Happy Mom Interview: Laura Vanderkam

The theme at The Happiest Mom this week is TIME. How to find it, how to make it, how to best use it. And my inspiration was this interview with Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. The book is dedicated to a simple but profound idea: you can be the master of your own calendar and schedule, and create a life that honors and supports your priorities and strengths (and yes, find time for that bath, that jog, that book). Read on for Laura’s thoughts on happier motherhood and time management.

"There is no point being busy with things that don't matter."-Laura Vanderkam

Meagan: Have you always been a happy mom? If not, tell me a little bit about your journey.

Laura: I made the mistake of reading a lot about how hard and horrible motherhood was when I was pregnant the first time. In particular, I kept reading that it was going to ruin my career. And unfortunately, the birth of my first son came at a rather low point for me professionally — I got the news that the publisher of my first book wasn’t going to buy the follow-on due to slow sales while I was in labor (take-away: don’t check your Blackberry in the delivery room). But that set-back freed me to start writing in a different subject area: namely, about how people spend their time, now and in the past. That eventually led to 168 Hours. I never would have written my book if I hadn’t had my son, and now my book is opening doors for me, professionally. Which means, by the transitive property, that my baby opened doors for me, professionally. That makes me a happy mom!

Meagan: When you first had kids, did you have an image in your head of the “kind of mom” you’d be, or what motherhood would be like? Did it match your reality?

Laura: Given all I was reading, I had a pretty negative impression of motherhood — I’d inevitably get fat and have no time to exercise, or that I’d have no time for sex but it wouldn’t matter because I wouldn’t want it anyway. What I have learned is that life doesn’t stop when you have children. I saw a list the other day of 70 things to do before having kids, and I realized I’d done several of them (running a marathon, walking through the slums of India) after becoming a mom. Yes, life often takes more planning when kids are involved, but planning ahead is a great way to make sure things get done. If you don’t have good time management skills before having kids, life will definitely be chaotic afterwards, but that’s not really the kids’ fault.

Meagan: When you look around, is there something you consistently see other moms doing that gets in the way of their happiness?

Laura: Two things, really. First, there is nothing wrong with working for a living, so don’t apologize for it. Kids need time and money. If you’re working full-time, you’ll probably have a reasonable amount of the latter, and as for the former, if you work 40 hours a week and sleep 8 hours per night (56 per week) that still leaves 72 hours for other things. This is a lot of time (particularly if you have some say over your schedule). A job that you care passionately about is also a great way to hold onto your identity as an adult.

"We so often live our lives day by day. Laura wants us to think about doing it hour by hour. LIving this mantra by example, she gets more done in a day than most of us do in a week."-Seth Godin, author of LINCHPIN

And second, trust your husband to be a real parenting partner. Some moms spend hours complaining that, say, they give the kids baths 6 nights per week and he only does once. Well, maybe he only thinks kids need to be bathed twice a week, in which case he is doing half. “Every night” isn’t right just because mom says it is. You and your kids will be happier if they have an involved, empowered father, even if that means they eat more chicken nuggets and watch more TV than you’d like.

Meagan: I’m always saying “The way I do things is different from the way my husband does things, but whoever said my way is right?” I’d love to hear how this plays out in your family. Are there things you’ve learned to relax on or just look the other way because of your–ahem–differing standards?

Laura:  My standards are pretty low as it is, but one thing I’m learning to relax about is television. When I’m taking care of the kids I almost never turn it on. My husband thinks making popcorn and watching Over the Hedge with our 3-year-old until 10:30PM is a great way to spend an evening. Rather than make a big deal about, oh, “bedtime,” I go hide somewhere and read. Come to think of it, this may be a benefit of having kids — my husband no longer pressures me to watch stupid movies with him, because our 3-year-old is eager to be his date.

Meagan: What do you think are the biggest factors to your personal happiness as a mom?

Laura: As a lifelong free agent, I’m slowly getting my head around the idea that I need a “team” to do my best professionally. It’s the same situation at home — I need a team. This team looks different for different people, but for me it involves my husband (who does a lot of our laundry, for instance), other relatives, paid caregivers, the occasional cleaning service, getting my groceries delivered, prepared meals, etc.

Meagan: Did you have any trouble really embracing the idea of outsourcing? Any specific tasks you clung to–even though logically it made more sense to delegate?

Laura: I resisted hiring as much childcare as we needed, partly because of the expense, and partly because I thought that I should be able to handle it because my work is “flexible.” My older son has attended a wonderful daycare since he was a baby. I love how many friends he has made there and how much he has learned but it was very stressful finding back-up care for the 4 weeks he was sick that first winter, and I once had to call four sitters to find someone to pick him up on a night when neither my husband nor I could make it. I wound up skipping important networking events because finding evening sitters was such a hassle. Travel was also a nightmare — I once had a babysitter email to cancel while I was in Boston and my husband was also out of town. I have never been more grateful to have the Delta shuttle land on time. Finally I realized that I would be a more relaxed mom if I had more help. So we hired a full-time nanny shortly before my second son was born. We kept our older son in daycare on a more part-time basis since he would be in pre-school now anyway. But yeah, now we’re paying for a nanny and daycare — so please tell your readers to buy my book!

Meagan: Last week at The Happiest Mom, we talked about knowing your strengths, which ties into a central theme of your book: Core Competencies. Can you describe what that means, in a nutshell?

Laura: Core competencies are the things that we do best and that others can’t do nearly as well. For most of us, these are certain professional activities at which we excel, nurturing our families (and close friends), and nurturing ourselves (no one, alas, can sleep or exercise for you). The real breakthrough in time management comes from spending as many hours as possible on your core competencies, and as little as possible on other things. That doesn’t mean other things aren’t important or worthwhile! They’re just not the best uses of your time. The obvious example here is certain volunteer activities. Many women volunteer for all kinds of projects for their kids’ schools, or church, or in their communities. Often, these are very worthy activities. But you may not be the best person for all of them, and if you commit to too much, you clearly won’t be, as you won’t be able to give each project the attention it deserves. Better to choose one volunteer activity where you can truly add value, and devote enough time, energy (and maybe money) to get results.

Meagan: To whom do you look to as your happy mother role models?

Laura: I was particularly inspired by the woman I profiled in Chapter 1 of 168 Hours. Theresa Daytner runs a 7-figure business and has 6 kids. Which sounds like it would be crazy, but when I tried to get in touch with her on a Thursday morning to set up an interview, she was out for a hike — just because it was a beautiful day. She fills her hours with activities that nurture her business, her family, or herself, and basically doesn’t do anything else. There is no point being busy with things that don’t matter. I’m trying to implement that lesson in my own life.

Thanks, Laura!

Readers: What are YOUR core competencies?

PS: If you want to know more about Laura’s book–and get a chance to ask her your questions about time management–she and Katherine Lewis of CurrentMom are hosting a FREE teleseminar from 12:30 – 1:30 PM EST, Wednesday, September 8 (that’s TODAY and SOON!) on the topic of heading back to school–without going crazy.

PPS: If you’ve got a few minutes to spare before then, please head over to the Mamapedia Facebook page, where I’ll be leading a chat on being a more patient parent from 12 noon to 1 PM EST (Also TODAY and like RIGHT NOW!). Won’t you come over and say hi? I always love it when my friends show up and ask a question–or just leave a comment. (You’ll have to “like” Mamapedia to join in.)

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