Life's Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom

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A few years ago, award-winning reporter Lisa Belkin left the office to work from home, amid the chaos of two young children, writing deadlines, and everyday domestic details. She began writing a very personal column for and about people trying to "balance" their lives, but hundreds of columns later, she noticed that she had not heard from a single person who had everything under control. Then she realized: Nobody can do it because it simply can't be done. Life's Work is the story of modern motherhood, where true ...
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Overview

A few years ago, award-winning reporter Lisa Belkin left the office to work from home, amid the chaos of two young children, writing deadlines, and everyday domestic details. She began writing a very personal column for and about people trying to "balance" their lives, but hundreds of columns later, she noticed that she had not heard from a single person who had everything under control. Then she realized: Nobody can do it because it simply can't be done. Life's Work is the story of modern motherhood, where true happiness is often reached when you finally give up and give in. Belkin's is the funny, poignant, and always deadon story of trying to do it all ... and learning that doing just some of it is enough.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Collecting together many of Belkin's popular "Life's Work" columns from The New York Times and adding new material, this is a witty and dead-on depiction of the life of the modern working mother. With a healthy dose of self-deprecation, Belkin explores the obstacles inherent in the act of juggling parenthood (or even marriage) and work, but she never fails to observe and celebrate the humor in the chaos that ensues. More than anything else, these essays pay homage to the effort that so many working mothers pour into filling their lives with joy and fulfillment -- regardless of whether their labor is carried out in the home, in the office, or somewhere in between.
Publishers Weekly
Belkin, the New York Times's "Life's Work" columnist, has gathered some previously published pieces with some new material for a lighthearted look at many career moms' reality: juggling career, kids and personal needs. No one can give 100% to each, Belkin reassures, so "let's start by forgiving ourselves when we can't do it." To get readers in the mood, Belkin shares her own worst moments: potty training her son while on the phone with "Very Important Sources," having to finish work on some galleys at gasp! the pediatrician's office and her son's tantrums at discovering his work-at-home mom wasn't available for play. Tears at work, morning sickness, breast pumping, laptop addiction, work addiction Belkin at least mentions all the usual career-mom issues. But since the entries are only a few pages long, treatment can be disappointingly superficial: when stressed at work, eat a chocolate; consider buying a second computer for kids to channel them away from Mom's. Hidden in all the feel-better solidarity are some valuable nuggets. Describing the importance of the nanny/babysitter's happiness to her own mental health, Belkin identifies a feeling many women share, but rarely discuss. Also on target is her observation that her mother's generation "did it all," but serially first the family, then the career. Despite its old-hat thesis, Belkin's book will serve as a pick-me-up to some career mothers in need of sympathy. (May 1) Forecast: With a first serial in Glamour and second serial in Ladies' Home Journal, Belkin's sure to gain national stature, even if her short takes work better as newspaper columns than in hardcover. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
New York Times reporter Belkin needed an outlet for discussing the trials of being both a modern working woman and a modern mother, so she founded the newspaper's "Life's Work" column, which often incorporates stories from both men and women. This editorial technique creates a sense of solidarity among her readers: they can take comfort in knowing that no one can easily juggle these roles. Collected here are 54 brief selections, some new, others previously published but expanded. They make convenient commuter reading, but as they are intended as condensed slices-of-modern-life, they do not offer a great deal of soul searching (for that, see the memoirs that follow). This will have a previous reader base, so buy where demand warrants. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tell-it-like-it-is collection of short essays that cheerfully and comfortingly address the conflicts between life as a spouse and parent and life as a working person. Belkin (Show Me a Hero, 1999, etc.) gets right to the point: "It cannot be done." It's impossible to be a 100% parent, a 100% worker, and a 100% human being, she writes: "So what?" Her verbal shrug is not an attempt to downplay the importance of the multiple roles that women and men assume, but to reassure all the fretful people who try to reconcile work, parenting, and relationships, plus diet and exercise, that something—maybe lots of things—have to give. Some of the pieces began in Belkin's New York Times column, "Life's Work," then were updated as she followed events (the dot.com crash, September 11); some are original. The author achieves a graceful balance between personal anecdotes and reports from others (families, couples, retirees, and singles) who juggle job and life. Key chapters go to the high-powered, two-career couple who plan to lunch together often to keep their relationship meaningful. Work pressures short-circuit their lunch plans, so they quit their jobs and take a sabbatical in Bali, reassessing their priorities. Another tale reflects on a wired entrepreneur who, when he found that he and his wife were going to have a baby, planned to restructure his company, embracing parental leave, day care, and shorter hours for all his employees. Those plans fell apart with the technology downturn. Belkin also deftly discusses jet lag, filing expense reports, and pets in the office, issues not as trivial as they might seem. There's an insightful epilogue on how little September 11 changed the pattern of work vs.life conflicts. Written with wit and perspective, these short takes on integrating home and job will be balm for guilt-stricken parents and harried workers. First serial to Glamour; second serial to Ladies' Home Journal
From the Publisher
Bookpage You'll never look at life and work the same way again.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743225410
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/9/2002
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.78 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Belkin is a reporter for The New York Times and author of that newspaper's "Life's Work" column. She is the author of First, Do No Harm, about a Texas hospital seen through the prism of its ethics committee, and Show Me a Hero, about the effects of a judge's desegregation order on one small neighborhood. Belkin lives with her husband, Bruce, two sons, Evan and Alex, and dog, Riley, in Westchester County, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

I used to think that life was linear. A straight line, from A to Z, mailroom to CEO, the first day of work to the gold retirement watch. You decide what you want to be and then you make a beeline in that direction. Simple.

I also used to think that life could be "balanced" — a word that I have come to hate. It sounds like some sort of tantric yoga position, a contorted pose that others on the mat can do because they are really trying. As you might have guessed, I'm not very good at yoga.

This book is the story of how I gave up on straight lines; how I learned to zig and zag, to leapfrog and jump backward. It's also the story of how I gave up on balance and decided to settle for a close approximation of sanity, instead. (Disclaimer: I have not actually attained sanity yet, but am ever hopeful.)

There was a time when I didn't think about any of this. I was single in Manhattan back then, a brand-new reporter at the newspaper of every reporter's dreams. I spent all available moments at the office without feeling that I was giving up any part of my life. This job was my life. Then I met Bruce, and the office didn't seem quite as interesting anymore. A doctor-in-training, he was moving to Houston months after we met to complete a four-year fellowship program. I knew nothing about Houston, except that it was hot and I hate the heat. In a decision that was anything but logical or linear I quit my dream job at The New York Times, married a man I'd known for less than a year, and moved to Texas.

New city. No job. A new husband who not only worked all day, but sometimes all night. The best way to meet new people, I'd learned, was to interview them, so I began freelancing for the newspaper I'd just quit and stumbled into the best professional experience of my life. I discovered that I was jazzed by a kind of work I had never had a chance to try — dashing around the state, using Southwest Airlines as though it were a taxi service, hopscotching from one story to the next. I learned I had a knack for longer, more thoughtful writing, too. I wrote some of my first magazine articles while in Texas, and my first book.

But the most important things I learned didn't become clear until I had returned to New York, to a full-time job in the newsroom, with my husband and three-month-old child in tow. The first lesson Texas taught me was that editors don't have to see you in order to edit you. I had answered copy desk questions from pay phones from Lubbock to Brownsville, and it made no difference where I was. This was back in the dark ages, when cell phones were the size of those crank-up models used in the Korean War and only a few show-offs carried them around. But I insisted on one and smugly sat on the train each evening at six instead of seven, answering questions from the copy desk in a rolling extension of the office.

When I became pregnant with my second son three years later, I decided to leave the paper completely. It was a decision that made as little sense as my decision to move to Houston, but one that made me just as proud of myself. Look at me, I crowed silently. Aren't I just the essence of modern motherhood? I'll freelance from home. I'll write another book. I'll nurse my newborn with one hand and type an article with the other hand, all while a nutritious family dinner simmers on the stove.

I certainly used both my hands. The problem was, I needed four or five more. I had changed the location of my juggling act, but not the juggling itself. Here are just a few of the highlights, seared forever into my memory:

  • My first day as a work-at-home-mom. I pulled on my sweats (which was, after all, the point of this entire plan) and shuffled downstairs for breakfast with my son. Then I kissed him sweetly on the top of his head, handed him to his baby-sitter, and said brightly, "Mommy is going upstairs to work now." That's when he began to wail. He shrieked outside my office door for the better part of two days, not understanding why Mommy was home but was not his. On the third morning, I pulled on my panty hose and a suit, kissed him again, then drove to the nearby diner for a cup of coffee and a muffin. After about an hour, I snuck back into my own house and went to work.
  • The frantic morning when the baby-sitter was sick, and we were at a crucial potty-training moment. So I moved the boy, the potty, and the job-well-done stickers into my office, where my interviews with Very Important Sources were periodically interrupted by squeals of "Mommy, I have to pee."
  • The afternoon of the yearly doctor checkup, this one a visit requiring shots. I had promised I would be there — what is the point of working at home if you can't make it to the visits that include shots? — but it turned out that a magazine story I'd written was closing at exactly the same time as the doctor's appointment. So I sat on a chair in the waiting room, my nervous little boy's head on my lap, and the magazine galleys draped over him as I scribbled changes, then phoned them in to the copy desk.

Since I am such a healthy example of balance, the editors of the Times asked me to write a column. We called it Life's Work, and what you are about to read includes many of the columns I think say it best, along with lots of new material about what I learned while writing all those columns. Think of the columns as the pineapple, and the whole of my life story as the Jell-O. I've kept each chapter short because, if you're like me, there's only time enough to read a few pages between sliding into bed and collapsing into sleep.

My editors say Life's Work is about the intersection of life and work. I say it is about the collisions that happen daily at that intersection. Either way, the subject appealed to the many parts of my fractured self. The reporter in me understood that this emotional and economic tug-of-war is the central story of our generation. And the conflicted parent in me — the one who thought working from home would be the solution but found it only created different problems — saw a chance to get advice. I envisioned Life's Work as a kaleidoscope of voices, sometimes mine, often strangers I met along the way. It would be an ongoing conversation on the page, and maybe it would offer me some answers. So please feel free to talk back to the book. That's part of the point.

We reporters always believe we will change the world through our work, when the truth is our work inevitably changes us. My first columns reflected my life; soon they began to shape my life. I did find answers — surprisingly simple answers — but they were not at all what I'd expected they'd be. In part they came from noticing truths and shadows in my world that had been there all along: the intricate legacy of work, for instance, that my family had passed down through the generations and which was an unseen hand behind choices I'd thought were uniquely my own.

Most of the answers, though, came from listening. My E-mail address ran with every column, and over time I heard from thousands of readers — women and men, married and single, parents and nonparents. There were notes from a couple of newlywed workaholics who were determined to make time in their day to meet each other for lunch. There were letters from a CEO father-to-be who was trying to restructure his entire company so he would have time to see his baby. There was a cry for help from the divorced mom who thought she might have to give away the family iguana because the store that sold live food closed before she got home from work. (Their stories are all in here; read on.) Yet in all that electronic conversation, over all this time, one letter never arrived. I have yet to hear from anyone who feels they are doing everything right.

So it's not just me who can't do this — and it's not just you, either. Not a one of us seems to be able to give 100 percent of themselves to their job and 100 percent of themselves to their family and 100 percent of themselves to taking care of themselves. Small wonder. Yet we all seem to think someone (else) out there is getting it right; people who work full-time think people who work part-time are doing it, and people who work part-time think people who don't work at all are doing it, and those who left the office to tend to home think that if only they could escape back to an office, they might find sanity. But all of this misses the point. No one can do it, because it cannot be done.

Read that last sentence again. It cannot be done. This book you are holding, filled with the tales of my life and the lives of all those strangers, is crystallized around that simple thought. It cannot be done. So let's start forgiving ourselves when we can't do it.

On the day of the pivotal doctor-visit-with-shots, I looked up from my galleys, my cell phone, and my whimpering son and saw a woman on the other side of the waiting room glaring at me. I wanted to march over and say, "At least I'm here, aren't I?" But I stayed put and tried something I had never done before. I simply shrugged. This was not a metaphorical shrug, but a physical one. And it felt good.

Go ahead. Shrug. Lift those shoulders. Breathe deep. Raise your hands in mock surrender toward the ceiling and repeat after me: "So what?"

So what if the house isn't as clean as it could be?

So what if that last business report was not the best you have ever written?

So what if you're eating takeout for the second night in a row, or haven't been to the gym in weeks, or sent your children to school in crumpled shirts on school picture day?

So what if you have to answer questions from the copy desk while at the doctor's office?

I am not saying that none of these things matter. They all matter, but not all the time. I am as bad at math as I am at yoga, but even I know that 100 percent plus 100 percent plus 100 percent equals more than any one person can do in a day.

So what?

Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Belkin

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11
Love (and Work) and Marriage
Work Ethic 21
For Love or Money 25
Competition 29
By Any Other Name 33
Lunch 36
Firewalls 39
Babies
Pregnant at Work 45
Internet Baby 48
Maternity Leave 52
Paternity Leave 56
Love and Work and Marriage and Babies
Working Mom 63
Baby-sitters 66
The Grapes of Marital Wrath 71
Broccoli and Sauce 75
Take Our Daughters to Work, 2000 78
Take Our Daughters to Work, 2001 81
Take Your Parent to Work Day, 2001 84
Bringing Life to Work
More Lunch 91
Briefcases 94
Sick at Work 98
The Child Is the Father of Man 101
Crying at Work 105
Stress and Chocolate 108
Bringing Work Back Home
Going Home Again 115
Life Is a Swivel Chair 119
Trying to Connect 122
Friends at Work 126
Getting Organized 129
(Lack of) Exercise 132
Riley, the Dog 135
Giving in to Work
The Internet Baby's Birthday 141
Vacation 144
Random Thoughts from the Middle of the Night 147
When the Muse Goes on Strike 150
Mini-Vacations 153
Working After Work 156
Getting Back to Work
Seasonal Guilt 161
September 2000 163
My New Computer 166
Organize (Again) 169
Calendars 172
Life from a Pay Phone 175
Saturday Night 178
Hotel Rooms 181
Home Office Charades 184
Life's Work
What Next? 189
Back from Lunch 191
Change of Life 194
Hubie 197
Succession 200
When We Grow Up 203
Time 206
Resolutions 209
September 11, 2001 212
Epilogue 215
Acknowledgments 219
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Introduction

Introduction

I used to think that life was linear. A straight line, from A to Z, mailroom to CEO, the first day of work to the gold retirement watch. You decide what you want to be and then you make a beeline in that direction. Simple.

I also used to think that life could be "balanced" — a word that I have come to hate. It sounds like some sort of tantric yoga position, a contorted pose that others on the mat can do because they are really trying. As you might have guessed, I'm not very good at yoga.

This book is the story of how I gave up on straight lines; how I learned to zig and zag, to leapfrog and jump backward. It's also the story of how I gave up on balance and decided to settle for a close approximation of sanity, instead. (Disclaimer: I have not actually attained sanity yet, but am ever hopeful.)

There was a time when I didn't think about any of this. I was single in Manhattan back then, a brand-new reporter at the newspaper of every reporter's dreams. I spent all available moments at the office without feeling that I was giving up any part of my life. This job was my life. Then I met Bruce, and the office didn't seem quite as interesting anymore. A doctor-in-training, he was moving to Houston months after we met to complete a four-year fellowship program. I knew nothing about Houston, except that it was hot and I hate the heat. In a decision that was anything but logical or linear I quit my dream job at The New York Times, married a man I'd known for less than a year, and moved to Texas.

New city. No job. A new husband who not only worked all day, but sometimes all night. The best way to meet new people, I'd learned, was to interview them, so I began freelancing for the newspaper I'd just quit and stumbled into the best professional experience of my life. I discovered that I was jazzed by a kind of work I had never had a chance to try — dashing around the state, using Southwest Airlines as though it were a taxi service, hopscotching from one story to the next. I learned I had a knack for longer, more thoughtful writing, too. I wrote some of my first magazine articles while in Texas, and my first book.

But the most important things I learned didn't become clear until I had returned to New York, to a full-time job in the newsroom, with my husband and three-month-old child in tow. The first lesson Texas taught me was that editors don't have to see you in order to edit you. I had answered copy desk questions from pay phones from Lubbock to Brownsville, and it made no difference where I was. This was back in the dark ages, when cell phones were the size of those crank-up models used in the Korean War and only a few show-offs carried them around. But I insisted on one and smugly sat on the train each evening at six instead of seven, answering questions from the copy desk in a rolling extension of the office.

When I became pregnant with my second son three years later, I decided to leave the paper completely. It was a decision that made as little sense as my decision to move to Houston, but one that made me just as proud of myself. Look at me, I crowed silently. Aren't I just the essence of modern motherhood? I'll freelance from home. I'll write another book. I'll nurse my newborn with one hand and type an article with the other hand, all while a nutritious family dinner simmers on the stove.

I certainly used both my hands. The problem was, I needed four or five more. I had changed the location of my juggling act, but not the juggling itself. Here are just a few of the highlights, seared forever into my memory:

  • My first day as a work-at-home-mom. I pulled on my sweats (which was, after all, the point of this entire plan) and shuffled downstairs for breakfast with my son. Then I kissed him sweetly on the top of his head, handed him to his baby-sitter, and said brightly, "Mommy is going upstairs to work now." That's when he began to wail. He shrieked outside my office door for the better part of two days, not understanding why Mommy was home but was not his. On the third morning, I pulled on my panty hose and a suit, kissed him again, then drove to the nearby diner for a cup of coffee and a muffin. After about an hour, I snuck back into my own house and went to work.
  • The frantic morning when the baby-sitter was sick, and we were at a crucial potty-training moment. So I moved the boy, the potty, and the job-well-done stickers into my office, where my interviews with Very Important Sources were periodically interrupted by squeals of "Mommy, I have to pee."
  • The afternoon of the yearly doctor checkup, this one a visit requiring shots. I had promised I would be there — what is the point of working at home if you can't make it to the visits that include shots? — but it turned out that a magazine story I'd written was closing at exactly the same time as the doctor's appointment. So I sat on a chair in the waiting room, my nervous little boy's head on my lap, and the magazine galleys draped over him as I scribbled changes, then phoned them in to the copy desk.

Since I am such a healthy example of balance, the editors of the Times asked me to write a column. We called it Life's Work, and what you are about to read includes many of the columns I think say it best, along with lots of new material about what I learned while writing all those columns. Think of the columns as the pineapple, and the whole of my life story as the Jell-O. I've kept each chapter short because, if you're like me, there's only time enough to read a few pages between sliding into bed and collapsing into sleep.

My editors say Life's Work is about the intersection of life and work. I say it is about the collisions that happen daily at that intersection. Either way, the subject appealed to the many parts of my fractured self. The reporter in me understood that this emotional and economic tug-of-war is the central story of our generation. And the conflicted parent in me — the one who thought working from home would be the solution but found it only created different problems — saw a chance to get advice. I envisioned Life's Work as a kaleidoscope of voices, sometimes mine, often strangers I met along the way. It would be an ongoing conversation on the page, and maybe it would offer me some answers. So please feel free to talk back to the book. That's part of the point.

We reporters always believe we will change the world through our work, when the truth is our work inevitably changes us. My first columns reflected my life; soon they began to shape my life. I did find answers — surprisingly simple answers — but they were not at all what I'd expected they'd be. In part they came from noticing truths and shadows in my world that had been there all along: the intricate legacy of work, for instance, that my family had passed down through the generations and which was an unseen hand behind choices I'd thought were uniquely my own.

Most of the answers, though, came from listening. My E-mail address ran with every column, and over time I heard from thousands of readers — women and men, married and single, parents and nonparents. There were notes from a couple of newlywed workaholics who were determined to make time in their day to meet each other for lunch. There were letters from a CEO father-to-be who was trying to restructure his entire company so he would have time to see his baby. There was a cry for help from the divorced mom who thought she might have to give away the family iguana because the store that sold live food closed before she got home from work. (Their stories are all in here; read on.) Yet in all that electronic conversation, over all this time, one letter never arrived. I have yet to hear from anyone who feels they are doing everything right.

So it's not just me who can't do this — and it's not just you, either. Not a one of us seems to be able to give 100 percent of themselves to their job and 100 percent of themselves to their family and 100 percent of themselves to taking care of themselves. Small wonder. Yet we all seem to think someone (else) out there is getting it right; people who work full-time think people who work part-time are doing it, and people who work part-time think people who don't work at all are doing it, and those who left the office to tend to home think that if only they could escape back to an office, they might find sanity. But all of this misses the point. No one can do it, because it cannot be done.

Read that last sentence again. It cannot be done. This book you are holding, filled with the tales of my life and the lives of all those strangers, is crystallized around that simple thought. It cannot be done. So let's start forgiving ourselves when we can't do it.

On the day of the pivotal doctor-visit-with-shots, I looked up from my galleys, my cell phone, and my whimpering son and saw a woman on the other side of the waiting room glaring at me. I wanted to march over and say, "At least I'm here, aren't I?" But I stayed put and tried something I had never done before. I simply shrugged. This was not a metaphorical shrug, but a physical one. And it felt good.

Go ahead. Shrug. Lift those shoulders. Breathe deep. Raise your hands in mock surrender toward the ceiling and repeat after me: "So what?"

So what if the house isn't as clean as it could be?

So what if that last business report was not the best you have ever written?

So what if you're eating takeout for the second night in a row, or haven't been to the gym in weeks, or sent your children to school in crumpled shirts on school picture day?

So what if you have to answer questions from the copy desk while at the doctor's office?

I am not saying that none of these things matter. They all matter, but not all the time. I am as bad at math as I am at yoga, but even I know that 100 percent plus 100 percent plus 100 percent equals more than any one person can do in a day.

So what?

Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Belkin

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2003

    Wonderful book!

    This book was so increadble to read! I love the woman who's husband bought brown grapes! I love this book so much I have been refering it to friends (I have even purchased it for some who were at their wit's end). Thanks Lisa for putting this book together!

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