I'm not sure who came up with the notion of work/life balance, or the dreadful concept of "having it all," but if those people wanted to generate an awful lot of useless articles, speeches, and advice, then I think we can all agree they've succeeded. I don't believe there is such a thing as "having it all," and to some degree I find discussions of work/life balance -- especially those directed at women -- to be tiresome, in the sense that most of them don't net me any practical advice that I can use in my daily life.
Also, in my field in particular, this topic seems to be premised upon the assumption that every working mother wants to make partner at a large New York firm or become a Supreme Court justice or otherwise lead the free world in some unbridled display of female power, so the advice is more "how to network and climb the corporate ladder" than "how to do well at a job, spend quality time with your child, and also remember to buy toilet paper."
My situation is that I want to work in my chosen profession, but I don't have any designs on becoming someone of any great importance. I am good at what I do, and it's not that I lack ambition entirely; I am internally motivated to do a good job, to please the people I work with, to feel a part of a team, and to contribute to a cause that is greater than myself and my own personal sphere.
Before Felicity was born, I knew that I would go back to work when my maternity leave ended. I didn't really think twice about it; work was something I felt I had to do for our family, not to mention that I'd incurred substantial debt and personal sacrifice to become a lawyer. Even though the profession wasn't always a romp through the tulips for me (I actually kind of hated it sometimes, but now I am in a better workplace so it's all good), it seemed rash to give up a steady job and a potentially long-term career, particularly in such an uncertain economy.
Fast-forward to me cradling infant Felicity in my arms and weeping copiously every time I thought about leaving her to go back to the office. To be clear, I wasn't concerned about how my working would affect her. I knew, intellectually, that she would be fine. My garment-rending was completely about me and my emotional attachment to her (and probably no small measure of (a) hormones and (b) control issues, since no one in the world could possibly wipe that baby's butt as awesomely as I could, right?).
We considered making drastic changes to our life to accommodate my not working, but none of them quite measured up for us. The loss of my salary was too dramatic for us to sustain anything resembling our current lifestyle (which, to be clear, does not involve a yacht or a summer home or even expensive handbags, but does involve being able to buy groceries without sweating over food prices, go on nice trips, and live in the city).
Also, I recognized that I would ultimately be trading one set of stresses and anxieties for another if I quit my job. It wasn't as though leaving work would be a magic bullet that would make life carefree and Pinterest-perfect for the rest of time. I knew I would stress out about money and I'd pressure myself about needing to "contribute" to our household in the absence of a paycheck -- I had experienced this before, when I took time off of lawyering to try acting; every time we had an unexpected expense, I felt horrible for not living up to my earning potential. And given that, as a new mom, I fell completely to pieces when Felicity wouldn't nap because I so desperately needed time to myself, and by 5pm I was prepared to flee the premises rather than have to read "Dr. Seuss's ABCs" one more time, I thought perhaps I was not perfectly suited to staying home with the baby. So I figured I should at least try going back to work to see how it felt, despite the woe that consumed me when I contemplated it.
The day I went back to the office and left Felicity with her nanny for the first time, I did not cry for even one minute. Being back in a familiar environment, with a frisson of purpose and the promise of extended adult conversations every day, was like rediscovering my pre-child self. I could sit at my desk and answer emails for long periods of time. I could get pesky errands out of the way en route to or from work, without navigating a stroller through stores and hoping the baby didn't have a blowout in the middle of Barnes & Noble. I could read on the subway. I had a daily schedule that made me feel structured and led me to getting back into running on a regular basis, which also made me far more sane. It just felt GOOD. It also, of course, felt good to race out the door every evening to head home to my beloved child (still does, obvs -- in fact, the joy in her face when she runs to me as I come in the door makes the leaving worthwhile).
I'm not going to tell you that every morning I fly out of bed and can't wait to say goodbye to Felicity so I can get to the office. It will always be a little difficult, some percentage of the time, to miss out on everyday life with her for four full days a week. Sometimes she gazes into my face and says, "You want Mommy to stay here with you all the time." Oof. Still, I get home by bathtime and get to tuck her in most nights, and the weekends feel long enough that by Monday I'm refreshed and ready to work (though I do put in some time gazing at photos of my girl while I eat lunch at my desk, and sometimes I feel a physical NEED to hug her during the day -- not going to lie, that stuff hurts).
So that was the world's most long-winded way to get us to some advice that I hope you can USE. Here they are, some tips for you:
1. I am not doing it all, and neither is anyone else. Remember the iceberg rule, which applies to blogging, yes, but also to people you encounter in life but with whom you do not spend every breathing moment. That is, what you see is but a fraction of what actually goes on in someone else's life. Here, you're getting posts that sum up weeks of life at a time, so it looks like every moment we're off to the zoo or making banana bread or going to the 21 Club, but I can assure you, we spend plenty of time on the weekends vacuuming, cleaning the cat litter, catching up on work, grocery shopping, and neglecting lots of things we *should* be doing but simply don't have time. Take comfort in the knowledge that everyone else is just doing the best they can, and cramming in as much quality time with their friends/family/spouses/children/pets as is humanly possible, just like you.
2. Outsource anything you can afford to. I know this is obvious, but if I had to clean our (small!) apartment in addition to everything else, I would lose hours a week of time that I need for other things (such as sitting on my duff watching Downton Abbey). We have someone come every other week for a couple of hours, and it's not the world's greatest cleaning, but it keeps us from living in squalor or me from having a nervous breakdown. We do straighten up EVERY day and vacuum and light-clean on a regular basis. We're not gross. But the tub-scrubbing and family laundry are left for those blissful alternate Wednesday mornings.
Other ideas to save you time for more enjoyable things: hire a dog-walker; find a lawn guy; get a handyman on speed-dial (we use our super for the littlest things because we're hopeless with home maintenance). I know someone who uses a meal-delivery service because cooking is not her thing. Hey, whatever works.
3. Use the Internet for time-saving (not just time-frittering). Buy groceries online if you can, and definitely buy drugstore and baby stuff at one of the zillion free-shipping, easy-reorder sites. Set up a prescription delivery and a diapers subscription. Streamline! Make UPS do the legwork so you don't have to drag your child around to do errands for half of your Saturday.
3.5. Also use the Internet to make you seem more thoughtful. Amass a gift closet/rainy day collection of books, toys, coloring/activity books, art supplies, and so forth that you can whip out at a moment's notice either to entertain your child when you're trapped indoors or to bring to a birthday party. Buy a stash of all-ages-appropriate birthday cards and save every gift bag you get, so you don't have to worry about wrapping and card-buying at the last minute. Zulily is a great place to find discounted toys, clothes, and games for various ages. Then all you've got to do is shop your closet! (You could also do this for hostess gifts, bottles of wine, and other thoughtful-type things. Obviously.)
Relatedly, another thing I do is write down gift ideas (especially for adults, since kids are pretty easy to buy for) ALL YEAR LONG, so that when a birthday or Christmas rolls around, I'm all, I've got this, instead of lamely buying a last-minute gift card at the corner drugstore. I don't actually buy anything until the time comes, but when I can flip back through my Moleskine calendar and find my scrawled notes from when Joe off-handedly mentioned some obscure movie he'd like to have on DVD, or when I happened upon some brilliant suggestions on a style blog that would be just perfect for Friend X, it's such a relief.
4. Prioritize. Durr, I know. But it's important to recognize what is, FOR YOU, the goal of your not-working time (if I had appropriately prioritized this list, I would have put this as #1). Some people need social plans out the yin-yang to feel balanced; other people need time completely by themselves; others need Big Family Outings; still others just want quiet time at home with the kid(s). I am a study in contradictions, so I need a bit of all of these things. Too much in any one direction, and I feel out of whack. So each weekend is carefully calibrated between must-dos and want-to-dos and eh-maybe-nots.
5. Organize! This is another super-obvious one, but get yourself a calendar or calendar app (I am a Moleskine calendar girl, myself), and also a Family Calendar (mine is a print-out of a Word document, because I'm fancy) for the fridge or wherever is prominent enough to make you go, oh CRAP! We have the school picnic tomorrow and I have to get potato salad! with sufficient notice to actually procure said potato salad and get it where it needs to go. Write everything down. Make copious lists. And make sure everyone in the household checks the calendar and puts their own stuff on it, so you don't end up with conflicts or someone looking dully at you and wondering what church pancake supper you could possibly be talking about.
6. Divide and conquer. Every household has its own division of labor, and if things shifted while you were on maternity leave, or if you haven't fully figured out who will handle what, get that sorted pronto. We've always had a pretty natural DOL in our home, but of course we've had to adapt at different times. In my new(ish) work situation, I'm the first one to leave the house, so Joe handles Felicity's breakfast every morning (except Fridays, and we trade off on weekends depending on our running schedules) and often gets her dressed for school. I get home in time to handle bath and bed during the week, but on weekends he gives her a bath and reads bedtime stories while I cook dinner. I do the meal-planning and list-making; he often does the grocery shopping. He handles financial stuff; I plan our social life.
7. Make use of in-between time. Squeeze in workouts before the little one is awake, or after he's asleep. While your kid is taking 45 minutes to get through her tortellini dinner, use the time to make your grocery list (or order groceries online), prep food for your own dinner, unload the dishwasher, bag up the recycling. While your spouse cleans up the kitchen after Sunday dinner, you pack up leftovers, cut up vegetables, and slap together sandwiches for weekday lunches at your desk. While you eat said lunch hovering over your keyboard, take a few minutes to suss out the fun, kid-friendly things that might be happening during the upcoming weekend. Read or listen to audiobooks (I almost called them "books on tape" -- how quaint of me) during your commute.
8. Multitask hobbies. I am all for being present in the moment and all of that, but sometimes you have to dash off a blog post while catching up on TiVo'd shows or cruise through Eating Well for recipes while getting a pedicure (during naptime, of course). You could watch TV or listen to books during a workout or while cooking dinner. (Do people have other hobbies than TV, reading, blogging, and exercise?)
9. By any means necessary, keep your social life alive. You may have holed up when your child was born or neglected friendships when you dove back into office life after your leave ended, but now that you're Having It All, you've got to maintain an adult-centered social life for your sanity's sake. Find an evening sitter and GET OUT. And beyond that (since it's unlikely to happen more than a time or two per month), schedule a regular running/gym date with a friend, grab a muffin with a fellow parent after school drop-off before dashing to the office, stick around for coffee hour after worship services, take an hour out of your week to have lunch with someone you haven't seen in too long.
Well, I have blathered on FAR too long, so please share anything that you find helpful in the getting-it-all-done department. I'm going to bed.