Your Guilt Isn’t Helping Your Job or Your Kid

Author Samantha Ettus says feeling bad is a waste of time. Find out what actually makes you more productive at work and at home.

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Photo by Sam Edwards/Getty Images

Samantha Ettus has a radical idea: Women need to work after having children, whether they think they can afford to or not. In her latest book, The Pie Life: A Guilt-free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction ($21, amazon.com), the Harvard MBA, best-selling author, and mother of three, lays out a plan for how women can achieve happiness, no matter their current situation (read: sleep deprivation). Here, she offers RealSimple.com readers—parents and non-parents alike—practical and relatable solutions for the challenges we all face when juggling careers and personal lives.

You recommend that women see their lives as a pie comprised of seven slices—work, children, a relationship, friends, hobbies, health, and community—but what do you say to the woman who really only wants her pie divided into, say, four slices?

Every one of these slices is vital in some way, though their size will ebb and flow over time. When you have little kids, your hobbies may be a sliver, but you still want them to exist in your pie chart. You might want to play the guitar, so take a lesson once a month. That’s not going to bleed into your time that much and it really will make a difference in your productivity and your psyche. Same thing with friends. A lot of women tell me they don’t have enough time for friends, but if you look at all the studies, friendships are essential for your health. It’s not about pressure, it’s about making your life more fun and enjoyable. I interviewed so many women for this book, from Shonda Rhimes to Gayle King and Liz Lange—the one thing these women have in common is that they are all involved in six or seven slices of their lives.

What if your goals change after having kids? How do you make peace with that?

Goals can change over time and that’s ok, there are a lot of worksheets in the book that encourage you to make very specific goals and they might change every month. But you should never make any big life decisions during the sleepless baby years, whether it’s about your career or your marriage or anything else. Of course your goals change post-baby, but eventually you’re going to start sleeping through the night again and you’ll feel differently.

Do you think that making the choice to be a working mom—especially within weeks after having a baby is more of a luxury option for some women who can afford the childcare/help they’re comfortable with?

Not at all. If you look at the statistics, 80 percent of moms work, so this is not really on the table as an option for most people. When it comes to making the decision to work, a lot of couples do faulty math. They’ll look at the cost of the sub-earner’s salary versus the cost of daycare or a nanny and they look at how similar they are and decide one of them will just stay home and do it themselves. But unfortunately they’re not taking into consideration the fact that 60 percent of moms who want to return to work can’t find full-time positions. The odds are worse than the toss of a coin that you won’t be able to find a full-time position ever again. The baby years are so short and our lives are so long; you don’t want to make a short-term decision and not think about what’s ahead.

What can companies do to increase retention of women after they have a baby and working parents in general?

I think there’s a direct correlation between family leave policies and employee retention. And I also think the office culture has a lot to do with it. Companies not only need to institute policies, they also need to reward managers for taking advantage of those policies because if no one uses them then what’s the point? It’s also important that companies start to value people based on their productivity and quality of work rather than face time.

How do you think working moms can help the women who come after them?

We always feel better about our path when we see someone above us who has a path that looks familiar to us or is something we could see doing ourselves. The more women that stay in the workforce, the more likely we are to find a woman whose path resonates with us in some way.

What should a working parent do if their coworkers aren’t accommodating or supportive of their scheduling needs?

We used to live in a 9 to 5 world and we could count on our companies to set boundaries for us, but now that we’re tethered to our technology, it’s up to us to set boundaries for ourselves. So if you know that in order for you to thrive in the office and at home, you need to leave the office everyday at 5:30, then announce to your manager and your colleagues that you’ll be available to stay late for deadlines and emergencies but on a typical day you’ll be leaving at a specific time. They will get used to it if you’re consistent. The worst thing you can do is be wishy washy—you need to leave at the same time everyday so your colleagues know what to predict from you and people at home know what to expect.

What’s one of your top time-management hacks as a working mother?

Make decisions fast and don’t look back. When it comes to making small decisions like, “What should I eat for lunch?” or, “Should I go to that concert?” there’s very little correlation between the quality of your decision and how much time you take to make it. It’s better to make a poor choice and deal with the ramifications than it is to wallow in a no-man’s land of deliberation. I also write about The Golden Triangle, which is the three major points of your life: Home, Office, and Your Child’s School—always schedule appointments and run errands within that triangle. If you don’t have kids, then it’s the Golden Line.

Is there a particular mantra that you think working moms should repeat to themselves to ward off guilt?

“You’re an awesome role model.” If your kid sees you enjoying your life and working hard and raising them, what better possible role model is there? The next time you feel guilty about having fun, just think about what you want for your own child in 20 years—do you want them to live an adult life where they’re just always surviving and not thriving? No, you want them to enjoy their life, so you need to model that for them. Guilt is such a time waste—it depletes you of energy, it makes you unhealthy, it makes you get sick more often, and any decision you’re making based off of guilt is probably a bad decision.

You talk a lot about romantic partnerships and I’m curious for the singles: Is there any way to tell that the person you’re dating will be a good partner in marriage or after kids?

Are they supportive of your career? Are they interested? Do they feel happy for you when you achieve professional goals? It’s critical to be with someone who supports your dreams. If you’re with someone who’s making you feel guilty when you’re at work because you’re not around enough, then that’s probably someone who’s going to give you a hard time about working when you have a kid.

What’s your advice to young women who want to have children but are afraid it will set them back in their careers?

There’s never a good time, ever. There’s never a perfect time to have kids, to get married, to do any of that stuff, and you don’t want to over-prioritize your career or over-prioritize looking for someone at any point in your life, which is why you want to live the pie life from very early on. Even if you’re 25 and single, it doesn’t mean you should be working all the time. Every single person needs a personal life, whatever phase you’re in. You never want to focus on only one or two slices of your life because that’s when you give up years of potentially meeting the right person.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.