Why you (workaholics) should go home and take the day off

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Me and Dad enjoying a hike and a selfie one random day (2014)

Hi, my name is Melinda, and I am a workaholic.

I don’t know if you are like me – I certainly hope for your sake you aren’t! But for years, I neglected to take my vacation days. That isn’t to say I didn’t take vacation. I have three children, and between all of their activities and the need to show them the rest of the world, I have certainly had days out of the office. “Vacation Days” – or so my calendar at work calls them. Really, they just feel like “My Other Unpaid Job Days.”

My job was exceedingly demanding for several years. Luckily (for the company and for me), I thrive on ‘demanding’. I worked long hours, weekends, even became an expert on-line shopper for holidays. And I didn’t take extra days off.

It got to the point that I was “losing” days. We had a policy at that time where you could only roll over into the next year half of your vacation days. Then you had to use those days before the middle of the following year. If you used less than half, you lost the balance. If you didn’t use the days you rolled over by the June, you lost those days. I lost days in December and in June for many years.

It didn’t really matter to me – I was exceptionally happy at work. I felt like I was contributing at a high level and that kept me motivated. I loved my team, I loved my company, and most importantly I had an incredible partner at home (my husband). I made sure that every minute I spent with my kids and my husband was meaningful, if it wasn’t plentiful.

It seemed like everything was going along perfectly, until I lost my dad. I had dealt with loss in my life – just a few years before this I lost my great aunt, my grandfather and my grandmother. Loss and grief were not foreign to me.

In fact, when I lost my father, I was smart. I took care of myself, and (hopefully) my mother, my brother, my kids and my family. I took a week off of work. I turned off my phone for that entire week (I had never done this before). I never even thought about work. I took some time (its never enough time) to grieve and to heal. This post isn’t about that week.

It’s about the following year. At that point I was fortunate enough to be working with a brilliant executive coach. During one of our sessions, I mentioned that recently I had been having trouble focusing, that things weren’t coming so easily for me, and that I had been overreacting to seemingly small errors or differences in opinion. In fact, things had gotten so bad that I was not certain that I was able to contribute in a meaningful way any longer. The entire future looked bleak.

She asked me a simple question, “So what’s going on?”

Suddenly I realized that it was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. And I was not coping well. I was relying on old habits of pushing through and working hard. It wasn’t going well. At all. I thought I would be fine. I thought a top-notch worker didn’t take days off for things like this, and I wanted to be top-notch. I thought that the strongest thing to do would be to go to work, swallow the tears, and keep moving forward.

Turns out I was wrong. For me, for this particular situation, this was the absolute worst thing (okay, maybe not the worst) I could do. My coach told me to pack up my things and head home. I can’t tell you why, but it was one of the hardest and best things I have done.

She talked to me about taking time for myself. About taking care of myself. Of listening to myself, and granting myself a little grace. She showed me that laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling with a bowl of buttered popcorn balanced on my belly was the best thing I could do for myself, if that was what I needed.

I needed to go home and take the day off.

And it turns out I only needed a day. I needed space to breathe and understand why I was feeling the way I felt. I needed to be free, for just a few hours, from the demands of other people. From the expectations of work and family.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it worked. I have a feeling that if I had I not taken that day off, I would have been miserable for much longer.

Since then, I have become a huge proponent of what I call “Mental Health Days.” If you are not going to be productive and you need some time to reflect, recharge, heal, sleep, journal, run, whatever it is, it is better that you take care of that right away rather than subjecting your unsuspecting coworkers to an ugly side of you.

In the event that you are a workaholic like me, I have some other suggestions for reasons to take a day off here and there:

  1. To help out in your child’s classroom or supervise a field trip
  2. To celebrate an anniversary with your significant other
  3. To appreciate the fall foliage or spring flowers
  4. To celebrate your birthday!
  5. To play with your puppies
  6. To just sleep in. For once.

Whatever you do, just be sure you are taking care of yourself. Do what you need to do to perform your very best each and every day.

And as always, keep it positive, and smile!

 

 

 

 

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Being a mom and having a career

Being a mom is hard.

Having a career is hard.

Studies have shown, and those of us in the thick of it can attest, trying to have both is confounding and difficult.

Are these two things even compatible? Assuming they are, since so many of us are doing both, how do we as women balance this? Is there a such thing as balance? How do we make it all work?

Through the stories of my experiences and those of women I have interviewed, I hope I can offer you all some insights, some tips, and most of all, some comfort that you are not alone. At the end of this post, I offer you four important tips to make this all work.

From the very start, motherhood is an intimidating proposition at work. I have heard story after story of women who were afraid to tell their boss they were pregnant. Nearly all of them reported positive stories when they finally did, but it does not seem to help alleviate the fear.

I’ve had three kids, and each time it was as different as my children are from one another (trust me, they are different!). The first time, I hadn’t been with the company for very long. For this reason, I wasn’t overly invested in my career, and although I waited awhile to tell my boss, and I only took 6 weeks off because of financial concerns, I wasn’t too nervous about my pregnancy.

The second pregnancy was completely different (see photo below). At this point, I was in management and was fully invested in my career. Despite the fact that I was violently ill with this pregnancy, I kept it from my boss and my teams for months. I was terrified of missing work, of missing promotions, of being held back because I would be out of the office. The funny thing is that when I finally told my team, they all laughed in relief and said that they had been concerned for months over how sick I had been! With this kid, I took 2 months off – still not the full amount of time available.

The third pregnancy, I discovered I was pregnant 6 weeks into my MBA program my company was paying for. Total panic! This time, there was no keeping it from the boss – I was showing almost immediately. I had to do some serious maneuvering but I managed to take the full three months off this time.

The next step – the actual maternity leave – can be fraught with danger. We hear stories of leaders in tech and politics returning to work only a week or two after giving birth – what will happen when we take 6 weeks off? Or the full 12 weeks we are allowed under FMLA, assuming you even qualify for FMLA?

When you come back to work, that is when the real fun starts. Let’s start with the logistical issues. The baby needs to get to the sitter. The baby needs to get to the doctor for check-ups. The baby needs diapers and wipes and food and clothes. And the baby gets sick. Not to mention, many of us moms breastfeed our babies, so there is the need to deal with that at work.

The breastfeeding situation is no joke. First there is the uncomfortable conversation with your boss – made much worse when your boss is a man. Scheduling the times, understanding whether you need to make up the time or not, all of that has to be worked out. Then there is the problem of where to pump. With my first two kids, we had a “medical room” often frequented by those employees with headaches or tummy aches that, if not occupied, was a decent place to pump. By the third kid, we had an actual lactation lounge and could book time in it. Many (most?) women are not so lucky.

Then there are the emotional issues. Leaving your baby in the hands of someone else every morning is more difficult than you can ever prepare for. When that sitter doesn’t work out? Even worse.

I had a terrible falling out with our first sitter when my son was 18 months old and I was pregnant with my second. It stemmed from a misunderstanding that festered for several months, and exploded on her driveway at pick-up one day in the middle of the week. To say it was awful would be the understatement of the century. I cried and cried and then spent the next three days driving all over the city looking for a new solution. (We found one, and it worked well for all 3 kids).

A wise person once told me that the challenges with kids never lessen, they only change. As the kids get older, new issues pop up. There are baseball tournaments, play practice, piano lessons, swim lessons, and they all start at some unreasonable hour – like 5pm. Someone please tell me how working parents are supposed to get their kids to practice on time?

One thing I want to address here: how we “leave” work when we have a child-related event and/or emergency. I am torn here between the need to be authentic and own the fact that we are mothers who work, and the need to avoid attention directed to the fact that we are mothers. Studies have shown that bosses tend to see “mothers” as less engaged with their work and careers. The less we call attention to that particular label, perhaps the more we will avoid the negative repercussions. Perhaps.

An example from my life: I was in a high-level meeting in our board room one afternoon. The meeting was scheduled to finish at 4:30. At 5pm, I noticed that the older gentlemen in the room showed no sign of slowing down. My sitter required me to pick up my son by 5:30, and I was looking at a 20 minute commute. What do I do?

One genius idea a good friend of mine shared with me is to simply announce that you have to leave for a board meeting. What I did, after madly texting my husband under the table to see if he could get to the sitter (and discovering that he could not), was to simply lean over to the gentleman next to me and say, “I need to get to my next meeting,” and then get up and leave as inconspicuously as I could. I have no way of knowing if this was the right thing for me, but it seemed to work, so I offer it as a suggestion.

And that brings us back to that thing called a career. With all of the above going on, how do we have time and energy and focus for a career? Frankly, as I sit here and think about it, my mind boggles at the idea of it. When people ask me how I have done what I have done, my go-to answer is: “I just do it. I decide I want to do it, and I do it.”

Not much help, is it? So let’s break this whole thing down.
How do we do the mother and career thing at the same time?

1. Confidence – We need to have confidence in ourselves. We know exactly what we need as both a mother and a career woman, and we need to trust in that. When something doesn’t sound right or feel right, we need to have the wherewithal to call attention to it.

Example: I am by no means perfect at this, but I do remember one particular conversation I had with a senior executive, some months after the birth of my second child. I was feeling unchallenged at work, and so I approached the senior executive to tell him I was ready for something new. He told me (in a kind way) that I needed to go home and take care of my family. I could have let it go right there, but instead I said, “I take care of my family when I am at home, and I need to be challenged while I am here.” It wasn’t long before I was promoted.

2. Communication – We need to be honest and open in our communication. We need to ask for what we need and stand strong in our demand for it – from our boss, from our partners, from our family.

Example: One woman I spoke with shared the story of going back to work after the birth of her second child. The logistics of balancing two children were becoming overwhelming, so she went to her manager to request a more flexible schedule, allowing her to work from home two days each week. At first, the answer was no, but she kept talking to her manager, showing her the benefits and eventually she got the yes. After proving herself, she was promoted to a management position.

Another Example: Early in my career, I sat down with my husband and we talked about division of labor when it came to the kids. This helped us to split the duties with the kids, with him often taking a larger portion of the during-the-workday interruptions. We are both open and honest about what we can and cannot cover.

3. Commitment – This is the “just do it” part of things. Once you decide you are going to do something, stick with it. Get it done. Find the goal line, set your sights on it, and go. This is just as important at home as it is at work.

Example: When I found out I was pregnant with my third child six-weeks into my MBA program, I had a choice to make. I decided I still wanted to finish my program, and I wanted to do so on-time. In order to account for the time I would need to be out to give birth, I decided to accelerate my program. My daughter, being the accommodating soul that she is, was born just in time for winter break, so I was actually able to graduate early.

Another Example: Two years ago, my daughter expressed disappointment that I was not participating in her class parties and field-trips. I made a commitment to her that I would be there for her, and then I immediately blocked my calendar. I had so much fun attending those parties with her, and she now knows that she is my priority.

4. Support – This is so important. We need to support each other. Mothers in the workplace must support other mothers. Women must support other women. We do this by speaking up for each other, for advocating for each other, for listening and understanding each other.

Example: When one woman in a meeting gets cut off, bring the attention back to her by asking her if she would like to finish what she was saying. When drawing up an invitation list for an event, double-check to see that enough women have made the list. When evaluating the work of your associates, double-check to ensure that you are using the same criteria for everyone. When you see a woman hesitate to volunteer for something, encourage her to push forward.

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One final thought – there is no such thing as “balance.” Or rather, work and kids will never be “equal.” We each have to find what works for us, and realize that this will change over time – maybe even day by day. Sometimes, hour by hour! If we pay attention, ask for what we need, commit to our ourselves and support each other, anything is possible!

I am here to support you! Let me know if you have other tips for being a mom at work!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

What is important to me/Taking risks and finding joy

I have, today, a personal story to share. My hope is that there is a lesson in here somewhere that will be of use to some of you out there. Please comment and share your stories.

In a previous life, I was a singer. A serious vocalist. In high school I took private voice lessons during the year and went to music camp every summer. I went to college on a vocal scholarship, and earned a Bachelors of Music degree. I sang with a semi-professional opera company in Chicago, and then paid for my grad school musical studies through an internship. My plan was to be an opera singer.

Then tragedy struck. Three days before I was to give my Masters recital, I lost my voice. Completely. Gone. Not even a whisper. For three months. It might as well have been forever.

Looking back, I have realized there was an incredible mountain of stress burying my voice alive. I was preparing for my recital while simultaneously singing in a mainstage opera production. With my practice regimen, I was singing close to 8 hours every day, if not more. I was nearing the completion of my degree and did not have a clear path forward after graduation. Talk about stress! Though I had learned my craft, I had not yet learned how to turn my craft into a career. On top of all of this, my voice professor was wildly unsupportive – one may even say cruel. Cruel to the point of making me doubt just about everything that came out of my mouth.

After losing my voice, I saw doctors and therapists and vocal coaches. I took medications and vitamins and underwent analyses and procedures. Basically I did everything I could think of, or anyone else could think of, to recover. At some point during those three months I came to a conclusion: My body was not to be trusted. I simply could not put my future and my security in the hands of something that I could not rely upon.

So I stopped. Completely.

For the next many years, I rarely sang. I would sometimes do Christmas caroling with my husband (an amazingly talented classical guitarist), sang intermittently with a church choir, and sang a wedding or two. I sang nightly to my children, but talk about a non-judgmental audience! Plus they usually fell asleep by the second note. But in reality, very little singing. I put all of my effort into my family and into my career. My (now) non-musical career.

And I missed it. I missed making music. I especially missed being on the stage, sharing my music, my joy, my stories, with an audience. But for some reason, I stayed away. It was just too hard.

This year, I made a new choice. I decided it had been long enough and I needed to take a risk. I needed to try again. I wanted the specific joy making music brought to my life. So, I took a bold step and signed up for voice lessons. I knew it would be hard, and in fact, just figuring out who to study with, what my story would be would be tough enough.

It was even harder than I imagined. I anticipated difficulty in reaching the high notes and the low notes. I knew I needed to get my support system (breathing muscles) back into shape. I understood that I needed to find new ways to fit in practice and regain that discipline (still working on this one). What I did not anticipate was how much I had changed. And how much baggage I was carrying.

My body, my instrument, has changed, and not in inconsequential ways. I have given birth to three beautiful children. I have gained weight (I blame those three children for that!). I have, unbelievably, gotten older. I am now working with a completely different instrument. And boy does she sound different! She is richer, fuller, deeper. It’s taken several months to realize this, but she is beautiful!

As for the baggage – I have had to recognize the ‘voices’ in my head. Even after all this time, every time I open my mouth to sing I hear my professor tell me I can’t sing, that I shouldn’t even try, and that I should give up. I have nothing riding on my singing – no career ambitions, no expectations – and yet her voice keeps me scared from really trying. It has taken weeks and weeks of lessons to even recognize the voice, and who it belonged to. Now, I am working to ignore it and/or work around it.

So the lessons here – there has to be a lesson, right? One might be that it is never too late to start – or restart – anything. Another might be that change is inevitable, and many times it results in something beautiful. Yet another might be that old habits (or voices) die hard, and we must be vigilant and persistent in dealing with them. Still another could be that unused skills do not come back to us as easily as we might think/wish, so we must not let them go.

For me, the big lesson is that I need to take more risks. I need to keep in mind what is important to me as a person, what brings me joy, and do those things. It may have no connection to my career. It may be no bigger than me in a room with a piano. But I needed to find more of my joy, and I found it in a song.

Are there things you aren’t prioritizing in your life that would bring you joy? Are there risks you aren’t taking? What is holding you back? Please share!

As always, keep it positive, and smile!

TGIF!

 

Back to School…Finding the balance?

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I have a question: How do they do it? How do all of these families manage to get their kids involved in activities like, say, after-school enrichment that requires pick-up by 3:15? Or soccer practice that begins at 5:30?  Or the game starts at 6pm on the other side of town?

I’ve done some thinking on this issue, and it comes back to the idea of balance.  Or a better word – prioritization. Sometimes you can leave work early. Sometimes you cannot. Sometimes making the choice is extraordinarily difficult. Then there are the times where the decision is not so clear, and it is those moments we have to look at how we balance and prioritize our lives.

It is that time of year. The kids are back in school and the newness of starting a fresh year has worn off. The bus schedules have been deciphered, the noise of the alarm clock is now familiar (not that we got the summer off, but hearing it go off that early?). Homework has begun in earnest.

Along with all of that the evening activities have begun.  For us, that means soccer practice two times each week for two of the kids, play practice, drum lessons, saxophone lessons, voice lessons, gymnastics, freestyle gymnastics, running club…. Even with all of this, I am still wracked with guilt over the idea that I am not doing enough to expose my children to what they need to be successful in life.

On top of all of this, my husband and I have our lives, and we are still living them. We both have demanding careers. I sit on the board of the local Zonta Club, I serve on the steering committee (and a few other committees)  of a leadership giving circle for the local United Way, my husband is a semi-active member of the local guitar scene, and we are working on forming a family band.

As if that is not enough, I am back in school myself.

So the idea of balance is a funny word in this context. We, like a large number of families especially at this time of year are too busy to worry about balance. We just keep moving forward, on to the next activity, coordinating on the fly. This is not the ideal way to live, but there is not a single ball we are willing to drop. In fact, we keep looking for more.

But the lesson is to look for those opportunities where you have a choice. Do I really need to work late tonight? Does my son really need to participate in that activity? Be intentional about how you spend those moments, and then learn a lesson from me – let go of the guilt. Guilt is not a productive emotion, and should be relegated to the trash heap. Cherish every moment, both at work and at home, and cultivate an attitude of gratefulness. This is how you attain “balance.”

And keep it positive and smile!

Happy Friday!