It’s 6pm. I just came back to my hotel room after teaching a class at Wharton Business School and I see on my cellphone that there’s a call from my mother. I know it’s actually my son. And he’s calling because he’s missing me. He’s staying with my mother. My husband and I are both on business trips. My heart sinks. I had come back to the hotel room, ready to work on a project due to my own team. But there is no deliberation. Getting back to my son is my number one priority.
I call him and he’s crying on the phone, quite hard in fact. He says, “mommy I miss you. I really miss you. Isn’t there any way for you to come back earlier?” I begin to tear up. I wish I could be back there to hug him. But I can’t. I have responsibilities. I want to provide for my family. I love my work. I say, “I’m sorry hon, but I won’t be back for another two days.” He cries harder. He tells me that PoPo (his grandmother) doesn’t know how to get on Lego.com and he has nothing to do. He cries harder. I know logical reasoning won’t appeal to him. He wants mommy comfort and he’s feeling desperately alone. So I take him, step by step to get on Lego.com. “Yeah,” he exclaims, “I see it”. He already sounds different. I feel a bit relieved. But I know seeing me will help him feel better so I think of Skyping him. But my mother hadn’t turned it on and she doesn’t know how. So, like a technical whiz (that I am not), I walk him step by step until we finally connect on Skype. He’s so happy to hear my voice. But he can’t see me. My computer camera won’t comply. I search for support on the web while I talk. No luck. How am I going to have my son see me? It dawns on me that my cellphone has Skype, so I try that. Thank goodness it works. We see each other. His eyes are sad. He says he misses me again. My mother tells me he hardly touched his dinner. I ask him to show me his most recently created funny pose, hoping it would cheer him up a bit. It works. I start finishing my lunch salad and seeing me eat, my son decides to “join me”. He brings my mother’s laptop to the dinner table and begins to finish his dinner alongside me, pretending I’m with him, only I’m on the screen. I thank Skype and all the technical geniuses who have made this moment possible. My son’s emotion shifts. He’s eating his dinner and talking like normal. I feel relieved. But my heart misses him still and I feel sad that I’m not there with him. Meanwhile, he decides he wants to watch Ninjago on cable. He asks if I can “sit with him” while he watches it. I contemplate getting to my work, but one look at my son and once again, I’m clear on my priorities. I say, “sure honey”. I see him walking through my mother’s condo and before you know it, I see the TV screen through my computer. For the next 25 minutes, I am sitting in my hotel room, watching Ninjago with my son. I hardly hear from him and check in periodically. He sounds like the way he always sounds, when he’s watching his favorite show. I attempt to start my work but then he asks me a question. I stop. I just can’t do it. I can’t work. I can’t focus on it. Several hundreds miles away, my son is watching TV and I’m sitting at my computer, accompanying him. As torn as I am about getting to my work, I know I’m doing the right thing. I’m making the right choice. I’ll get to my work after he’s settled. Twenty-five minutes passes and he says, “it’s over mom”. I tell him how much I liked this episode (which I do) and encourage him to go take a shower. My mother hovers in the background, worried not only about her grandson but her daughter and interjects periodically about whether or not I’m eating and the like. I know she’s doing all she can. I’m grateful she’s willing and able to help.
I finally sit down to do a bit of work and another Skype call comes in. He’s finished showering. He starts to get sad. I tell him that my phone is right next to me and that he can Skype me anytime. “Anytime?” he asks. Anytime I say. He smiles. He’s going to watch another show before he goes to sleep. But he says with great clarity, “I’ll call you when I’m in bed. Is the phone close to you?” I show him that the phone cradle is literally next to me. He’s reassured and hangs up.
Surely enough he Skypes me when he’s in bed. My mother is towel drying his hair. He looks like himself. His mischievous eyes have returned. He’s making jokes. I feel a sense of peace. We talk a bit. When he’s ready, he says goodbye and hangs up. I start to work, 3 hours later than I had intended, but no time has been wasted. It’s exactly the way I want to live my life. Knowing my son is not frightened or sad and that he knows he is cared for, gives me the peace I need to go on.
My son Skypes me again at 2:40am to check in and again at 5:28am.
I render this story to illustrate the daily life of working mothers, mainly mothers. (As an example, my son never called dad. But I’m not special. It’s what I hear from most mothers I know.) Everyday working mothers face this inflow and outflow of life’s priorities and need to be at the ready. For most women, this is unseen by others. And unspoken. Yet it’s a sort of “portfolio management” that requires such immediate decision-making and strategic finesse that organizations should seriously consider as a competitive professional skill. In any case, mothers just do it. Not just because we choose to, but because we also have to. The challenge however, is that we live in a societal and professional system that still acts as if this juggling of life priorities is an outlier to the norm. When in fact this is the norm, for 99% of families (even if you have a nanny).
The reality for most of the power elite, especially the men who are married with children, is that this scenario is just not experienced by them and thus not understood by them. Thus, they may lack empathy for others who may have to deal with this. Understandably they can thus claim that their employees who are the ones dealing with these “distractions” (mainly women with children) are less focused and less efficient. It’s not explicitly said. It’s never said. It’s just understood by most of us who’s ever been in a corporate setting. But we must know this type of thinking by the current power elite is just a belief. It’s not a truth.
So I say to the moms and dads who have lived through my story and who is the primary person managing this, unapologetically set realistic expectations. So you don’t go mad. So you don’t berate yourself for not being enough. So you don’t put all the blame on someone else because you feel cornered.
Fundamentally, I think we are still measuring employee worth by the duration someone is “in the game”, whether it’s hours at the job or the speed at which they return an email. But true effectiveness has a much broader spectrum by which it can be measured. Research has shown how much emotional intelligence makes a difference in output. In other words, true productivity is not just the amount of effort (time at work) but the quality of effort (how we work). We’re so behind in our metrics. We are still measuring as if we’re at the turn of the century, when output was measured by how many steel rods came out of the factory for every x number of workers.
I know there are other measurement options. For example, what if we measured an employee’s worth by:
1) What actually gets done (I know how much mothers can churn out in 6 hours of work so they can get back to their kids for school pick up)
2) Contribution to the collegial and congenial nature at work so others feel positive about their work and workplace (positive environments correlate to productivity)
3) Ability to include the multitude of perspectives in a team so each person feels respected, valued and engaged (read any book about team productivity)
4) Ability to multi-task and think from a broader set of considerations to add diversity to decision-making (data from financial results when more women are on the board; financial results of teams with more women during the 2008 financial crisis)
I know we need to create a new set of expectations about a productive employee. But that’s only going to happen when we’ve created a new paradigm about productivity and actually create a sea change in what organizations reward. Right now, if any parent chooses to put children into their totality of priorities, at some point, they will not be seen as “committed enough” to get the next promotion. That simply makes no sense. Until that day when organizations change how they measure and compensate employees (and it will happen), those who have made the choice to include a broader set of priorities into their daily life must know that they are doing the right thing. They must know that they are the underdogs in a system that does not really reward that choice. They must know they will have to face trade-offs in career advancement and compensation (in the short term). We can’t expect to be “fully rewarded” for these choices when the system hasn’t adapted to this new paradigm. Encouragingly, there are companies that recognize this and are making the change. I know they’re out there. We just haven’t looked for them. They are the early adopters. It will take time for the shift to happen. But for sure it will happen.
I am meeting too many motivated and driven individuals (mostly mothers who had a “full” career just like their husbands until they had kids) who feel left out, underutilizeded, underappreciated and underpaid. Until things change, set your expectations based on the current reality. Be joyfully unapologetic! And savor the moments of wonderfulness in life, as I did last night, helping my son feel loved, cared for and happy. In the end, isn’t that the reason why we’re all here?