Work-life balance. For most working mothers, this once-helpful framework has become yet another impossible ideal to live up to - snagging that promotion while simultaneously teaching your child how to hand-bake organic challah. For Samantha Ettus, the Los Angeles-based author of a new book, The Pie Life: a guilt-free recipe for success and satisfaction, it's time for a massive rethink. "The whole image of a scale is flawed," she says.
"With it there are only three paradigms. One is that home and work have to be perfectly in balance. Another is to juggle everything - I mean, have you ever been on a conference call with a toddler? It just doesn't work. And the other is to have it all. And no-one has that. No-one."
What she espouses - and as the title of the book suggests - is to embrace life as a pie. Six or seven slices, all of which make for a happy fulfilled working mother. She lays them out in her book: Career, children, health, relationship, community, friends, hobbies. How much time is allotted to each slice is up to you. "It allows you to have a sense of control over your life" she says.
The framework came to her when, as a business speaker and a coach, she realized that the happiest women she met had all those slices in their lives, in some form or another. If a day is just work-life- work, without the other slices, working mothers become exhausted, unhappy and enter survival mode, just trying to get through each day. Those other aspects - seeing friends, going to the gym, being part of a community - make life worth living. She's now on a passionate mission to spread her message to working mums everywhere.
How do you make room for all those slices? She suggests we change our mindset from tidy lines to a rich messiness. Combine the slices in a day, or at the same time, if you can. "Invite another family over for dinner on a Sunday night," she says, to get family time and see friends. Jump back on work emails after dinner. Go to the gym at lunch time. Schedule a monthly get together with a working mums group. A weekly date night with your partner.
When I'm feeling guilty, who wins? The kids? No
If you're wondering, "yes, but how much time would you spend with the kids?", she has an instant answer. "As working mothers, we're not aiming to win the face time game. There is zero correlation between quantity of time with kids and being a great mother. Quantity does not win over quality. You could be there for 12 hours and be completely distracted. Or you could spend two hours with your child and give them all your attention. Really listen to them. It's a rarity. Most kids never get that."
Ah, so much easier to say than do. She says most of us are held back by our guilt. When I mention that for Jewish women it's in our DNA, she laughs (she's Jewish, and writes in the book about the huge break the fast she throws after Yom Kippur each year.)
"For me it's been a goal to give it up. I've dramatically reduced my guilt. I realised that when I'm feeling guilty - who's winning? The kids? No. it's better to work my tail off at work so I can be super present when I'm with them."
I tell her that my eight-year-old daughter likes to whine when I tell her I'm going out. "Ha! It's all about how you frame it. If kids sense an inkling of guilt, you're done." She recalls a moment in her book where, at a social function, a stay at home mum asked a working mother what she did. "Unfortunately I work," she replied.
"What kind of message is that sending the kids?" she asks. "My heart sank. I knew that this woman absolutely loves her career, yet she felt compelled by guilt to say that." She says children should know how much satisfaction their mothers get from their job. "You're a role model to them".
She concedes organisation is the key to making it all work and offers some good tips throughout the book. Like the "golden triangle"- making sure that all errands (doctors, hairdresser, supermarket) are done either near your work, your home or your child's school. If they're not - change them.
Another tip - proactively schedule things like gym time or the hair dresser. Once they're in your diary, things can be fitting in around them. My personal favourite is "decide fast and don't look back". Too much time is wasted muddling over the pros and cons of those endless decisions, she says. Which flight to book? Should I cook at home or get takeaway? Be bold, she says, make a decision and move forward. And don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work out so well this time. It happens. Learn from it and move on.
In the book, she asks readers to envision the kind of pie they want. I ask her what hers would be. "Well, I'm actually not a big fan of pie myself," she laughs. "But I think it would be a chocolate cream pie." I ask her to explain that for a British audience. "It looks kind of hard on the outside, and but inside it's soft and gooey. A very rich piece of smooth happiness."
Now that sounds like a pie I could aspire to.