My world was rocked by a recent New York Times piece about Mary Wells Lawrence, the iconic 1960s female advertising exec on whom Mad Men’s Peggy is roughly based. Yeah, it was pretty cool that this chick from Ohio blew into New York and started an ad agency in 1966 that billed $39 million in its first year. She was a 27-year-old single mom of two at the time, before Gloria Steinem and her feminist harem bitch-slapped the macho establishment into shape.
But what really blew my mind was the part of the story that points out that for most of their lives, Lawrence’s daughters saw their jet-setting mother mostly on weekends only—and that Lawrence was totally cool with that:
What is striking about talking to Ms. Lawrence now … is how little emotional torture seemed to surround the effort to amalgamate professional and maternal responsibilities. “I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy,” Ms. Lawrence said.
Them’s fighting words! I, too, am a single professional mom of two. But I a) don’t bill in the millions, b) truly believe that children are the greatest joy, and c) am fully tortured all day long by the struggle to balance my time between two forces that I both love and need. Some days I am convinced that I really can have it all. The rest of the time I beat myself up for failing to meet what feels like an impossible standard to simultaneously be a fully engaged mom and a successful writer.
Single mom quotes on overwhelm
My most cherished part of the day: “Mommy!” my 2- and 4-year-olds rush to greet me with glowing faces and hugs when I pick them up from daycare.
Two seconds out the door: Checking my iPhone for a message from a potential client. Guilt ensues.
Another highlight: Sitting down to the hot breakfast I proudly cook each morning, answering my precocious 4-year-old daughter’s questions about NPR’s report on Afghanistan.
Simultaneously: Thinking through the story I will write in my home office as soon as I dump these kids back at said daycare. Again, that guilt!
8:04 p.m.: Heart melting as my toddler son asks, “Hold hand, Mommy?” as I sing him “The Garden Song” at bedtime.
8:17 p.m.: Sprinting down the hall to set up interviews for the next deadline. Ditto. And I’m not even Catholic.
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Cue heavenly choral music as I receive an email from my friend Laura Vanderkam offering me a free time makeover. Laura is a fellow mom and freelance writer who seriously changed my life with her first book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
The gist is that many of us blow our most precious commodity (time) by not spending it on our core competencies, and not thinking critically about how we while away hours. For me, core competencies include my work and mothering. These are what I do best, so there is no reason to spend my precious time, say, cleaning the crud that accumulates under my dining table each week. Instead, Laura argues, I should outsource everything that I don’t enjoy, which makes time, money and emotional sense.
Case in point: Laundry. Laundry is Laura’s pet peeve. “Laundry is the biggest time suck,” she said over a wine-filled dinner a few years ago. What?! Wasn’t laundry just a part of being an adult? But in my Astoria, Queens, New York neighborhood, I learned to pay someone about $25 per week to pick up my dirty things, wash, dry, fold and sort them and return them to my door the same day. Doing the same task myself would cost two hours and save me $15 in quarters. In two hours I make way more money writing stories for this and other fine publications. I like writing these stories. Plus, I have to write them so my family can eat. I don’t like laundry.
The thing with Laura and her books (she has a similar one on money management) is that they can be a bit sanctimonious. For me, it took a lot of time, practice and emotional growth to sign on to the notion that I cannot afford not to pay someone else to clean my house. At first I felt guilty that Sandra, my amazing house cleaner, visited once per month. But I have gradually inched up to outsourcing this loathed task every week. I love it. It’s a stress relief that no doubt translates into a less harried and more fun mom.
As this order has benefited my home life, my financial life has benefited, too. It’s impossible to quantify the correlation, but in the past couple of years as I’ve implemented Laura’s edicts, I’ve increasingly made more money. I’ve started outsourcing other things: at tax time this year I breezily paid my accountant to sort and tally my business receipts, and when a closet full of cast-offs wouldn’t take care of itself, I hired a nice woman from TaskRabbit.com to haul it all to a local charity. I think I should be creating more single mom memes on my Instagram account about this!
That’s the back story.
Single mom inspirational stories
Laura has a new book out: Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done
Upon hearing about this theory, my knee-jerk reaction was to say, “Before breakfast I’m sleeping! Because as a single working mom of two kids who are up and down all night I’m exhausted, you sanctimonious whore!” But I shut it and accepted Laura’s generous offer to give me a time makeover, which she also wrote about on her CBS MoneyWatch blog.
For one week I logged every hour of my day in an Excel spreadsheet. One thing I felt good about: My days were indeed full. From the time I woke until the kids went down were chockablock with work, exercise and the personal tasks I simply cannot do without childcare. But the evenings were often squandered as I either dithered it away on the Internet or as I lay motionless on my bed in an exhaustion coma.
In my email to Laura I laid out a few goals: Spend 20 minutes of one-on-one time with each kid each day, find a chunk of alone time regularly, tackle the marketing and strategic planning that a business requires and get a grip on all the little household projects that pile up. Oh, and remove the sense of chaos from my life.
In our phone consultation, Laura started out with some heavy petting: “First, congratulations,” she said. “Your schedule is amazing. You have a lot of professional success in not a lot of work hours [the kids are in daycare between 30 and 35 hours each week], and you’re spending a lot of time with the kids as well.” Okay, I thought, keep talking.
After 30 minutes I got some great suggestions. But the general takeaway was to have more fun and meaning in life. Happy people are more engaged and better doing whatever it is that they do. Also, I remember how long it took me to sign on to Laura’s other time-saving edicts, so while I clearly have a long way to go, I am hopeful.
Time management for single moms
Here is a summary of our consultation:
Suggestion 1: Create a buffer time before I pick up the kids from their daycare, which is a two-minute walk from my apartment. “There is a reason people have commutes,” she said. “It gives people transition time between work and their professional lives, and working out of a home office you don’t have that decompression time,” which contributes to my sense of harriedness. “When you’re toggling back and forth, you’re not doing anything fully, which is not efficient.”
In practice: Yesterday, my first day of the rest of my life, I did just that: took 20 minutes before pickup to straighten up my bedroom/office and do a bit of yoga—things that felt good and improved my physical and mental wellbeing. Guess what? During my afternoon with the kids, I felt a little more engaged and only checked my email four times. A feat.
Suggestion 2: Designate an hour each week for marketing and making a list of household tasks, and tackle one per week. “When you set time for things, you can dismiss the nagging feeling associated with them by telling yourself, ‘Now is not the time to do that.’”
In practice: Created an electronic sticky note on my computer desktop with an intimidatingly long list. After the kids went to sleep yesterday I straightened out the kitchen junk drawer. It took all of seven minutes and felt awesome.
Suggestion 3: This one surprised me: Get up an hour earlier than normal and do some creative writing. I hadn’t mentioned any lack of creative fulfillment, but when she said that I immediately got very excited. Somehow she intuitively tapped into this unmet need, and I loved the sound of it.
In practice: Today, I climbed out of bed a half hour after the beep, made a coffee and cranked out 1,000 words of this story. When the kids woke an hour later, I felt excited and happy, and my phone was on the other side of the house and I didn’t even miss it. This may change my life.
Suggestion 4: “Create pockets of happy time. This is fun and relaxing stuff, not just stuff that is meaningful like raising children and meaningful work,” Laura said.
In practice: Last weekend I unexpectedly found myself alone for two hours when my kids were with their dad and I normally spend precious time with my boyfriend, Larry. Instead, I sat quietly eating a dinner of leftover corn chowder and reading the Sunday Times. Bliss. I need to do this every week, Laura said. Today I wrote on my to-do list to tell Larry that from now on I’ll be arriving two hours later on Saturday nights.
Suggestion 5: Give myself a bedtime routine. Limit my Internet dawdling to half an hour, then designate another half hour of magazine reading or movie watching to unwind. Go to bed at a set hour.
In practice: Last night I read half of March’s issue of More magazine before dozing off. No idea what time that was.
Suggestion 6: Let some of it go. Laura and I brainstormed ways to get a little one-on-one time with each of my children, and nothing made sense. She gave me permission to park that idea for a year or two.
In practice: Done.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.