The Work-Life Balancing Act - You Don't Have To Give Up

By Caroline Wong, CISSP

You don’t have to give up what is important to you.

Sixteen months ago, I gave birth to my first child, a precious round-cheeked baby girl. Three months after that, I returned to my full-time role as a Director at one of the world’s largest application security consulting firms. My family joined the 40% of households in the United States with a mother as the sole or primary breadwinner (compared with 11% of families in 1960).

Every family constellation is different. Mine happens to feature a working mom, a student dad, a baby, a dog, and two cats. The phrase “it takes a village” has become incredibly meaningful to me. Our village includes day care, our wonderful housekeeper, my mother-in-law, my sister, our pediatrician, a mom’s group on Facebook, and a bunch of books. Thank goodness for all the people in our lives who help us to provide the best care we can for our baby girl.

Caroline and baby

I studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley, one of the toughest academic programs in the country, but raising a newborn while working is definitely much harder.
— Caroline Wong

Despite the fact that it’s 2016 and not 1916, women are still the ones who must find a way to achieve this work-life balance, no matter what they say about gender equality in the workforce. According to a Pew Research Center survey, “mothers with children under age 18 were about three times as likely as fathers to say that being a working parent made it harder for them to advance in their job or career (51% vs. 16%).” And 35% of women who cut back on their work hours to care for family reported that this decision had a negative effect on their career overall – while only 17% of men reported the same problem.

As a consultant, I have to travel to client sites from time to time (less now that I have a baby). Being away from my daughter was harder than I thought, but my manager reminds me: “It wouldn’t be so hard if you didn’t care so much.”

I do care, so it is hard.

As a nursing mother who travels for work, there were extra challenges and logistics complications that I did not expect. For example, here is my schedule as a traveling consultant before my daughter was born:

  • Sunday midday – Board plane at SFO
  • Sunday afternoon & evening – Land at IAD, dinner, bath, iron, sleep
  • Monday morning – Shower, makeup and hair, breakfast
  • Monday at the client office – Work, lunch, work
  • Monday evening – Dinner, bath, yoga, sleep

And here’s what my schedule looked like after I went back to work and was still breastfeeding:

  • Sunday late evening – Pump at SFO, board plane for red-eye flight (carrying pump equipment, milk storage, and cooling instrument through security, from the plane to the rental car to the hotel), pump twice on plane
  • Monday morning – Pump at IAD or in cab to client office, brush teeth in a bathroom somewhere
  • Monday at the office – Work, pump, work, pump during lunch, work, pump after work
  • Monday evening – Collapse on bed and fall asleep, wake up to pump 2-3 times during the evening

As a natural workaholic, I needed to figure out early on in my career how to proactively manage to balance my life. As a working mom, this balance has become even more important for my overall well-being, that of my family, and my quality of work.

Here are a few of the techniques that have helped me the most:

  1. Plan early and communicate. This applies to both my relationship with my family as well as with my employer. One of the first people I told when I found out I was pregnant was my boss. If I was going to be out of the office for 3 months, I wanted to make sure that the transition in and out of work would be smooth. As a working mother, I found that if I were to be tied up for either work or family commitments, it is especially important to manage expectations early and communicate often.
  2. Energy management. There’s a lot to be said for effectively managing one’s time, but what about one’s energy? There’s only 24 hours in a day, so your throughput can vary widely depending on your energy level. Be mindful of what types of activities give you energy versus those that deplete it. If I’m up at 3 a.m. breastfeeding my daughter and a brilliant idea occurs to me, I’m not just going to go to sleep. That’s the time to sit down at my laptop and create a new piece of IP, or write the recommendations section for a client deliverable. But after that, it’s important to give myself some downtime to catch up – a power nap, a meditation session, or 15 minutes of yoga – all things that will recharge me and give me energy.
  3. Find the rhythm that works. Everyone’s style is different. Personally, I’m thinking about my work and consciously planning for it all the time. So when I actually sit down at my computer, I’ve already thought through what I am going to do and I just execute. I know working parents who work all day and all night on weekdays, but their weekends are off limits. Others work while their kids are in school, leave the office early, and do a second shift at night. Find what works for you and plan around that.
  4. It’s okay to drop balls. We all drop balls. Don't kill yourself trying to catch them all. Focus on what matters, and accept that the rest is categorized under “do what you can.” Angela Lee Duckworth says in her TED talk on grit and perseverance that failure is not a permanent condition. So repeat after me: “IT IS OK TO DROP BALLS.”

I’m a huge fan of the book by Laura Vanderkam, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. Laura asked working mothers earning $100k+ a year to keep time logs in 30-minute increments for two weeks in order to see what their lives really look like, and she discovered some surprising results. The bottom line is, there are 336 half hours in a week, and although you might not get to do everything you need and want to do every single day, you don’t have to give up what is important to you.

Laura also writes about gratitude. Personally, there are an infinite number of things that I could be worried about and fearful of. At the same time though, there are an infinite number of things that I can be grateful for. Gratitude gives me the energy to stay present and focused, which allows me to do what I need to do.

After all, life is short. I want to spend every minute of my day and every ounce of my energy doing what I actually want to do and spend time with people I love!

About Caroline

Caroline Wong, CISSP, is a strategic leader known for her strong communications skills, cybersecurity knowledge, and experience delivering global programs. Her close and practical information security knowledge stems from broad experience as a Cigital consultant, a Symantec product manager, and day-to-day leadership roles at eBay and Zynga.

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