Right Answer, Wrong Question on Work-Life Balance

    I was as outraged as everyone else when I first saw the headline about Matt Lauer’s Today Show interview with Mary Barra, the new General Motors CEO. During a recent interview in Detroit with Barra, Lauer had the following exchange:

    Matt: You’re a mom, I mentioned, two kids. You said in an interview not long ago that your kids told you they’re going to hold you accountable for one job and that is being a mom.

    Mary: Correct.

    Matt: Given the pressure of this job at General Motors, can you do both well?

    Mary: You know, I think I can. I have a great team, we’re on the right path … I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I’m pretty proud of the way my kids are supporting me in this.

    The obvious questions came to mind: Would he ask a man that question? Why can’t a successful women also be a good mom? Who the hell does Matt Lauer think he is?

    But then I took a breath and really listened to the interview. He was quoting Barra who had commented that her children had told her they only judged her on one job : “Mom.”

    She had broached the often neglected realm of work-life balance and Lauer was asking for more information.

    His question was phrased incorrectly. “Can I be a good mom and work? HELL YES!” But it’s a question maybe we should be asking more executives, elected officials and leaders everywhere, regardless of gender.

    It’s not just women who have to deal with work-life balance, it’s everyone who wants to have a successful career or wants to put food on the table and be present in their children’s lives. Like it or not most families are two income, gone are the days where Mom stays home and Dad brings home the paycheck. Sometimes it’s because both partners love their careers, sometimes it’s because in order to pay the bills both have to work and sometimes it’s a combination of all those things.

    Whatever the reason is there is a requirement for some work-life balance and we can all learn a thing or two from people who are doing it well. So instead of working to make sure that woman aren’t asked if they can still be good mothers, let’s start working towards asking HOW they are doing it.

    And when moms and dads start to answer that question let’s not sugarcoat the answer – it’s not all roses, there are a lot of thorns along the way. But maybe if we start to talk a little bit more about how we negotiated around those thorns we might help young families everywhere.

    Every young mother has a moment where she says “maybe this isn’t worth it, maybe I should just give up and stay home.” If women like Barra can really talk about how she made it through – what help she had, what sacrifices she made and what she would do differently, she might give a few of those woman hope.

    Because too often when we see those role models we see them when they’ve reached success and it’s easy to dismiss their ways of finding balance because they have nannies and maids which just aren’t an option for most of us. But they didn’t start out that way, I’m going to guess that when Barra was working her way up the GM ladder as an engineer and administrator she didn’t always have the resources she has today.

    If we start talking about this, maybe one more woman would stand up and say I can do this but I need these tools to be able to do it. If we start talking about it as a human issue rather than a women’s issue, maybe more men will speak up and ask for the support they need to be more present with their kids. Maybe some men will speak up to talk about how they and their partners (male and female) make work-life balance work.

    If we all start talking about this more employers might discover the tools that make for more successful and happier employees.

    Work-life balance is tricky and it’s hard to talk about – but if we don’t then we aren’t going to learn how to fix the problems. Let’s take this opportunity to open up a dialogue – not shut one down.

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    Cathleen Lewis
    Cathleen, the Mayor of Lawrence Township & a full-time Public Affairs professional, counts her best job as being Mommy to Abigail (3 years) and Bridget (6 months ). A New Yorker originally, but Boston raised, Cathleen enjoys the challenge of raising the girls in a mixed household with her Yankee-fan husband Paul. She hopes to make up for the confusion by encouraging the family’s love of Rutgers football. She dreams of sharing her love of beaches, margaritas, music and adventure but is happy to squeeze in a family walk with the dog and a back yard BBQ these days. Formerly an avid reader and writer before work, life and children; Cathleen hopes she hasn’t lost her ability to capture thoughts through the written word but often can’t remember where the grocery list is.

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