Not a week goes by that people don’t ask me “how do you do it?” when they learn that I am the mom to five kids and run my own public relations firm in Chicago. That particular question always comes from other women – often moms themselves – that marvel that it is even possible to find balance and truly have the ability to enjoy being a parent simultaneously while running a business or even having a job at all.
I always shrug and say the same general answer, “I don’t know. I just do!” However, when I focus more closely on answering that consistent query, I find myself identifying a few themes that have guided me since becoming the mother to my first child, Emily, nearly 14 years ago.
First and foremost, yes, I want to state for the record that I have totally and utterly leaned in – well before a book was ever written on the topic. I’m thankful that there has been much attention on the worldwide conversation started by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. For months after Sandberg’s book came out, people told me I just had to read it and how it reminded them of me. I was curious about what Sandberg had to offer as I often struggled with her theme of achieving career success while being an actively involved mom. I’ll admit, I struggled for many years with guilt that I chose to work after Emily was born.
When I finally found quiet time on a flight to DC, I cracked open the hardcover and truly just felt I had found my own “mommy mentor” of sorts – I could so relate to many of Sandberg’s own observations, doubts and triumphs of juggling a successful career with a thriving family. All the things that have been rattling around my head the past 14 years, someone as successful and public as Sandberg was brave enough to put down right there in black and white.
I often marvel that this archaic conversation about working mothers is still is taking place in 2013. With many news reports and statistics stating that more than half of all households are dual income and many more women today are out-earning their husbands, it has always seemed unfair to me that working mothers are still often looked at as sub-standard or less involved as loving parents than their friends and sisters that choose to stay home with their brood. I also remain a bit dumbfounded that working fathers seem to remain without judgment and unscathed while focusing on their careers and finding time to enjoy hobbies or activities outside of the home. Let’s remember that they, too, were equal partners in the gift of a precious child entering into the world.
It is no secret to those who have known me since I was a 7 year old and “working her angles” tagging along on her dad’s business trips, that I have always been ambitious and had an inherent drive to succeed. That was just a part of my DNA, I suppose. So after working for several years out of college and progressing on a career path in PR, I, like most women my age, got married and decided to have my first child. At the time, I was on the fast track at a leading PR firm managing a large team and I loved what I did.
So, I’ll be the first to tell you, that after they hand you that beautiful little precious being in your arms, no one hands you a rulebook or manual with all of the ways to juggle motherhood and your career. You blindly go home to begin your maternity leave filled with wonder, worry and wishful thinking that your job will just be the same as it was before you gave birth.
When I returned from my 12-week baby–bonding break, I found myself struggling with understanding my own moral dilemma – how do I continue to be good at my job and be a good mom? I felt more than a little conflicted and never had the feeling I was ever where I was supposed to be – if I was working late or had a business trip, I felt enormous guilt despite the fact that my husband – and Emily’s dad – did the exact same thing. If I was home with Emily due to an ear infection or a bad night’s sleep with a crying baby, I was letting down my employer.
I kept wondering, “Did I make the wrong choice in coming back to work?” and certainly thought “Was I a bad mother for choosing to work instead of staying home?” In our case, we had just bought the “grown up” house in the suburbs based on two incomes. If I quit my job, that would mean I had to downgrade our life and publicly admit to my PR peers that I wasn’t cut out for this. I even thought to myself the most dreaded question, “Would I actually be a good stay at home mom if I did quit my job?” It was a time of lots of self-imposed guilt.
After learning I was unexpectedly pregnant again with a six month baby at home, I began to feel a monumental shift in my internal value system. It was a divine wakeup call (more like slap in the face) that I needed to re-prioritize my career plans and do something radical. When I was 7 months pregnant, I decided to leave the traditional agency life behind me and hang up my own shingle. But would anyone care?
After a slow start and earning enough income to barely cover our new baby’s diapers let alone the mortgage – my little consulting gig took off. As I look back to those early days in my basement, I had no idea that my little startup would become the 20-person firm I have today. I often joke I’m the “accidental agency.” I tell everyone that works for me that I believe we are all better at our jobs when we can pursue what our passion is outside of the office.
Afterall, it’s okay to lean in. Just hold on for the ride.
Kathleen Henson is founder and CEO of Henson Consulting based in Chicago.