What does it mean to lead a balanced life, or in the words of one alumna, to “be in control of the chaos”? Sarah Achenbach ’88 has been asking herself that question since graduation—and for this article surveyed alumnae, too.
When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief financial officer, and writer Nell Scovell published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in 2013, I know exactly where I was.
Maybe not exactly where, but I know exactly what I was doing.
I was juggling several competing work deadlines, arguing with Son #1 to do his homework, planning a Cub Scout meeting, answering work emails, paying the pizza delivery guy, and picking dirt clods off the floor from Son #2’s soccer cleats. Mostly, I was wondering if the laundry in the washing machine from two days earlier was too mildewed to throw in the dryer.
Embracing my female empowerment and leaning in? Yeah, right. I just wanted to lie down.
My work/life struggle—muddled on a great day and mayhem most days—is not what I expected when I graduated from Hollins in 1988. My thoughts then were solely on my career. Soon after graduating, though, the joy and challenges of my nonwork life elbowed their way to the center of my days, where they’ve remained ever since.
This past October, I returned to Hollins to participate in C3: Career Connection Conference, the annual career preparation symposium for Hollins students. I had been asked to be part of a four-person panel called “Chasing the Unicorn: Work/Life Harmony.” My panelists and I had lots to say on the topic and chuckled over the choice of the word harmony. Our lives are rewarding, but none of us described our work/life balance as harmonious.
I left C3 impressed with the students I’d met and how much more together they were than I was at their age. But I also left with a few questions.
By the time I graduated, the word supermom, which entered the lexicon in 1974, was a full-blown expectation. When I had my first child at age 30, I bought what my generation was told: We could “have it all.”
Have we? Do younger generations feel this expectation? Are there new pressures to juggle it all seamlessly? And just how are we to strike a balance when our phones provide 24/7 access to us (for work and family) and the constant comparison to other seemingly perfect lives on social media?
I needed answers and the kind of wisdom that can only come from HollinsSourcing (my word).
First, the Hollins Alumnae Relations office conducted an email survey of alumnae from the classes of 1980 to 2016. An impressive 379 people responded with passionate, candid comments on work, family, hopes, regrets, joys, and more. For the survey, we purposely didn’t define work as paid work outside the home or family to mean being a wife and mother. What constitutes work and family are as varied as the paths Hollins graduates take.
What did the survey reveal? Not surprisingly, most of us did not think about this issue at Hollins. Fifty-three percent never thought about it, while 33 percent did sometimes. Now the question is rarely far from our thoughts: 75 percent think about it often; 21 percent, sometimes; and a blissful four percent, never. Another nonshocker: Nearly everyone who answered the question about balance being a goal said “yes.”
Both the recently graduated and retired expressed frustration at trying to find a healthy balance. Mercury Hipp ’15 admitted, “There is no balance. I work constantly out of financial necessity and the nature of my job. I am physically, cognitively, and emotionally exhausted.” Ellen George Smith ’80 was just as candid: “When I worked full time I did a poor job with balance. Now I am retired and doing a lot of volunteer work but doing a better job at balance—but maybe still tipped toward working.”
Many spoke of their career having more weight on the scale, whether out of financial need, work demands, or pressure from society, themselves, or technology. Ane Turner Johnson ’98 explained that, while her younger self was excited about the prospect of work defining her life, “now that it does, I am less enthusiastic because I often feel that life lacks depth as a result.”
Numerous women spoke of the paradox that wherever you are, you feel you should be somewhere else. Courtney Hamill ’05 said her life is in “a constant state of triage between family needs and career needs.” Lauren ClemenceCasula ’04 agreed: “I don’t even have children and am often forced to choose between my career, my social life, my husband, my dogs, or my health. Just seems like there’s never enough time or energy to devote to all of it at once.”
Susan Emack Alison ’86 got the message early that life beyond Hollins might not be what she thought it would be: “At graduation, news anchor Ann Compton ’69 said ‘Women can’t have it all.’ That sounded like blasphemy to us empowered, eager go-getters. …She explained that something has to give, that there are sacrifices to make when you balance a career with other life choices, such as marriage, children, and volunteerism. Over the last three decades, I’ve found her take to be true.”
I needed an expert to help me wade through the challenges to find some clarity. Jill Weber, Ph.D., president and founder of the Center for Thriving, Inc., has devoted her professional life to helping others lead more balanced and centered lives. A former communication studies professor at Hollins—she’s currently the university’s special advisor for student well-being and teaches an undergraduate course on the topic—Weber explains that because of technological changes, “work seeps into after-work hours,” which means that “we need to move from human doing to human being.” It’s a top-down change, she says, starting with management creating clear lines and workers setting boundaries—that they will not answer emails after 7 p.m., for example.
To Weber, equilibrium is important, although she knows that this is different for each person. “Workaholic is not a term of endearment,” she explains. “We have to identify priorities that matter to us and build our life around those.”
To do that, Weber asks her clients or students who they are, what their purpose is, and where they want to spend their time. Then she leads them in defining what an authentic, meaningful life looks like, identifying what she calls “thriving ideals”—three words that become the compass.
Then it’s about scheduling. Everyone, even the person working several jobs and raising kids (from the survey results, that’s plenty of us), has five minutes each day to work toward their identified goals. After speaking with Weber, for example, I now carry a journal to write essay ideas, rather than scrolling through Facebook while waiting at my son’s drum lessons. The bonus: a steady stream of ideas for my personal writing aspirations and fewer cat videos.
Weber is a big fan of Brené Brown, noted shame researcher, who identifies 12 shame triggers for women (among them, body, career, parenting, and aging) and one for men (weakness). “I operate on no shame, no blame, no guilt, no judgment,” Weber says. “Putting yourself as a priority moves you toward a goal and gives you hope. I see so many people walking around without anchors, and as a result, they are absorbing other people’s anchors.”
Again, she returns to societal expectations. “Women have been brought up to always be somebody’s something instead of being themselves,” Weber explains. “Our core value is helping others, but we need to give ourselves permission to do what we need to do to live an authentic life.”
Social media adds to the impression that people are not good enough, Weber explains. “I look at the ‘should,’ ‘supposed to’ and ‘have to’ statements that silence what we want to do. Social media amplifies these messages.” She notes that social media sites also offer a diversity of views and perspectives, but the trick is to curate the deluge purposefully and positively. “I encourage people to add to their feed content that is uplifting and unfollow what they don’t want to see,” she explains, noting that Facebook can include healthy communities around challenging issues, including the Hollins Life Support Facebook Group, which gives members a place to get support and advice.
I go back to the 86 percent of survey respondents who admitted that finding balance in their post-Hollins life was something they either never (53 percent) or sometimes (33 percent) thought about during college. Not anymore. To date, Weber’s popular well-being elective at Hollins has had an impact on the lives, post-college plans, and happiness of more than 100 students. Undergraduates farther north are just as interested in the subject. A year ago, 1,200 Yale University students flooded the registration for the elective Psychology and the Good Life, the most popular class in Yale’s history. In a New York Times article, the course’s founder and teacher, psychology professor Laurie Santos, reasoned that students were so interested because, as high schoolers, they had “adopted harmful habits…of deprioritizing their happiness to gain admission to [college],” of “numbing their emotions” to focus on the next step, whether it was school or career aspirations.
Weber agrees: “We are at a point in society where we can create our lives more fully, where people want to lead their lives instead of just doing.” This is certainly at the heart of the lives Hollins women are striving to lead. It was in the questions students asked at C3 and in the responses from the surveys, especially in the answers of what advice Hollins alumnae would give their 20-something selves to live their best, more balanced life.
“Don’t try to be perfect at everything,” said Courtney Frankhouser Myers ’97. “That mentality will kill you.” Michelle Fellows Sayers ’07 added, “Don’t be afraid to say no. Make your own mental, emotional, and physical health a priority, and then it is much easier to balance everything else.”
Sarah Achenbach is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.
Find more comments from the alumnae survey at www.hollins.edu/magazine.
Michelle Sprint Smith ’83
For the past 35 years, Michelle Smith has loved her career in research and development. As the associate research and development director for DowDuPont’s Corteva Agriscience Agriculture division, she leads the North America Regional Field Service team in conducting new crop technologies. She’s also raised two children and has lived through several shifts in work/life balance.
I knew I wanted to work when I got married. Having kids really changed everything and what it would mean to me and what the consequences were. I didn’t want to travel for work but had to. I always wanted to be where I wasn’t. I learned to be present where I am. Life was a lot easier after that.
I slowed down my career progress when the kids were little. Now I am able to ramp back up. Parenting doesn’t end when your kids are 21, though. Our daughter has a disability and is independent but still needs support. My husband retired, so he does the heavy lifting. He’s always been understanding and ahead of his time [with household duties]. But that doesn’t mean I let myself off the hook. I fell for ‘doing it all.’
I absolutely believe that [work/life balance] is a woman’s issue. There are cultural and personal expectations that are different for men and women. It’s changing, though. I see more dual-career people than when I started. If there is a man who manages women, and his wife works outside the home, his perspective is different. I see millennials expecting better work life/balance. It’s healthy. There’s a man on my team who is taking several weeks’ paternity leave. You’d almost never see that before.
Shaye Strager ’95
Fashion stylist. TV personality. Branding expert. Wife. Mother. Road warrior. Shaye Strager wears a lot of hats and logs a lot of miles each month when she travels from her home in Atlanta to clients in New York City, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
The shift in recent years has become harder to balance, but the key is being in control of the chaos—and keeping ever present about what is most important. I make sure that nothing gets in the way of things that matter to our family. Knowing, too, that it will all get done when it’s supposed to—or that it won’t, and that’s okay – keeps things in perspective.
I make lists for everything: the house, groceries, clients, and goals, and one cohesive list every Monday of what must get done. I have a reality check on that list each Wednesday and Friday. Prioritizing deadlines and delegating are key.
There’s a great deal of power and fulfillment in saying “no.” My husband changed my ringtone to Meghan Trainor’s song “No.” It’s funny when it goes off but also very helpful to remind me to only do what I love—and what I can handle.
Kismet Loftin-Bell ’03, M.A.L.S. ’04
Taking juggling to an art form, Kismet Loftin-Bell, who has a law degree, founded Beyond the Box Consulting, is a Gallup-certified strengths coach, and serves as a political science professor and student life and engagement administrator at Forsyth Technical and Surry community colleges. She’s also a single parent who homeschools her teenage son.
We do a disservice when we tell women that they can be superwomen. I know that I don’t have to do all that I am doing. I ask myself if this is moving me in a direction I want to go. Young women need to know that if something is not working, you have the option of changing.
I’m an ideas person who can’t hold everything in my head, so I write it down. At Hollins I had a little pocket calendar, but now my Google calendar is my best friend. My son knows if he doesn’t upload his calendar to mine, it doesn’t exist in my world. I use the Any.do app to schedule my tasks and maximize my productivity.
Recently, I started taking a day of rest. It’s a day to stop and try my best not to do any work. And every day, my phone goes silent from 8:30 p.m. until 8 a.m. Only special people can get through during those hours. I have to create boundaries.
Caitlyn Lewis ’17
Part time is full time for Caitlyn Lewis, who dreams of a life in nonprofit management. She’s a part-time graduate assistant in Hollins’ Cultural and Community Engagement office, teaches physical education at the Gainsboro YMCA in Roanoke every weekday morning, is enrolled in the part-time, online Hollins M.A.L.S. program, and serves on the Girls Rock Roanoke board.
As a dance major, I always assumed that I would juggle things. Performing and teaching weren’t going to pay 100 percent of the bills. [As an undergraduate], the Hollins way is to do everything and anything all at the same time. It’s a great way to learn, but it can be damaging to self-care. I had to learn to prioritize. When I want to be by myself, I put my phone on airplane mode. That’s as good as it gets right now.
Social media influences a lot of what I imagine I am supposed to be at my age . It makes me idealize a certain image or thought that I may not want for myself. The frustrating part is that I know that it’s 100 percent curated. I stopped posting as much. I need and want to establish boundaries, but it’s been challenging.
I look at other generations and see the work involved. I don’t feel the pressure to have a perfect life. My generation has been able to see and hear about many different career paths. I hope my work will define me because of who I am: I work with women of color because I am one, and I work with LGBTQ issues because I exist in that space. My balancing act right now is allowing flexibility.