Archive for Work-Life Balance

Self Publishing, Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

I Know What You Really Want For Mother’s Day

I have an issue with Mother’s Day.

Kate Hilton, Mothers Day, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book Clubs
Has there ever been a holiday better designed to elicit seething resentment than this one?  It is a day that promises a warm bath of gratitude for your maternal contributions to the family, but more often delivers teacher-assigned crayon-and-construction paper cards, along with a gift certificate obtained by your frazzled husband after running out to the nearest store on foot while leaving you with the kids (on Mother’s Day).

And then there are the other mothers: your mother, your spouse’s mother, grandmothers and various hangers-on who believe, perhaps fairly, that it’s their turn to have a decent Mother’s Day celebration, now that there is a grown women in their lives capable of delivering one.  That’s you, by the way.

In fact, I’ve concluded that the only person who can give you what you really want for Mother’s Day is you.  And it’s not a spa day, or chocolate, or flowers, although they each have their place in a woman’s life.

I think what you really want for Mother’s Day is to know that there is still an essential ‘you’ that exists outside the many roles that you occupy – mother, wife, daughter, friend, boss, employee, volunteer – and to know, also, that your particular, unique, imperfect you is someone worth celebrating.

Exactly a year ago this week, I gave myself an extraordinary gift for Mother’s Day.  I self-published the novel I had been writing secretly for four years.  That novel, The Hole in the Middle, explores the inner life of an overburdened and dissatisfied working mother who feels that she is failing on all fronts.  And even though it wasn’t, and isn’t, autobiographical, it took a staggering amount of courage to put it out into the world, to claim a new identity for myself as a writer, and to start talking about the complex feelings that many, if not most, women have about motherhood and marriage.

How many of us truly understood at the beginning that a wedding is the opening chapter of a story, not the conclusion, and that the narrative arc of a marriage has joy, yes, but also rage and sorrow and disappointment and misunderstanding – even in the happiest of unions?   How many of us knew that we would love our children so much that it would terrify us, but that we would also resent the erosion of our independent personhood, and wonder why our husbands didn’t feel similarly eroded?  Or how much more often we would dwell on our failures than on our successes as wives and mothers – and how angry it would make us that our spouses weren’t similarly afflicted with self-doubt?

Few of us, I would bet.  Which is, perhaps, why we lie so much to each other and to ourselves about how satisfied we are with our Facebook-picture-perfect lives.

The gift I gave myself a year ago was to step beyond the safe territory of roles and give my essential self some room of her own.  It’s been scary, often, because change is hard even when necessary and welcome.  But mostly, it’s been liberating.

It’s been liberating to hear women from across the country tell me that my work makes them feel less alone.  It’s been liberating to know, not just believe, that I have a creative talent in me that needs expression.  It’s been liberating to show my kids by example what it means to work hard for a dream – and make it happen.  And it’s been liberating to celebrate my own particular, unique, imperfect me.

This year, give yourself a Mother’s Day gift that matters.  Step outside the roles that you perform so very, very well, and give yourself the gift of self-knowledge, of self-expression, and of self-worth.  No one else can give it to you, and you deserve it.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

Mom Blog: The ’80s Edition

Kate Hilton, Madonna, 80s, The Hole in the Middle, Book ClubI was already annoyed when I pulled into the driveway in the Plymouth Voyager, having returned empty-handed from the video store.  Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., and all the copies of Risky Business and The Bounty were already gone, leaving me with the choice of renting Meatballs II or The Gods Must Be Crazy for the third time. So much for my plan of vegging out on the couch with Brian and my two fave fantasy husbands, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.

When I got inside, I found Amy and Stephanie watching Y & R.  I switched the channel to Muppet Babies and told them to clean up their toys or I’d throw them in the garbage.  I went into the kitchen and discovered that Michelle hadn’t cut up the vegetables for the stir-fry after walking the other girls home from school. I felt my temperature rising, so I mixed myself some Crystal Light and vowed to be more like Clair Huxtable.

I found Michelle lying on her bed, talking on the phone.  I nearly tripped over the cord as I walked over, removed the receiver from her ear and hung it up.  She was furious.

“What is your damage?!!” she yelled.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady,” I said.  “My house, my rules.  You don’t like them, you can find somewhere else to live.”

“As if,” she said.  “If I weren’t around, you’d have to quit aerobics and pick up Amy and Stephanie yourself.”

I reflected for a moment on my neighbor Linda’s advice to think of myself as a friend to my children, but decided instead to take away Michelle’s phone privileges.  I left her sulking in her room, playing Like A Virgin over and over again on her ghetto blaster.

I admit that I may have been a little edgy already, on account of being on the Scarsdale Diet (again).  All that grapefruit was obviously getting on my nerves.  So I did Jane Fonda’s 20-minute workout in the rec room to calm down, and then I went to the bedroom to fix myself up.

I threw my legwarmers, my purple spandex leggings and my oversize T onto the Laura Ashley bedspread, and exchanged them for some black stirrup pants, a neon pink blazer with great shoulder pads and some chunky clip-on earrings.  Then I took out my banana clip, shook out my perm and applied some bright pink lipstick.  Linda had her colors done and she says that I shouldn’t wear pink because I’m an Autumn, but who wants to wear brown and goldenrod for the rest of her life?

I went down to the kitchen and got out the wok.  I love all of the international flavors you can cook with now!  Just dice up some chicken, throw in some red peppers and bean sprouts, and pour half a bottle of soy sauce over everything, and you have real Chinese cuisine.  Or is it Japanese?  I can never remember.

While I cooked, I poured myself a glass of California Chardonnay, added some ice cubes, and thought about Michelle.  What wouldn’t I give to go back to the days when our biggest parenting problem was finding a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas! She’s living in the best time ever in history, with nothing but progress as far as the eye can see, but does she appreciate it?  No: it’s all acid rain and apartheid and black eyeliner.  I remember fighting with my brothers over who would get the maraschino cherry in the fruit cocktail, and now?  Red peppers from South America in the middle of winter.  Totally amazing.

I blame Madonna.  If I had five minutes alone with her, I’d tell her what kind of example I think she’s setting for young girls. Like a virgin, my A-S-S, pardon my French.  Thank goodness her 15 minutes of fame are just about up.


Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

The Balance Myth

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Work-Life Balance, Book Club, Book ClubsIs there a more over-used and empty phrase in modern life than work-life balance?  I can’t think of one.  Perhaps that’s because I am asked several times a week how I achieve it.  I’m trying to find a happy medium between giggling uncontrollably and giving an answer that sounds creepily like Tilda Swinton’s wound-tighter-than-a-drum character in Michael Clayton (“Who needs balance? When you’re really enjoying what it is you do, there’s your balance.”).

When you are trying to do a lot of things well, simultaneously, you are going to be living with organized chaos, and hoping that the organization outweighs the chaos on any given day.  I’m comfortable with the pace of my life because I’m not what you’d call a relaxed person (and I’d be so delighted if people would stop telling me to become so).  I don’t consider ‘busy’ a four-letter word, other than in the literal sense.  It gives me pleasure, and a sense of purpose, to operate at full capacity.  That’s my choice.

Some days I feel that I’ve succeeded in my work.  Some days I feel that I’ve succeeded as a parent, or a spouse, or a friend, or a daughter.  But I rarely feel as though I’ve succeeded on all fronts in the same 24-hour period.  Do I have work-life balance?  Have I achieved a guilt-free equilibrium between all of the many roles that I play in my life?  What do you think?  (If you require additional information to answer this question, please refer to my novel, The Hole in the Middle.)

When my friend Luisa was pregnant with twins, her prenatal instructor encouraged her to adopt a ‘good enough’ parenting philosophy.  Isn’t that refreshingly old-fashioned?

Back in the day, so-called career women could feed their children Hamburger Helper and Kraft Dinner and never show their faces in the schoolyard, and it was considered acceptable.  Stay-at-home mothers may have felt extravagantly sorry for the families of that generation of working women, but there was no expectation that the working moms would run the parent council at school, fit into skinny jeans or bake gluten-free cupcakes for the class on birthdays in addition to working full-time.

We’d all be better off if we could ditch the idea that there’s a mythical state of balance out there, and that others have succeeded in achieving it.   They haven’t.  We are all trying to find the right combination of rest and action, of family and work, of ambition and acceptance, and of engagement with and retreat from the world.  Some days we’ll get the formula right and feel like superwomen and other days we’ll get it wrong and feel like dismal failures.

The only wisdom I can offer is this: if you aren’t having any fun, your expectations of yourself are probably too high. Or, as Lil Parker says in The Hole in the Middle: “No one is going to hand you a medal at the end of all of this because you ran faster and harder than everyone else.  The point is to enjoy it.”  So forget about work-life balance, and try instead for joy in the midst of chaos.  It sounds like more fun, doesn’t it?  And even better, it’s actually achievable.

Together, Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

My (First) Midlife Crisis

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsTowards the end of my thirties, I experienced a period of professional malaise.  By ‘professional malaise’ I mean that I was threatening to quit every few days.  Since most of my threats were issued at home, the only person who was actually affected by them was my husband, but I think it’s fair to say that I diminished his quality of life.

I have held many different jobs.  I’ve been a fiction editor, a secretary, an adjudicator, a litigation lawyer-in-training, a university administrator and a fundraiser.  I know how to gut it out.  I once won a national trial advocacy competition while in the grips of a serious public-speaking phobia.  (That’s how I figured out that I didn’t want to be a litigator.  But I digress.)

The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally is to try to raise fifty million dollars for a capital campaign in the middle of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.  This is what I was doing when my midlife crisis hit.  Many have suggested that I am a bit young to refer to 40-ish as ‘midlife’.  I note that all of these people are baby boomers.

Raising a massive amount of money in a dire economy is like climbing up a sheer rock face with your fingernails.  (I imagine.  I have tried many things in my life, but not this.)  Every inch is agonizing, takes all of your effort and leaves you bleeding.  And then people come by and say things like, “Wow, you really aren’t making much progress, are you?  Maybe you aren’t very good at rock climbing.  Maybe you should hire a professional rock climber.  There’s probably a reason why professional rock climbers are men.  They’re stronger, right?  And better?  So you should think about hiring one of those rock climbers.  I’d love to help you, but I’m fully committed to supporting other, more successful rock climbers, or I would be if the economy weren’t so lousy.  So let me know when you get close to the top, and then we’ll talk.”

As I may have mentioned, I dabbled in feminist theory in the early nineties.  I am therefore well-equipped to identify subtle and unspoken forms of discrimination.  But these skills were not required.  No one was being remotely subtle.  They just came right out and said things like, “You need to be realistic.  You’re out of your depth here.   You’re too nice for this.  You need someone who can shake people down.  You should talk to [fill in name of powerful male with no professional fundraising experience].  He knows how to do this stuff.”

I am pretty nice.  If you met me, you would think so.  Most people do.  I have good social skills.  But these experiences didn’t make me feel nice.  They made me feel angry.  Feeling angry, in turn, made me feel uncomfortable.

I suspect this is because I’m a girl.  Despite all of my years of feminist theory, I consider anger to be an inappropriate emotion.  I’m more of a crier than a yeller.  I tend to turn negative feelings inward.  I rarely raise my voice unless I believe that people can’t hear me (literally, not metaphorically).  But now I was steaming.

My friend Bronwen is a couple of years older than I am.  We have been friends for more than twenty years and have seen each other through some major life events – marriage, divorce, crippling heartbreak, the loss of a parent, a near-fatal medical crisis and the births of our children.  We know where the scars are.

I took her out for a drink in a hotel bar, and I told her my troubles.  Was it me, I wanted to know?  Was I doing something wrong?

“No,” she said, “It’s not you.”  She leaned forward and looked me in the eye.  “They’re called the Fucking Forties for a reason, Kate.  Every woman I know is pissed off as hell.” We drained our drinks.  And then we ordered another round.

And then I went out and raised $50 million.

I don’t know if this story has a moral.  When I first posted this story, it was gently suggested to me that I take it down because it might embarrass people.  So I did, but it bothered me.  Because here’s the thing:  I think people should feel embarrassed when they tell women that they aren’t up to the job by virtue of being women.  It’s not OK.  And my not telling anyone about it suggests that I accept it.  I don’t.  And that’s why I’m posting this blog.

Mid-Life, Work-Life Balance

5 Easy Ways to Take the Edge Off Your Midlife Crisis

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Mid-Life Crisis, Mid life crisisI love women’s magazines that offer five-step solutions to all of life’s problems.  A Better Sex Life!  A Trendier Spring Wardrobe!  A Hotter Marriage! A More Fulfilling Career!  As a veteran self-improver, I find articles like these almost irresistible.

In that vein, I propose the following five (easy) ways to take the edge off your midlife crisis.  There are undoubtedly harder and more radical ways to fix what ails you, such as therapy, divorce, quitting your job and so on.  These suggestions are more in the nature of short-term triage – like a new spring scarf or a fresh recipe for quinoa salad.  And they work!

1. Take Up A Sport.  I know.  I can’t believe I’m suggesting this either.  Up until recently, I’d never so much as attended a swim meet.  But if you are in your forties, you are probably grappling with some unsettling physical limitations that are cropping up like bad weeds.  Twinges in your back, bad knees, an odd foot problem…it’s mildly embarrassing, isn’t it?  Knowing that your body is on the slippery slope to hip replacements and arthritis?  Taking up a new sport and improving at it is an effective psychological counter-measure.  I, for example, play tennis, which allows me to hit things really hard in a socially-appropriate context.  Arguably I’m only hurrying myself down the slope by courting new injuries, but it feels really good in the moment.

2. Embrace Your Creative Side.  Write.  Paint.  Learn the piano.  Take Irish step dancing.  Exploring your creativity is an incredible outlet for all of the anxiety and confusion that attend a midlife crisis.  And it fends off Alzheimer’s.

3. Hang Out With Other Women.  Find communities of women that nourish you.  I have a bunch of them:  a book club, a tennis group, a professional advisory group (like a career cabinet) and a monthly dinner club (more on that later).  I spend time with younger women who remind me that I’m happy not to have very young children anymore; and I spend time with older women who reassure me that this too shall pass.  And of course, I spend time with women who are in exactly the same boat, which makes me feel normal.

4. Make A Wild and Permanent Gesture of Size.  Do you remember Heartburn, that barely-fictionalized memoir of marriage breakdown by the late, great Nora Ephron?  God, she was fabulous.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Rachel,” said Richard, “it had nothing to do with how much you cooked for him.  It had nothing to do with how much you wanted to be a couple.  It had nothing to do with you.”

“It must have had something to do with me,” I said.

“Why?” said Richard.

“Because if it didn’t, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“That’s my point,” said Richard.

“I know that’s your point,” I said, “but I can’t accept it.”

“Well, if you ever do,” said Richard, “you ought to do what I did.  I feel much, much better.”

“Are you suggesting that I ask someone I’m not in love with to marry me and then jump into the seal pond?” I said.

“I’m suggesting that you make a wild and permanent gesture of size,” said Richard, “and mine was to ask you to marry me and jump into the seal pond.  Yours can be anything you want.”

“The only wild and permanent gesture of size that has ever crossed my mind,” I said, “is to have my hair cut.”

Wild and permanent gestures of size come in varying degrees of wildness, permanence and size.  Some of the most extreme ones are beyond the scope of these 5 Easy Ways (see above).  But there are some interesting possibilities in the middle of the range, between a haircut and a divorce, let’s say, that may be profoundly satisfying.  If you’re into physical improvements, you could straighten your teeth, get or remove a tattoo, or try laser hair removal (No More Shaving For The Rest Of Your Life!).  On the psychic improvement side, you could ditch that old high school friend you haven’t liked for years, or quit that volunteer board with the meetings that you fake illness to avoid every month.  You get the idea – small scale enhancements with long term benefits.

5. Start An Outrage-Of-The-Month Club.  I admit it.  This whole blog has been a thinly-veiled excuse to tell you about my OOTMC.  It’s one of the best things in my life, and I want to share the joy.  Credit for the OOTMC goes to my friend Sara, who used to work at a really dysfunctional institution where all anyone ever did was talk about how terrible it was to work there.  She and her friends banded together and made a solemn agreement to save all of their complaints for one monster bitch session at the end of the week.  The person with the most outrageous tale of anti-social behavior in the workplace got a free drink.  How brilliant is that?

My own OOTMC is a dinner club.  There are four of us, and we only ever meet with a full complement.  If someone is sick, we reschedule.  We eat, we drink, and each of us presents an outrage for consideration – a story that we believe will secure our position as the most downtrodden, maligned or otherwise insulted member of the group.  It’s absolutely hilarious and we almost laugh ourselves sick every time.  And the best part?  No matter what obnoxious thing befalls you over the course of the month, there’s always a silver lining: you just might get a free dinner out of it.

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