Can You “Have it All”? Of course not.

A recent cover story in The Atlantic called “Why Women Can’t Have It All” has generated a huge amount of buzz (see the debate at The Atlantic, on Slate, and on any Facebook wall with young, ambitious people who have or are planning to have children). The article is long by internet standards, but well worth the read, not just for women, but for anyone in modern society, especially small business owners. Author Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor and dean at Princeton and former high ranking State Department official (and mom) breaks an important taboo– simply admitting that it’s really hard for someone to be a academic and professional superstar and a highly effective mom.

While the article is geared towards a small slice of hyper-achieving women, the messages will resonate with anyone who has their own business. Many of us started our businesses to get control over our lives and our time, so we wouldn’t have to miss our kids’ soccer games because the pointy-haired boss gave us a last minute assignment on Friday afternoon. However, business ownership can eat up an infinite amount of time. You are simply never done. Many people end up owned by their business, instead of the other way around. Instead of freedom to enjoy their families, they have little time with their families and feel so much stress that their families don’t want to be around them.

Perhaps I found the article particularly engaging because I made substantial, often painful changes to my business after my twins arrived. Before kids, I traveled a lot, and I enjoyed spending extra time at the end of a project in Tokyo or Paris or New York, while the “lame” parents took the first flight back to squeeze in some time with their kids. My wife and I knew that having kids would mean changes, but we thought we could just cram kids into the mix, with some help from a nanny. We were wrong. I would be gone 3, 4, or 5 days a week, sometimes for months at a time. I missed things, and my kids clearly missed me. It was hard on my wife, who works even harder than I do. As much as I enjoyed flying all over the place, helping companies figure out how to price and sell more effectively, it wasn’t worth missing my kids grow up. I realized I could not do both, at least not well. Once I realized that, the choice was actually easy, even though it was painful in many ways. Trying to be a good father is one of the most important things I can do. Being a (somewhat) absent father in pursuit of more money and challenging work was not acceptable. (It would be different if I had to do it so my kids could eat or get a decent education.)

So I essentially stopped traveling for work. (I still go on a handful of business trips each year, but they are only 1-3 days.) We let our nanny go. I recalled one of the reasons to be my own boss in the first place, and set my schedule around the kids’ school and other activities. I told customers that I could not attend meetings past 3PM. I missed meetings because we had a snow day. (Yes, we had a good half inch here in Austin and that shut down the city.) Last summer I managed the camp schedule and screwed up royally– not realizing my kids could only attend from 9-12, not 9-3 as I had thought. It’s hard to develop software or really think about pricing problems in a two and a half hour window– so not much got done those 2 weeks. Yes, I stayed up late to cover the essentials, but that’s not the same as being productive during the day. Customers were understanding. Most of them had kids, too.

And there were some projects I just couldn’t do anymore, which really hit the bottom line. While I’ve never regretted my decision, I certainly should have planned for it better.

I have to say no to more things, but that’s OK. I looked at where I was spending time at work and tried to cut out everything that wasn’t essential. The online proposal software I wrote sprang from a desire to waste less time writing and closing proposals. I’m not a perfect dad, and certainly not a perfect business owner, but I know that in the larger scheme, trading off time at work for time with kids is great, as long as you have the luxury of doing it. I’d rather have more time and less stuff.

Is this “having it all?” No. I don’t spend as much time as I might like at work. I certainly don’t get to exercise every day. Dinner is usually something I throw together quickly, rather than some gourmet organic feast that my kids magically like to eat. My electric guitar is awesome at collecting dust. My wife and I have taken one “real” vacation since our kids were born, just like those “lame” parents we swore we would never become. Making time to volunteer is tough when we feel like we are taking time away from kids. Forget sleeping in. Our friends and families tell us we should visit more often (I guess that’s better than the opposite problem). The list of things that we don’t do is infinitely longer than the list of things we do.

And it’s all OK. There are 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year, and a limited number of years in our lives. You have to pick what’s important to you. Providing for your family is important, but once the necessities are met, there’s a diminishing return on incremental dollars, especially if you have to buy them with time. (See a 4 part series on selling services for a way to make more money while leaving yourself more time if you sell expert services. Start with “I sell services. What the %$&! do I sell?” and work from there.)

Will people who are willing to work 16 hours a day and are capable of doing it productively be more competitive in the job market than people who work half that much? Of course. Will people who can sociopathically ignore their children be able to work at times that more conscientious parents can’t? Of course. I’m glad that opportunities are much more broadly available today than they were even a generation ago, let alone when my grandparents were entering the labor market. Those of us lucky enough to have choices (a demographic Slaughter notes she is lucky enough to be in) also have the burden of making those choices. While the article looks at the woman’s perspective and highlights the barriers to mothers achieving in the workplace, there is another side to the coin. Men could “have it all” by removing active parenthood from the definition of having it all. While all parents have moments that they would wholeheartedly agree with this contracted notion, many men woke up late in life and realized that they had not had it all, despite career success, and they could never have that time back. They had been spared the choice, which seemed easier at the time, only to realize they had missed something important. Working mothers have to confront these choices, these questions of “balance”, of reconciling daily realities with the fantasy of business profiles and Hollywood-ized versions of work and family. And I recommend that working fathers do, too, especially if you started a business so you could have more control over your life. After all, most small business owners are control freaks, and businesses and children are particularly challenging to control freaks.

This all seems obvious once you get it. But it took me over a year to figure out, and it took Slaughter, who is much more accomplished than I am, even longer. Some people go through most of their lives striving for success on someone else’s terms, feeling bad for not “succeeding” enough, tilting at the windmills of impossible expectations. I’m not judging anyone’s choices– just suggesting that people should be true to themselves. There’s no such thing as “having it all.” If you started a business so you could have more control over your life and you feel like you have no control over work or your time with family (and for yourself), maybe it’s time to figure out what’s really important. The sooner the better.

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