The phrase “Work-life balance is more like a pendulum than a level” had long been a career mantra of mine. It means that we don’t tend to find balance in any given moment, day or week, but can achieve equilibrium over longer arcs as we let our energy and focus shift back and forth in successive chapters. I followed that principle for the first fifteen years of my career — feverishly working over a span of years to a point of near-exhaustion, then recharging with a radical shift of focus to non-work fronts.
With motherhood, all of that changed.
In my free-wheeling twenties, I spent a particularly intense chapter globe-trotting and deal-making on behalf of a successful internet company that was expanding its business overseas. In about four years I helped to launch that business in 19 countries. Traveling that much for work isn’t terribly conducive to maintaining hobbies (or deep relationships with folks back home, for that matter). Recognizing that, I eventually switched gears to come back to the U.S. to reconnect with my family and friends, and pursue my love of music for a spell. While consulting part-time, I studied vocal performance, attended regular yoga classes, released an album, formed a band and got a fast, sobering education in the way the music business actually works. I quickly figured out that I wasn’t really an aspiring rock-star and after a year I was drawn back to the business world again full-time. But that music chapter restored balance in me and refilled my energy reserves for the next challenge.
Combining Business With Pleasure
It wasn’t long before I joined the management team of a little-known music and tech startup called Savage Beast Technologies. The passionate founders had created something called the “Music Genome Project” and a year later we launched a radio service powered by that music genome which people now know and love as Pandora. I spent eight years working to get Pandora integrated into every mobile phone, home consumer electronics device and automobile model that consumers might turn to for a personalized radio experience. Our goal was “Pandora Everywhere” and we accomplished that mission. Building Pandora was a thrilling ride and one that I could have easily continued as one of the most senior and longest-tenured women in what was then a large, public company. My last couple years there—as well as the ones that were laid out in front of me if I had stayed—were disproportionately lucrative, too, compared to the long stretch of lean years as a startup.
But there was something else in my life that I considered priceless. In May 2012, I let the pendulum swing in the other direction and took a year and a half to be home with my then two-year-old son. Toward the end of my tenure at Pandora, I wasn’t feeling good about the tradeoffs I was making between work and family, and I felt the clock ticking on the years when my son would be always at home, yearning for my company above any other. The focused time we spent together—and the bond we forged—is precious. Among other projects, we made a record of the songs he was enjoying and his two-year-old voice is forever preserved with mine in music at www.songsforwyatt.com. It was clear to me, too, that I needed to recharge my batteries again after such an intense company-building chapter. The time away from work and the focus on family was restorative. I gradually realized, though, that I still had more that I wanted to accomplish on the professional front.
Three months ago, I started a new, dream job. I became President and board member of UrbanSitter, a product that my family has faithfully used to find a steady stream of terrific babysitters since my son was a year old. While I deeply believe in the product and the problems it solves for families, I am equally passionate about the dynamic executive team I have joined. Five out of six of us are women and all are parents to young children. For those of you keeping score in Silicon Valley, that makes us a pretty unique startup executive team. We are, quite literally, “changing the ratio.”
The Importance of Caring Coworkers
My colleagues are impressive, inspiring and fun, and we’re working hard together to build this company into something lasting and significant. But part of what makes this a dream job for me, at this juncture, is that my colleagues implicitly understand the struggle to balance building the company with being an engaged and nurturing parent. Both, done well, are more than full-time jobs. Each one of us is navigating that “balance” in our dual commitment to the business and to our families. I feel excited by what we’re doing, because I believe that as senior leaders in the tech industry we have a responsibility to set a realistic example for the women (and men) coming after us. We need to demonstrate how to both “lean in” to a high-stakes leadership role, while also leaning in to our families. That comes part and parcel with a responsibility to show our sons and daughters what their moms are capable of achieving in the world.
As it turns out, the pendulum model doesn’t apply well to working parenthood. Instead, we are committed to be home for family dinner most nights of the week, and we read stories and tuck our children into their beds. That means walking out of the office around 5:30 pm, and getting back online after the little ones are asleep. (I am writing this piece on a Saturday afternoon while my son naps). That means taking our turns directing traffic at preschool drop-off on our designated month, and being present for doctor visits and special school programs that aren’t magically scheduled around mommy’s job. We embrace these duties, arrange our work meetings around them, and stay vigilant to ensure that the business does not suffer as a result. In fact, I think the culture of our company is actually strengthened by it.
A Team Effort
When I accepted my new role with UrbanSitter, I wasn’t the only one who did. My husband and my son signed up for a lot of changes in their lives, too. Symbolically, they both escorted me into the office on my first day of work at the company. My son wanted to see where I was going to be when I was away from home, and my amazing husband wanted to help ease me into the new commute by driving me over the bridge that first day. I knew I had picked the right company when, rather than it feeling like an awkward entrance, we were greeted with a balloon and care package for my son created especially by the founders. He heartily approved, and as I bent down to kiss him goodbye he whispered, “You are the best mommy in the whole world.” My new colleagues offered knowing looks as my eyes welled with a brief surge of emotion. Navigating the balance never feels easy, but it does feel right.
Jessica Steel is the president of UrbanSitter. A version of this post appeared originally on Medium.