Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Summer Internship as a Stay-At-Home Mom (Week 3 of 5)

This summer, I decided to do something I haven’t done in the 17 years since grad school: take a big chunk of time off (without giving birth.)  My boss reluctantly approved my request after I suggested that he just pretend I was having a baby.  He thought about it in silence for a few seconds, then sighed and said, “Well, as long as you don’t actually have one.”  That was about four months back.  
Two and a half weeks ago, the odyssey began.  We left SFO at 6AM on a Sunday to join our extended family in Maine, and the decompression happened more quickly than I expected.  At the gate, I was on Skype with my boss, talking through a plan of attack for the hot probs du jour.  I drank a Bloody Mary through clenched teeth on our flight.  24 hours later, I was swimming in a cove full of green crabs, my iPhone tucked into a drawer several miles away.  I left it there for almost the whole trip.

Above all else, we set out to relax in Maine.  Gradually, I eased off the reflex to hurry the kids, digesting the delicious realization that we weren’t on a schedule.  My sister and I both wanted a vacation with the fewest commitments, the fewest dishes, the fewest provocations to lose it with our kids.  So we swam, we sailed, we picked blueberries, we had ice cream for breakfast, we hiked, we took naps.  We performed the play that Rebecca and my nephew wrote.  And we woke up every morning without a plan.  As our 10-day trip drew to a close, Paula and I had to remind ourselves that our real life hadn't changed; this was only a hiatus.  But it was one we savored.  The girls savored it, too.  They almost never get a date with Mommy that isn’t time-boxed.  

After five days at home, the girls and I arrived yesterday in Point Reyes.  I’m relaxing on the couch while they work through an elaborate Playmobil-assisted fantasy about a war between the Swan People and the Dragon People.  This afternoon, we head for a night at Sky Camp – not exactly backcountry camping, but at 1.2 miles from the trail head, it's adventurous enough for me, with two kids in tow, a herniated disc, and four knee surgeries in my wake.  I've spent a total of 15 minutes working since we got here.

As with all summer internships, I know that my experience is not a good likeness for a full-time position as SAHM.  Moms almost always wake up with a plan – often one that most CEOs would find intimidating.  And stay-at-home moms usually are responsible for all the kid stuff single-handedly; I have the significant advantage that Dad isn’t working, either.  This is kind of like the rafting trip and wine tasting drill Booz Allen did when I was an intern to convince us that the brutality of management consulting is actually glamorous and fun.  

Nonetheless, I’m appreciating this brief swing of the pendulum toward the mother in working mother.  Last week, I actually met the counselors at Rebecca’s camp.  I dropped her off and picked her up one day.  I got a glimpse into how she interacted with the other kids.  (Leah has been to two camps so far this summer; I never set eyes on either one.)  For the first time in a long time, I feel less like an absentee sponsor of my children’s activities and more like a participant.  Who knew that schlepping your kids around could (in moderation) be so fulfilling?  
The biggest a-ha for me is that – guess what – I’m not a workaholic.  I am reveling in the time off.  Don’t get me wrong; I work hard at my job (and I’m not just saying that in case my boss is reading my blog.)  I’ve stayed connected enough to support my team and take care of our customers.  But working hard is different from workaholism.  Workaholics depend on their jobs the way alcoholics depend on booze.  They use work to compensate for anxiety or low self-esteem or to evade challenges at home.  They fill long hours with work that yields diminishing returns because not working gives them the shakes.

And as I’m embarking on my third week off, with no delirium tremens to show for it, I’m affirming the gratification and challenge and joy and growth I get outside of work too.  My professional identity is an important part of me – but I don’t depend on working to feel good about myself. 

This reset may actually benefit GreenRoad when I return next month.  As anyone who has taken maternity leave in a leadership role knows, stepping out of your routine forces more junior team members to grow, exposes fault lines that need to be reinforced, and makes everything off the critical path fade to gray.  When you come back, you can’t help but realize that much of what you spent time on before you left didn’t actually fall to pieces without your attention when you were gone.  Which means… you have a lot more discretionary time to spend on high-value, strategic tasks than you thought.  And that is not only good for the company but also for those loved ones who suffer the externalities if you become frustrated or burned out at work.  

That is all good and well.  But as I woke up with a 5-year-old in my bed and gleefully subjected myself to today's interrogation - "Is a tongue a muscle?  Do you weigh more than a horse?  Why does Daddy talk about Mother Nature instead of God?"- my head was right here, in this job, one that I feared would feel awkward and forced but which actually feels like a second skin.  

Which is more of a relief than you’ll ever know.