Constantly Calibrating on Work and Life: Why “Balance” is Bullshit

I was three months pregnant with my second child. At work, I was weathering one of the most turbulent times facing a start-up: the pivot. Having just entered the “you’re in the clear” zone in my pregnancy, I decided to tell my co-founders that I was expecting. I was nervous to tell my partners during this crazy time that I would also be entering my own personal roller coaster, but they couldn’t have been more supportive.

The following week at the doctor’s office I was told there was no heartbeat. I was devastated, but I poured myself into work as a remedy. Business continued as usual, and several months later we were back with another little plus sign, but I miscarried again. Since I had previously carried a baby to term, I struggled with a lot of guilt that I was bringing this on myself. Between my two hour daily commute, anxiety about the growth strategy for our new app, and raising a toddler at home, maybe my stress was impacting my ability to stay pregnant? My disposition can usually be described as optimistic (in high school, I even won the State Optimist Oratory Competition! lolz.) but as I look back now, I realize that I was functionally depressed. I wasn’t just mourning the miscarriages; in hindsight, I realize now what was weighing me down: I wasn’t meeting my own expectations as a working mother. My state of equilibrium — the often-used buzzword of “work-life balance” — had been rocked by competing forces of guilt and aspiration.

The fact that we face these struggles mostly alone only makes it worse. That I tried to pin the miscarriages on my commitment to work is a sad example of the psychological struggle working moms face when trying to parallel path their career ambitions with that of being a good mother. In practice, to “lean in” is not just about early career planning and workplace logistics, it is also about traversing steep emotional hurdles in large part due to implicit societal norms.

A New Normal.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the Valley talks to women entrepreneurs. One of the premiere outposts for startups seeking funding is Y-Combinator (notice how it’s Y and not X ;)). It’s an incredible institution that has mentored some of the most accomplished entrepreneurs of our time. In part because of their success, YC now sets a precedent for what it takes to be a successful start-up leader — one that I believe is myopic.

Paul Graham, the founder of YC, has stated that they “prized people in their mid-20s” because of “stamina, poverty, rootlessness, colleagues, and ignorance.” I’m sure the intention is not to imply that there’s only one way to be successful, but the implication stacks the chips against, let’s say, a 37-year-old woman pregnant with her second child.

So let me offer up another POV, one that says relative comfort, plus a solid and supportive partnership at home, and maybe just a few gray hairs can actually produce entrepreneurial success also. (And as far as stamina goes, before I got pregnant, I did Barry’s Bootcamp with my team and kept up with the 20-somethings just fine!)

Putting family first made me a better person at work.

When you’re a small and scrappy startup, taking on tasks outside your formal role (or expertise) is commonplace, and study after study shows working parents — especially mothers — are superior multitaskers and parenthood is positively correlated with productivity. Building Houseparty may take a back seat to my family — day to day or week to week — depending on priorities, but that doesn’t make me any less dedicated to Houseparty or less likely to be successful. If anything, I’ve become a better and more collaborative manager to a team that I know doesn’t need me to keep the ball rolling when I’m reading my son a bedtime story. Similarly, I’ve got their back when they need to take time for their interests and responsibilities, which I highly encourage.

There is no one “right” way to commit.

My co-founders happen to be men in their twenties, but we all dedicate the same time and intensity. The difference is how that time is structured, and we complement one another on that front. If we limit entrepreneurship to a short window in your 20s when you’re untethered and eating ramen, we’re excluding many talented people and ignoring a lot of great ideas. Everyone’s window is different. You can’t force a timeline on the inspiration, confidence, and gusto it takes to start-up a company.

Having broader perspective helps you not sweat the small stuff.

Maybe it’s a simple consequence of having so many things to remember as a parent: pediatrician appointments, playdates, parent teacher conferences, and oh, I’d better swing by the grocery store on my way home or we’re going to run out of milk. Or perhaps it’s a deeper realization that comes with having kids, and constantly feeling as though your heart is running around outside of your body. Either way, with so much going on at once, it gives us the perspective we need to focus on what’s actually critical, what is truly make-or-break. I realize now, looking back on my career before I had children, that on many occasions I actually wasted precious time obsessing over things that I should have just moved on from.

A New Culture of Success.

So, what does this all have to do with that guilt trip I gave myself while suffering through miscarriages? I questioned my ability to do it all. I felt like I was being selfish and sacrificing my family for my aspiration. Not because it was true, but because I didn’t see enough proof points in the market.

The reality is that this isn’t just about working moms, or dads — we all need to do a better job as investors, entrepreneurs, and managers to set up organizational values that encourage employee flexibility, diversity, and personal development because those norms bleed into employee self-worth and feelings of accomplishment.

If my experience thus far has taught me anything, it’s that “balance” is bullshit. Striving for equilibrium will always produce imbalance, laced with a heavy dose of guilt. One part of my life will always be playing catch up with the other. Some days I feel like I killed it at work, and other days I’m an A+ mommy. These things rarely happen on the same day, let alone the same week. But rather than aspire to a romanticized notion of “work-life balance,” I’ve neutralized my exhaustion and guilt by believing in something new: constant calibration.

A New Chapter.

A 50/50 split between work and life rarely happens, and even more rare does that equal split resulting in successful outcomes for my career and family goals. Rather, I am constantly shifting (ahem, juggling) priorities knowing fully that it is at the expense of another, and telling myself over and over again that it’s OKAY! Some may ask, “to what end?” Well, at least for me there is a higher-level fulfillment that you reach by participating and succeeding in BOTH spheres of life — career AND family — which together (and with some additional time for JUST YOU on the side) nourish your mind, heart and spirit in a more complete way. Not to mention the massively better place the start-up world (and the world in general) is with women participating in (and killing it in).

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PS — 6 weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, I welcomed my second child. Nothing says balance, like love.

thank you to Arielle, Kimberly, Needles and Kirsten