I am at O’Hare flying to Pittsburgh to give a speech. I try to never give speeches. Actually I try to never leave my house. Because I think I will regret any time I spend away from my kids.
Well, definitely I will. Here’s how I know:
Because I chose to live in abject poverty in NYC because I didn’t want to leave my kids to work in an office. So I started building a freelance writing business on $25 articles. We ran out of food a lot, and I thought I’d look back and be horrified that my kids did not have beds. (We all slept on the floor because we had no room for beds.)
But in fact, what I regret is the four years I worked 80-hour weeks running my startup and put my kids in daycare. (I called it school, but I know there is no distinction between school for four-year-olds and daycare for four-year-olds.) I was making mid-six figures for most of that time, but those years are much more sour in my memory than the years of living in poverty where I spent my days with my kids.
So I try not to leave the kids now. And I console myself that I’m homeschooling. I’m spending most of my days with the kids.
Both might be true, but I want to wrestle with this reality at home, close enough to them to hear their constant, daily fighting.
The TV in terminal G has Sheryl Sandberg telling women to Lean In. And signing autographs. And I wonder why would she spend extra time at her speech signing autographs. I don’t think it’ll sell more books. Having been an author signing autographs myself, I can testify: those people would have bought my book anyway. After all, they listened to the whole lecture—they are invested.
So I want to know: why does she spend that extra time? She has two young kids. I understand wanting to run a company, and I understand wanting to launch an organization to (supposedly) help women, but I don’t understand the devaluing of parenting time by choosing to sign autographs instead.
Did you see the Time 100? The best part of the magazine that week was Joel Stein’s essay on how hard Time works to appeal to Generation Y by targeting the 100 toward that demographic. And how much Time misses the mark.
In that same issue Sheryl wrote the homage or essay or ass-kissing-memo or whatever we are calling the Time 100 writings, about Beyonce. Sheryl talks about how Beyonce has changed the music industry. She’s a leader in song and dance and performance. But there’s exactly nothing surprising until Sheryl adds, “Beyonce does all this while being a full-time mother.”
In that little sentence, Sandberg does something very big. Sandberg declares that you can have a full-time job and be a full-time mother.
This is convenient. Because now Sandberg is a full-time mom who spends some days away from the kids signing autographs. And running Facebook. And Beyonce is a full-time mom who spends some days away from her daughter on billion-dollar concert tours. So basically anyone who gave birth is a full-time mom regardless of how much of their time is spent on kids. Now we can all feel good about ourselves regardless of our choices.
But does this help anyone?
No. It’s a way to deny that we make big choices in our lives. Of course you cannot choose to be a full-time mom and have a big career. Full-time mom means your kids are your career. If you redefine full-time mom then you take away the ability for people who stay home with their kids to describe their work as full-time. You invite the ignorant and antiquated question: “Oh, you are with the kids all day? What do you do with all your time?”
Obviously Beyonce has time with her daughter. But she is splitting her time between two things that are important to her.
This all begs the question: What does it mean to work full-time?
Marissa Mayer requires full-time employees to work in the office. And she is just putting in writing what is understood at most top-flight companies, which is that facetime matters and people with serious careers don’t work from home.
At Wal-Mart 24-hour weeks is full-time because the company wants to sidestep health insurance for low-level employees.
At a startup full-time is 80-hour weeks. When I was running my last startup, Brazen Careerist, and I cut back from 80-hour weeks to 50-hour weeks, we agreed at a board meeting that I was working part-time and the salary I draw should reflect that.
During that same phase of my life, I started homeschooling my kids. And I realized that most people assume you have to be a full-time parent to homeschool kids. But I don’t think of myself as a full-time parent.
So you can see that what is part-time work to some people is full-time work to other people. And I guess I have to admit that what is part-time parenting to some people is full-time parenting to other people.
Probably the best way to find out if someone is a full-time parent is to ask their kids. Do the kids think they are the parent’s primary concern, or do the kids feel they compete with something else on the parent’s agenda?
The irony of all this full-time talk is that Pew Research polled women with kids the majority will said their optimum situation would be being home with the kids and a small but meaningful, part-time job on the side.
The problem here is the small-but-meaningful clause. There is a direct correlation between the amount of meaning in an achievement and the amount of meaning in the things we give up to attain that achievement. It’s why people tell you that when you have kids your life will change – because you will give up so much in your life that you thought was nonnegotiable.
There are not limited-time-but-still-meaningful jobs. And there is not limtited-time-but-still-meaningful parenting. Because both imply that you somehow beat the system and avoid the tough tradeoffs.
There is only the truth that you get what you give. If you give a lot to your kids, you get a lot from your kids. If you give a little, you get a little. And the same is true with your work.
I don’t know what Beyonce has left to give her daughter. I don’t know what Sandberg has left to give her kids. But I know that redefining full-time parenting, as something you can do with a full-time job, only distorts the discussion of the choices women make now. And it is deliberately misleading to women who have to make tough choices in the coming years.