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This Is How Real Working Mothers Are Managing (It’s Not as Complicated as You Think)

I asked women to keep time logs to see how they juggled work and family, with surprising results.
I Know How She Does It Laura Vanderkam balancing work and family motherhood working mothers modern life

Photo Credit: Belathee Photography

Life is not lived solely in stories. Yet this is the way we talk about our lives: in moments that must impart a lesson. Consequently, in much of the literature on work and life, our tale would begin with a Recitation of Dark Moments: a snowstorm threatening to maroon me in Los Angeles while my husband is in Europe and my three young children are with a sitter in Pennsylvania who wasn’t planning on keeping them for several snowy days straight.

I could begin with such tales and then lament the craziness of modern life and the impossibility of having it all. Ever since The Atlantic put Anne-Marie Slaughter’s manifesto on this topic on the cover and scored millions of reads, it’s a truth in media circles that the phrase “can’t have it all” lures women in. Tales that let us be voyeurs to such foibles draw clicks. In 2012, the legal world posted reams of comments in response to a widely circulated departure memo from a Clifford Chance associate with two young children. In it, she chronicled an awful day, describing middle-of-the-night wake-ups from the kids, a colleague who sat on a note until day care was closing, and a long to-do list waiting for her after she wrestled the kids into bed. “Needless to say, I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family,” she wrote her colleagues, and so the only choice available, the choice we all seem to understand, was to quit.

But I want to tell a different story. The key to this is realizing that life isn’t lived in epiphanies and that looking for lessons and the necessity of big life changes in dark moments profoundly limits our lives.

Leaning In to the Rest of Life

Several years ago, I wrote a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. One happy result of it was that numerous companies asked me to come speak about how people should manage their time. I started asking a few audience members to keep track of their time before our session. I’d analyze these logs so that I could talk about the challenges people faced. Many of the time logs I collected for my talks came from female executives. Many of these women had children. And, over time, I noticed something.

Their lives didn’t look that bad.

Perhaps it speaks to the pervasiveness of those Recitations of Dark Moments that I thought I’d see perpetual chaos, but nope. There were tough moments, to be sure, but I also saw kid time, husband time, leisure time, and sleep.

In the log she kept for me in March 2014, Vanessa Chan, a partner in a major consulting firm and mother to two young girls, woke up Wednesday morning in one city, which was a different city from the one she woke up in Tuesday morning, which was not the city she lived in either. She arrived home late Wednesday after her girls were asleep. She gave the sleeping children a kiss before going back to work. If we wanted a tale inspiring work/life lamentation, we could focus on that scene.

But when you see the whole of a week, you see different moments, too. Chan missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but she put her girls to bed more nights that week than she didn’t. She read them multiple chapters in Little House on the Prairie. I tallied it up, and she logged more time reading to her kids than the average stay-at-home mom of young kids reads to hers. She organized a game night for her family, went skiing, and took her daughters to the Lego movie. She had a coffee date with her husband. She watched TV and did a session on the spin bike. She spent a reasonable amount of time designing a Pokémon cake for her daughter’s birthday. In all her busyness, Chan had time to indulge her hobby of making and decorating Pinterest-worthy cakes.

Not everyone would want Chan’s life. Chan herself didn’t want it forever. But even if not everyone would want Chan’s life, I couldn’t claim that no reasonable person would want this life either. Cake designing, skiing, and snuggly bedtime stories do not imply a work/life horror show.

I saw this same phenomenon in many allegedly horrid industries: finance, law, medicine. Women were leaning in to their careers, and they were leaning in to the rest of their lives, too.

Mosaics of Time

How did they do it? The math is straightforward. There are 168 hours in a week. If you work fifty and sleep eight per night (fifty-six hours per week in total), that leaves sixty-two hours for other things.

The time is there to have what matters. Like Chan, though, we have to choose to see this, and many people choose not to. In the discussion of women’s life choices, we often focus on the difficult moments.

But what if this logical leap—these stressful things happened, and therefore life is crazy and unsustainable—limits our stories? We lament the softball game missed due to a late flight and start down the road of soul-searching and the need to limit hours at work or perhaps resign, but we don’t rend our garments over the softball game missed because another kid had a swim meet at the exact same time. No one ever draws the conclusion from that hard-choice moment that you need to get rid of the other kid. We could draw numerous conclusions from our Clifford Chance associate’s horrible day—she needs a different child care arrangement; she needs to be more clear about her boundaries at work, or some days are just miserable, and such is the human condition—but these are not the conclusions that fit the chant of our modern Greek chorus: No one can have it all, so don’t you even try.

I love stories as much as anyone, but campfire stories built around dark moments miss the complexity of life. You cannot look at Chan’s long Wednesday without seeing Little House on the Prairie, too. Look at the whole of life, all the minutes that make up our weeks, and you see a different picture. Those questions lobbed at successful women as if any given cocktail party were a presidential news conference—How do you do it? How do you manage? How do you balance?—have straightforward answers. Life has space for business trips and Pokémon cakes. We can carry many responsibilities and still revel in our own sweet time.

What I love about the time logs I’ve studied is that they really look like mosaics, arranged in interesting patterns to allow for work, family time, personal time, and sleep. No two women’s mosaics look the same, but when they are taken all together, they answer that perennial question of How does she do it? A life is lived in hours. Having a full life is not just possible, but doable, as long as you place the tiles right.

Excerpted from I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Laura Vanderkam, 2015. If you’d like to keep your own time log, you can sign up to receive a template at

I Know How She Does It Laura Vanderkam balancing work and family motherhood working mothers modern life

via Portfolio