Sunday November 12, 2017

How many women does it take to send one woman back to work?

Italian Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli, left, takes part in a vote as she cradles her baby at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Italian Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli, left, takes part in a vote as she cradles her baby at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. (Christian Lutz/The Associated Press)

Cross Country Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma reflects on the delicate balance of work and life, and speaks to Canadian media executive Denise Donlon about how to have it all.

When I went back to work after my third child, I hired a production crew to manage my home life.

I had teenagers picking up the 6- and 8-year-olds to escort them to and from school. A next-door neighbour who was on mat leave made snacks and supervised homework. Another neighbour took care of my baby along with her own toddler.

Then there were the cleaning faeries who came in for a couple hours several times a week. These women walked into the bomb site of my post-breakfast kitchen. They began at the sink, prying the cemented Rice Krispies off cereal bowls, and worked towards the living room picking pyjamas from the floor. They ran laundry and folded it.

When my neighbour went back to work, I advertised and found Mrs B. for after-school care. She made snow angels with the older ones and baked pies from scratch. And then there was my husband to step into the breach when I travelled for work.

Anna-Liza Kozma

Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma with her three kids. (Submitted)

Lots of little bits of help as often as I could afford it. It was all still cheaper than a full-time nanny or $1,400-plus a month infant daycare. I knew I was lucky to have this patchwork of helpers in our small town north of Toronto. Once I was telling my colleague about Mrs. B's home baked meat pie, and a head popped over our cubicle barrier. "Whatever you're paying her, I'll pay double," he quipped.

Triage

We all do what it takes to ride the parenting roller coaster. While some of it gets easier as the kids grow, the second guessing never stops. When we're at work we think we should be spending more time with the kids. When we're with the kids, we wish we were working.

As Canadian media executive Denise Donlon puts it, work-life balance is an illusion. "I am not sure balance can be achieved at all," she told me on the phone, multi-tasking while having her hair done.

Denise Donlon Fearless As Possible

Denise Donlon has served as an executive at MuchMusic, Sony Music Canada and the CBC. (House of Anansi)

"Balance assumes you are managing everything perfectly at same time." The reality for a working mother is more "like triage in emergency, running around with our hair on fire. And we always have to chose one thing over another." 

Listen to Denise Donlon's conversation with Checkup host Duncan McCue below.

The breast-feeding VP

If you have young kids, never mind getting them out the door to daycare or school. Just getting yourself out the door to work is enough of a challenge, especially if you're breastfeeding‚Äč

Donlon, whose memoir is called Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), took three months off from her job as vice-president at MuchMusic. She recalls hiding in a room the size of a closet with her breast pump.

"It was somewhat unusual as a female VP in a typically male dominated industry," she admits, laughing. "Trust me, going to the nurse's cot room to try and express milk to keep my son healthy while I was at the nation's music station was yeah, sometimes frowned on."

"But it was good. I know a lot of women who love their children but they don't want to be home with them all day. They are more fulfilled in the workplace."

 "And you have to be grateful that you have choices, because so many women don't."

"Yes, we feel guilty," she says, knowing we aren't always making the right choice every single time. "But we assuage our guilt knowing our kids are growing up seeing us as fulfilled multi-dimensional people." 

Keeping up for a smooth re-entry to work

On top of the cost of childcare, the logistics of breastfeeding and the guilt, there's also the problem of what a returning mum faces once she has jumped over all the hurdles to make it back to work. The longer you take off, the harder it can be to find your feet again.

Reflecting on the federal government's extended 18-month parental leave plan, Denise Donlon says it's vital to keep up with changes in your industry while you're away from work. "Depending on the business you're in, a lot can happen in 18 months. If you hope to have a smooth re-entry you really have to keep up." When Donlon was working at Sony Music Canada, the industry was in the middle of an enormous digital disruption.

"You have to be prepared on re-entry, that things aren't going to be exactly as they were when you left. Not only will the job have changed but the team around you as well."

I know what Donlon means. When I returned to work after my first child, the familiar unit I had worked with for years had been dissolved. Worse, I no longer had my own office.

In my new, less than private cubicle space, I was always self-conscious taking calls to triage those far away emergencies on the home front.

Work-life balance as an extreme sport

I remember my son's lacrosse coach coming to pick him up and finding there was a crucial item missing from the equipment bag. Over the phone, and acutely aware of the fascination of my desk mates, I gave detailed instructions to my son, the babysitter and the coach as they searched laundry baskets, toy bins and hallway drawers to unearth the freshly laundered jock strap.

But maybe I shouldn't have been so self-conscious about it.

"Work-life balance is an extreme sport and we should be hiring those who are good at it," Denise Donlon reminded me. "And adding flexibility to the workplace is always good."

"The truth is women are capable," said Donlon, nailing the reality for millions of working moms. "If you come back to work after being a mom and are multitasking as a working career mother, then you are probably a superstar already!"