewhat ridiculous since we never refer to “working fathers”), would become less necessary. Instead of being a “working mom,” I’d simply be a career-oriented person, one who works, but who also makes ample time for family, friends, and personal endeavors—the same way everyone else does—without penalty or judgment.