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“How do you do it all?”
I often get this question, and my answer is this: no one does it all. Doing it all
means, of course, having a career and having kids, and it’s one of the
great myths of our era. The myth is that you can pursue these two
essentially incompatible activities without screwing up either one. The
myth is that having children will infuse your professional work with a
wondrous energy (akin to the fabled second-trimester glow), and that having a job will make you a more interesting and fulfilled person, and thus a better parent.
One year ago, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel called “Women
Rock!” at the national AIGA Design Conference in Boston. Devoted to the
life issues faced by female designers, the panel sought to “offer unique
insights on juggling career and family, dealing with stress, and how
all the chaos offers training and inspiration for becoming a better
designer, a better businessperson and a better mother.” That program
blurb neatly sums up the myth, suggesting that the chaotic life of the
working mom provides the ultimate training ground for getting better at
So there we were on the stage, a group of middle-aged female designers:
Jessica Helfand, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt, Bonnie Siegler, Emily Potts
(who graciously organized the panel) and myself. We all had kids, and we
all had jobs. Bonnie, in her early forties, had just had her second
baby, who was being patiently handled by her husband sitting in the
front row. We were all relatively successful, some more prominent than
others, but let’s say none of us was exactly Stefan Sagmeister, about to
start carving letters in our chests with an Xacto knife. (If any of us
would, I guess it would be Bonnie.)
The audience was eager to find out how to do it all, but one of the best
questions came from Boston-based designer Fritz Klaetke, who asked why
there weren’t any men on the panel. After all, one of the ways women
manage in today’s world is having supportive partners like Fritz, who
exemplifies the new model of hyper-involved, ultra-engaged fatherhood.
Fritz is an excellent designer, a leader in the Boston design community,
and a deeply committed dad. My own husband, Abbott Miller (who is a much better mom than I am), wants to publish a magazine called Working Father—an absurd idea pointing to our societal assumption that dads have to work anyway.
The event in Boston last year got me thinking about work and parenting
and all the fudging and corner-cutting we do in order to pursue them
both. Younger mothers, I’ve learned, are more likely to stay at home
with their small children than women my age. I was born in 1963 at the
tail end of the Baby Boom, and I grew up in a household with two working
parents, always believing that work would define my life. Generation X
is the swath of people born between 1965 and 1979. A common experience
for this group is the “absent father” or being a child of divorce.
Perhaps because of that experience, as well as the general trend towards
downward mobility, Generation X moms and dads both put more value on
spending time at home with their kids and less value on professional
A strange conversational dance occurs when two women meet and begin
finding out who works and who stays at home. It’s awkward to ask
directly, so you look for cues. (A mom who wears tennis whites when she
drops off the kids at school might not have a job, but you never know;
she could be a lawyer with a home office or a brain surgeon who works
the night shift.) The infamous message board UrbanBaby assigns codes
for one’s employment status: SAHM for moms who stay at home; WOHM for those who work outside the home.
Why does it matter? There’s a “mommy war” going on, and members of each
side often feel more comfortable with other women who have made choices
like theirs. Furthermore, we are often eager to validate our own
decisions as the best ones for our children. The SAHMs occupy the moral
high ground in this matter—they’re the ones who have made the big
sacrifice, spending crucial years of their lives almost exclusively with
their kids, refusing to hand over their babies and toddlers to nannies,
au pairs, and day care facilities for eight or ten hours a day.
It seems obvious to me that mothers and fathers are the best “care
givers” for small children, and research more or less bears this out.
Working moms try to argue that their own kids are getting the better
deal: earlier socialization, more independence, an immune system
toughened by exposure to pathogens, and, above all, the opportunity to
draw inspiration from a busy mother whose mental life and personal
identity derives not just from her children, but also from a career. But
young children, as I’ve observed them, are deeply self-involved. Until
my kids reached elementary school age, they rarely took interest in
either parent, beyond our readiness to entertain, protect, sooth, feed,
transport and so on. Little kids want to be with their parents because
we make them feel safe, whole and happy, not because they admire our
Knowing this in my heart, I nonetheless made my own decision to continue
working while my children were small. I look at my kids now, ages eight
and twelve, and wonder what choices they will make. Will they have
kids? Will they have jobs? (Will jobs still exist when they grow up?)
Would they have become happier and more fulfilled adults if I had quit
working for eight or nine years? I’ll never know the answer, any more
than I will know what kind of professional success I would have achieved
if I hadn’t slowed down to have children.
I vividly recall a bath-time conversation when my son Jay was in second
grade. With his head covered in a foamy helmet of shampoo, he announced,
“Most of my friends’ moms don’t work.” Dismay lurched deep in my gut.
“What do you think about that?” I asked. “I dunno, “ he said.
When I ask him the same question now, he says he likes my job because I
teach him “cool design stuff,” like how to use Flash and how to publish
his designs and animations on the web. My younger daughter, Ruby, feels
similarly. Getting dressed for camp recently, she announced, “Mommy,
you’re cool.” “Wow,” I said. “Why do you think I’m cool?” (Surely it
wasn’t because of my Lands End circle skirt.) “Because you’re a
designer, and we get to design things together.” My tween-age children
are now finding value in my professional skills. My work has become an
opportunity for creative companionship with my kids. Indeed, design is
becoming part of their own identities, for now, as they each stake out a
place in the world of digital media and visual art—areas full of
intrigue and possibility.
At that same conference in Boston last year, Alex Isley organized a
breakout session about teaching kids to be designers. He argued for the
social importance of teaching your own kids—and all the others kids
around you—to be designers in their daily lives. David Peters, another
“working father” attending the conference, talked to me and some other
parents about organizing events for kids for the next AIGA national
conference, so we can bring our children along and have hands-on
activities for them to do all weekend. My kids and I would like to be
the first volunteers to staff the booth. We’ll do the best we can, and
we’ll be working.
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