Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Six Degrees of Ambivalence? The Mommy Track and the Return to Work

The countdown has begun. Not to the end of the current administration, although personally my own happiness meter will be off the chart when that day arrives. The countdown I'm referring to is my own personal one - in less than 72 hours, give or take a few, I will be a gainfully employed contract employee. The wait is over, the looking is done (for now, or until August, whichever comes first) and now it is time to answer the most important question to ask before starting a new job. What am I going to wear?

Seriously, the countdown is one that takes me toward my career and away from my family. It is so strange, being a child of the 70's and growing up to believe that women could and should do anything, be President of the United States, for example. And here we are in 2008 and for goodness sake, a woman is one of two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. But, and I do mean, but, I feel like I am living in a pre-1970's world where most of the women I know are SAHMs, running along the "mommy track." Most of them have advanced degrees and years in the employment arena, but have made the choice to stay at home and spend these years being a mother. I've been home most of my kids' lives, but always working from home. Working relentlessly from home. In fact, the times I have been fully employed elsewhere have almost qualified as a vacation because when I come home I get to be a mom and attend to the household, instead of trying to fit in work, homelife and mothering in that way too short a time zone known as a day.

Yesterday I caught some of Teri Gross' interview with Meg Wolitzer about her new novel, "The Ten Year Nap," that presents a fictional depiction of women with advanced degrees who choose to stay home with their kids, only to question the decision 10 years later.

As someone who waited to have kids until my 40s, if I waited 10 years to get back on track, I don't want to even think about just how far out of the job market I would be. I already find myself waking up in the middle of the night with too much anxiety about how young my kids are, how old I am, how many productive working years I have left, retirement funds, college funds -

Before I spin off into another anxiety attack, I'd love to hear from those either following or leaving the 'mommy track' - do you experience regret, relief, remorse, redemption? All of the above?

And what did you wear on your first day back to work???

Friday, March 14, 2008

At The Center of My Own Equation

I had a third interview with a company this week. I met the owner of the company at a coffee shop for a more informal one-on-one conversation. He informed me that it was down to myself and another really talented candidate. When I got to the coffee shop I found out that we would be joined by a third person, a colleague who is in HR and also a writer. I was a little taken aback by the surprise guest, but was willing to go with the flow and the challenge. After a great deal of back and forth and pertinent questions from the third person, the owner leaned in and asked what turned out to be a seminal question, one that will forever change the way I approach job interviews, and quite frankly, my life. This is the best recollection I can create of his question:

"What you've done is very successfully establish why you are the best fit for the position. Obviously, we wouldn't be at this point if you hadn't done that. But what remains unclear is, why are we, why is this company, the best fit for you?"

20 years of therapy resolved in one question. As women, as mothers, as working mothers, we are so used to accomodating workplaces, families, children, spouses, that we forget that we are at the center of our own equation, our own career and life epicenter. I realized in that moment that I had given absolutely no real thought to that question. I have become so engrained in making myself fit whatever situation comes along, that I had left the most important part out of the equation. Me. Going through this job search has made me realize that I am a little like all those women in the kingdom trying to fit their too wide, too small or too big feet into shoes that just don't fit, grimacing and pretending that grimace is a smile.

I took a deep breath and answered the question. Quite honestly, I don't remember what I said. But I was really glad to be asked to answer that question.

Whether or not I end up with the job, I will be forever grateful to the owner of that company who asked this question. And I will never need to be asked that question again.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Flipper and Shamu as Parenting Models

I'm a bit lost in the midst of some new parenting and relationship philosophies I keep reading and hearing about. Last week, while waiting in the car before another job interview which I was again too early for, I listened to Amy Sutherland, author of 'What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage,' talk about how exotic animal trainers had taught her how to have a more peaceful and cooperative-based marriage. How she no longer became embroiled in her husband's fits over lost keys by either escalating the situation with heroic attempts at find the forever lost keys, or getting annoyed at his constantly losing his keys and getting angry about it. I found it interesting that she was able to apply the same method of tossing a mackerel to a dolphin to her husband and that it worked. But when I went back to the transcripts of the interview, the following tripped me up:

"In the end, it was I, "the trainer", who did all the changing, and, as it turned out, for the better."

Yesterday, I opened the business section of the Boulder Daily Camera and read Liz Ryan's column, something I usually do on a Monday morning over my second cup of coffee. I expected to get her usual pithy career advice, which these days I cannot seem to get enough of. Instead, she wrote about how to treat your employees (and children) as if they are dogs, using similar methods of immediate positive responses and a series of rewards, aka treats.

Quite frankly, I am baffled.

While I don't pretend that my parenting method of steam pouring out of my ears and my face turning red when my kids ignore me, or even better, have a full blown conversation while I am trying to talk to them, is the right answer, what I want to know is this? What is our relational responsibility? Are we just turning our children, employees and spouses into well -behaved retrievers (which in the case of spousal units may not be all that bad an idea), or are we encouraging the art of self-regulation which sometimes comes from pointing out behavior, actions and choices that could have been different?

I grew up with very clear consequences. If I, or my brothers, behaved in a way that was out of line, the consequence was my mother's temper. And you know what? It worked. I didn't enjoy her anger, I was afraid of her anger. I wanted to be with the other mother who was fun and loving. So I changed my behavior accordingly. Good behavior, nice mother. Bad behavior, angry mother. Seems pretty simple. My parents didn't have to roll out responsibility charts, good behavior coupons or any of the other magic bullets our generation seems to over-rely on. It was very clear in my childhood house what our responsibilities were, they were appropriate for our age and intelligence and we understood that it was our role as a member of the family to abide by them. Sure we rebelled, sure we talked back, but in the end, my parents ended up raising three really responsible children who have grown up to be responsible adults and parents of our own children.

Maybe I am missing something, and if I am, I'd love someone to fill me in on how I can bring more peace to my family, more respect and responsibility. Just don't tell me to treat my kids like my dog and my dog like my kids. I'm a human mother with human children - and a firm believer in evolution, which most often happens due to negative situations that need to be adapted to. Being cold is a negative thing, at least it is for me. Adapting to being cold by learning to make fire is a positive that results out of a negative. Same thing for raising children. Living in a messy house is a bad thing. Adapting to the mess is to learn to clean up after oneself, a hugely valuable tool to have as one moves through life. According to the current model of thought, I can do any one, or all, of three things when confronted with endless amounts of toys, games and art projects in every corner of my too-small home.
1. Ignore the mess - Wrong answer. As I grow older and closer to my menopausal self, disorder has a detrimental impact on my nervous system. It makes me physically ill. And remarkably pissy because I don't believe I should have to live in other people's mess. I left NYC for that reason.

2. Encourage with rewards. I hate this method because it does nothing to encourage doing something because it is the right thing to do and assumes my children, spouse and employees are not intelligent or conscious enough to do something just for the sake of doing it. I want to teach my kids to be self-responsible people, not just doing things because there is a lollipop dangling in front of their noses.

3. Praise the effort. I have the least amount of difficulty with this one because it is free and feels good. But if the effort of getting them to act in a responsible manner makes me insane, then the praise defeats the purpose.
In the course of the interview I listened to in the car before my job intervew (I told you I got there early!), the only person who made any sense was a caller from Colorado who is a horse trainer. She spoke of how she has worked gently with horses and with at risk teens for 25 years and how her approach of a gentle, but firm rein on the horse seems to work well with kids. I kind of liked that. Not too tight, not too loose. And the high sensitivity of horses seems to go along with that same level of sensitivity that runs rampant in our house. And besides, the girls are really into horses these days...
If any parents are out there, and you need to be a parent to respond - no sidelining aunts, uncles, or otherwise well-intentioned by essentially unqualified folks - please let me know if raising your children as if they are a pack of dogs or a school of dolphins works for your household, I'd love to know more.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Brewing up Good Feelings in Fort Collins!

A big THANK you to the ladies who serve up the fabulous Soy Lattes at the Fort Collins Starbucks on the corner of College and E. Horsetooth Road. I went there two days in a row for a job interview and both times, treated myself to a pre-interview jolt. And both times, I was greeted with such warmth and effervescence that I almost put an offer on a house in Fort Collins right then and there!

I especially extend a big virtual hug to the young woman who took my coffee order who told me "You look like you just stepped out of a catalog" and "They'd have to be out of their minds not to hire you!" - and to the young woman who made my latte who proclaimed me gorgeous in my forest green Dr. Zhivago coat. You gave me not only a caffeine lift, but a much needed lift of my spirits that sent this weary job seeker into a second interview feeling like I would break out in "I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty" as an opening to the interview. Seriously, you made me feel great and everyone needs that.

So thanks for the random act of kindness - it made my day that much better.

And the lattes rocked!
If you've ever had someone do something unexpected that just made your day, share your experiences and let's spread a little kindness around!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Will Give the Job, Afterall?

I've decided that job searching is the perfect professional endeavor for a narcissist, of which I am not. In the two months since being laid off my formerly really cool, but non-existent job, I have never talked so much about myself to so many people who seem really interested in my entire life, except in a therapist's office. And in this eye-opening process, I've learned the following things about myself:

- My skills are an evolutionary phenomenom -they've been shaped to fit almost every industry on the planet. My skills feel like a gumby doll, or like Mrs. Incredible with those fantastic arms that stretch to the back floor of any minivan. And you know, I believe this is a truth because if my skills are solid, which they are, then they will translate, adapt, rise up and meet the challenge. How can they not? They've been being honed for 12 years and every project or job takes those skills and makes them grow.
- Being versatile is not an asset. People want specialists, of which I am in the uber-sense of marketing and PR, but I've had the privilege of working with lots of different people from different backgrounds. When I was an actress, an experience not unlike this job interview process, being what was known as a triple threat was the ultimate advantage. Before hybrids became known as funny little cars that don't leave a large carbon footprint, all performers aspired to be hybrids - actress/dancer/singer, singer/dancer/actress, dancer/singer/actress or any combination of those. Today, employers want a single focused employee, despite the fact that the average employee these days switches jobs every six months.

- High energy scares people. I've had to turn down my energetic volume, have chamomile tea instead of that third cup of coffee before the interview, lean back in the chair and talk quietly, thoughtfully.

- Ask a lot of questions. This might seem funny for someone being interviewed, to ask questions of the interviewee. But a list of well-thought out questions scribbled in the car because I am always way too early, has helped to show my intention and intelligence. And it actually helps me to calm that normally turned up volume.

- An interview is not a chance to try out your untested stand-up comedy routine, unless you are actually auditioning for a comedy club. I made the mistake in an interview of making the interviewing group laugh a little bit too much, but I just couldn't help myself. It had been a ridiculously high energy morning, culminating with at least two cups of coffee. When someone asked me, "What is your weakness?", the inevitable follow up to "What is your strength?", I answered, "Having to come up with an answer to that question." Got a great laugh. As did my other great line that didn't get me the job, when asked how I do with interruptions -I responded with a very close Rodney Dangerfield imitation, "My life is all about interruptions. I only come to interviews so I can complete a sentence." In hindsight, I should have saved the comedy for after I got the job.

- Stay positive. Today's job market is tough and the job search seems relentless and endless, despite a fantastic resume and great people skills. Do something nice for myself - I'm doing a trade with a esthetician in exchange for some PR work. I'm having lunch with a friend. I volunteered to help my oldest DD's Brownie troop and basked in their giggles and hilarious silliness. I stopped trolling the job boards and created this post.

I will say that I am actually learning a great deal about myself through this process, as stressful as it is. I'm meeting people who are passionate about their work, good at what they do and want to surround themselves with excellent people. I'm learning to become really comfortable and adept at the interview process, when to talk and when to listen, when to ask questions and when to respond. And most importantly, I've learned to trust that there is a job out there for me - one that is filled with challenge, balance, great people and one that hopefully helps the planet and us squirrely inhabitants.

But enough about me - I'd love to hear how folks cope and get through the job search process, so chime in and share!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Attack of the Sock Police!

I came in contact with the sock police today. Yes, there is an organized group of well-intentioned busy-bodies who take it upon themselves to make you feel like a child abuser if your child or in my case, children don’t have socks and shoes on. Who are these people? Well, the lady I met today must have been the regional director of the Longmont, Colorado Chapter of Sock and Shoe Police, a large group from what I have been told.

One of the great things about living in Colorado is that even though it is still winter, we still get plenty of days filled with sunshine and 40+ degree weather.
I had just emerged from King Soopers with my three girls in tow. Oldest DD was dressed sensibly in a sweater, vest, leggings and her slippers. One of the younger DD were clad in oldest DD's Cinderella dress, an act by oldest DD of ultimate generosity, and too big ballerina slippers. The other younger DD, who had woken up from her nap flushed and warm, was wearing cotton pajamas and no socks.

Taking the three of them to the market is no big deal anymore. Just usually involves knocking down a few other parents to get to the much coveted ‘car cart,’ a germ-laden shopping cart that weighs twice the normal cart weight (without children and groceries). Then we have a screaming match over who gets to drive the cart, and I usually draw the short straw because I have to hold the child who didn’t get her turn while the other two squeal with glee at their victory. That means I am now shopping with one hand and holding a child and pushing a cart that by itself weighs forty pounds, but now plus two children, is closer to 100 pounds, but miraculously, it all gets done. No ‘items in aisle three’ to be cleaned up, no more tussles between the children. I usually can coax the one I am holding to sit in the cart by offering some of the free samples of food. We pay for our food, the girls get their penny horsie rides and we head off after another successful and injury-free trip to the market.

As we were about to pull out of our parking spot, a pleasant enough looking blonde woman came to our window, which was open because it was an unusually warm day for this time of year. She smiled and proceeded to tell me she was the mother of two small children, at which point I thought she was going to commend me for being such a together mom. She smiled an even bigger smile and then said, “I really wish you would put socks and shoes on those children.” You know when someone says something so bizarre to you that you have to take a moment to replay it in your mind before you answer? I got lost in her large white teeth.

“I have at least two pair of socks per child,” I started to say, pointing to the three layers of socks, shoes, and toys on the car floor. But then I caught my oldest daughter’s deep blue eyes.

I looked around for Allen Funt and the "Candid Camera" crew. I listened for the "Your On Candid Camera" theme song, but all I did was get lost in this woman's enormous white and very large teeth.

I looked back at the smiling blonde woman and smiled my brightest smile I could must.

“Thank you for your input.”

And I rolled up the window. The great thing about being a parent is that hopefully golden moments occur when you actually model the behavior you want your kids to aspire to. When my oldest asked me what the lady was saying, I continued to smile and tell her she meant well, but that her sisters' lack of socks were really none of her concern, although it was nice of her to be concerned.

What I didn't say to my oldest was that this well intentioned idiot doesn’t understand that I have spent the larger part of being a mother searching for all the missing socks. It is a personal quest, removing socks from the endangered socks list. I have a plastic container that holds all the single socks I’ve collected, because I believe, with everything that I hold dear, that those missing socks are alive. I’ve even thought about starting a Missing Sock club, perhaps as an offshoot to the Sock and Shoe Police. I actually get what could be mistaken as a rush of ecstasy, or jouissance, when I match socks that had long been going solo. Despite the fact that most of the missing socks are forever merged with the dried raisins and fruit juice that I mistake for floor mats in the van, I continue on my Dona Quixota quest and will continue to do so until I am an old, old lady. Long after I have stopped looking for Polly Pocket shoes in the shag rug and retrieving chewed up toys from the dog's domain, I will still, with arthritic fingers and failing socks, be fulfilling my dream of no sock unmatched.

You see, I don't need any outside sock policing because I am an unofficial member of the sock police, but I keep my sock vigilante-ism to the privacy of my home. Late at night, when the kids are asleep, I sit in front of the blue of the TV and know that I will find just one more sock that matches another. And then I can rest. And then I can rest.

We all have our dreams.