Work-life conflict: Finding a way to "breathe again"

After over eight years coaching senior executives through the transition to parenthood, I thought I heard it all. I’ve coached project managers, architects, accountants, creative directors, SVPs of finance and law firm partners.

My job as a coach was to help clients create their own solutions for work and life. Many seemed to feel the illusion of balance was key to their success. I could imagine them, perfectly polished and put together, stepping into a conference room or closing their office blinds to take our call. Admitting difficulty seemed unthinkable at first, and conversations often started out stilted. “Everything’s good....my baby is fine....work is busy.” Sometimes the first sound that would break the professional veneer would be the woosh-woosh of the breast pump. Then the flood of desperation.

“I feel like I can’t breathe,” said one.  

“I’m losing my hair from the stress,” said another.  

“I’m expected to give 150 % at home and 150% at work. I can’t do either.”

“I can’t do this. I don’t know how anyone else does.”

“I can’t keep up and everyone knows it.”

I thought I knew exactly how hard it was for even the most experienced professionals, to lead at work and to manage their lives at home. Until I joined a tech startup.

My coaching work has always been about helping parents find strength to move their careers forward while navigating a broken system. Several years ago, I felt policy change and corporate practice were moving too slowly, and I became impatient. Too many highly educated women were dropping out of the workforce because they lacked they support they needed at work AND at home. As one mom said, “I should be one of the lucky ones. I have a good education, I work in a field that is fulfilling and has high earning potential, my husband is willing and eager to participate in the parenting roles. And still, we find ourselves shaking our heads, thinking it shouldn't have to be this hard.”

I wanted to venture out.  I wanted to solve this for my daughter’s generation. I wanted to create a solution that would help all parents feel like they could breathe again. So, over three years ago, I combined forces with another local mom, a high-powered advertising executive with a seven-year-old, who shared my impatience.

We started out as a think tank and later designed an app to solve working parent conflict. Meanwhile, I continued to coach and consult to earn my living. I was working early mornings, nights, weekends, while acting as the default parent to my two kids then 3 and 6. My business partner was the primary breadwinner, and her spouse was the go-to parent in their dynamic.  We saw the app we were building as an individualized solution; a way for each working parent to get some support to manage life at home. It was the same support that I desperately needed without a full-time caregiver, family nearby or funds to afford a support staff.

We wanted to simulate what  economist Heather Boushey called the former pillar of the American business world “who was once integral to profitability, but now no longer exists in the American economy--the wife.” Current work culture is based on the idea that there is someone at home, a trusted provider who could take care of all that it takes to run a family, so the working person could focus on work and quality time with their kids. We helped one mom coordinate backup childcare for her sick daughter, so she wouldn’t have to miss work and put her three-week-old job in jeopardy. We helped one single mom of two research affordable summer camps for her twin teen sons, and another organize her family’s meals during a week packed with late meetings. In addition to the tangible help we provided, and perhaps just as significant, was the emotional support and feedback we offered. We became a cheering section for parents like one mom of two young kids who said she felt so stressed she didn’t think she could make it through her biggest professional week to date.

Creating 24/7 solutions came at a personal cost to me. I never believed the startup would mean that I’d soon have work-life imbalance stories to rival those of my clients in corporate America. But it happened. My hair started falling out. Coffee became my life force in a way that it hadn’t since early in my parenting days. New ailments starting coming up out of nowhere--one stomach issue landed me in the ER. The efforts of my cofounder and I were documented and made into a four-part series for the WNYC podcast Note to Self. So, there’s really no way to avoid revealing that everything I thought I knew about balancing work and life went out the window while fighting to create an app that was supposed to help restore work-life balance.

The experience of working to launch the app reinforced the message I have conveyed to clients for years: work-life integration is about making tough choices and advocating for yourself. I had to take a hard look at my own life and make the choice that best fulfilled my personal objectives, played to my strengths and didn’t drive me and my family insane. I made a chose to focus on the areas that I could have the most impact: work-life coaching and training while reinforcing systemic change with the Center for Parental Leave Leadership.

When it comes to managing work life boundaries, sometimes narrowing priorities and renewing focus on your unique areas of strength is an act of self-care.