Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Happy Mom's Secret: Don't Do Your Own Laundry

Another one from the Core Competency Mom series that ran this summer at the Huffington Post. We've since moved to a larger apartment that has a washer/dryer. I worried that I would find it harder to outsource this chore with the machine right there but then... my husband started doing it! It isn't his core competency either, but I'm not about to tell him that.

(Part 4 in the "Core Competency Moms" series)

Sarah, a Philadelphia-based mom of several small children, has a dirty secret: She doesn't wash her own clothes.

No, she doesn't employ a maid or "laundress." She's not wealthy. Nor is she working 60 hour weeks at a corporate job that leaves no time for chores. She's a stay-at-home mom. But as she told me recently, she simply hates spending her afternoons stuck in the laundry room. "Folding the laundry requires uninterrupted time that I don't have," she says. "If I stop mid-load, the kids and dog will inevitably trample my work."

So she contacted a business called We Wash It Laundry that usually caters to Philadelphia-area college students. It turned out that We Wash It does pick up, wash & fold and delivery for private homes as well as dorms. They charge $1.10 per pound. For Sarah, this comes out to $25-35 per week. Given the time she saves, this is a small luxury on a per hour basis. It's one Sarah is happy to splurge on in lieu of, say, going out to eat.

"A lot of my friends cannot believe I don't do my own laundry," she says. They tell her it only takes a little bit of time (though they haven't added up the hours). They tell her to just put the kids in front of a DVD while she folds shirts. But "I don't want to spend less time with my children," Sarah says. "I want to spend less time doing housework." After all, families may have fond memories of cooking together, she says, but no one waxes nostalgic that "My mom always had piles of laundry in a basket."

She's onto something. Laundry has long been the bane of many a mother's existence. In theory, it could be the bane of many a father's existence but...let's face it. This is usually mom's chore. Things have gotten better since the days of washboards and clotheslines. Still, if you've got small kids who roll in the dirt, wipe their noses on their sleeves and spill milk on their pants, loads of it can pile up. Mount Never-Rest looms in the hamper, ready to eat your weekends. In Sisyphean fashion, once your clothes are clean, they just get dirty again. So some moms are starting to ask "why?" Doing laundry is no more a quintessential element of motherhood than sewing your children's clothes. In fact, sometimes it can distract you from being the kind of mom you want to be.

While I'm writing this series of posts on Core Competency Moms about the issues facing working mothers, I first discovered the joys of outsourcing laundry when I was a single, childless, and strapped enough that I ate toast for breakfast rather than cereal. My cockroach-infested walk-up here in New York lacked a laundry room, so I had to go to the Laundromat across the street. I quickly noticed that trying to be on hand when a cycle ended could tie you to the block for the better part of a morning. I also noticed that the Laundromat offered to wash and fold for about 50 cents a pound. I ran the numbers and decided to buy myself back part of my Saturdays by drinking less on Saturday nights and using the cash to have someone else keep my clothes clean.

It's a habit I've kept after getting married and starting a family. Yes, my new apartment building has a laundry room. But our closest laundry service does a much better job than I do. When my husband and I do our own laundry we sometimes overload the dryer and wind up with wet clothes draped over the bed. The laundry service presses our T-shirts. They even match our socks!

This isn't surprising. Why wouldn't a company that specializes in laundry do a better job at it than a couple of amateurs? With their rows of machines and quick folding ability, the professionals who run these small businesses are bound to be more efficient at the process. That's why they make a profit, even though we pay less than $10 an hour for the time we save. This - in microcosm - is the whole idea behind the outsourcing revolution that's swept through corporate America over the past two decades. Companies have become more nimble and profitable by farming out insurance plan management, for instance, or manufacturing parts, and focusing on what they do best. When businesses and people focus on their core competencies - laundry services on laundry, and you on whatever you do - everyone comes out ahead.

Of course, hiring a laundry service is a bit more usual in Manhattan than elsewhere. Many of us don't have washers and dryers right in our homes. But the calculus isn't that much different for hauling your baskets to the basement of your own home than to the ground floor common laundry room. It takes a little less time, but not much, and so affordable laundry services do exist across the USA. We Wash It does Philadelphia. A quick Google search turns up Alabaster Cleaners in San Francisco, and The Clothesline in Milford, Connecticut, among others. Generally, these services charge a bit over $1 per pound for pick up and delivery. A few national dry-cleaning franchises, such as Pressed4Time, have entered the business. Your local dry-cleaner might let you outsource this chore as well.

"I am surprised that more people don't do this," Sarah says - at least for their own clothes (sensitively skinned babies may need special detergent, and that's harder to pull off, though some services offer such an option). Yet few harried folks use these businesses. When I ask why, I get three reactions.

The first is of the "I couldn't afford that" variety. For some people that's true, but given the number of folks who buy their lunches rather than make them, and buy their clothes rather than stitch them, possibly not. Sarah's total of $25-35 per week is not insignificant, but once you get beyond the subsistence level of income, economics is a series of choices: to turn down the thermostat, for instance, or buy a smaller house but outsource some of its care.

Second, some proportion of people either doesn't mind laundry, or actually enjoys it in its own right. I giggled all through writer/philosopher/lawyer Cheryl Mendelson's book, Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens. This ode to detergent speaks lovingly of how nice girls wash their underwear, and about the fresh scent of air-dried clothes. Some people enjoy playing doctor; if laundry is your particular fetish, fine.

But the last reaction is the one I find most odd. Some women get slightly offended and say something along these lines: It's my job to take care of my family. Culturally, we still believe that "caring for a family" means cooking, scrubbing, vacuuming, lunch packing, weeding, back to school clothes shopping and, yes, laundry, in addition to the emotional work of nurturing children's brains and souls. For years, all these labors have been roped into the job description of "mom." Added together, they take up a lot of time. In 1965, women who were not in the workforce - i.e., women who were homemakers - spent 37 hours a week on household activities. In other words, making a house really was their full time job.

Perhaps children had cleaner clothes back then. The sheets got washed more often. But is that really what kids need? Or do we have a situation like in the gospels, when Martha was obsessed with cooking for Jesus, and got upset that Mary actually sat and listened? You can argue whether moms of small kids should be in the workforce, but it's hard to argue that spending 37 unpaid hours a week on housework is the best use of anyone's time.

All of us find time in short supply these days. I would argue that unless you are making a conscious point of involving your kids with the laundry - a good idea if they're 10, not so easy if they're 2 - doing loads of it is actually taking time away from them. Better to spend your Saturday going on a long family bike ride than carrying down load after load.

We were faced with the choice of quality time vs. laundry one recent weekend. I'd been gone off and on for much of the previous two weeks, and once I emptied my suitcase, it quickly became clear that we had at least 30lbs of work ahead of us. Rather than do all the loads, I dropped the bags off with the laundry service, and picked them up on Friday afternoon. As a result, we had clean clothes for the weekend, and didn't have to spend Saturday hovering in the laundry room, ready to remove the loads as soon as they were done. Instead, we all took a road trip to the zoo, where my 1-year-old son squealed in delight as he encountered the petting zoo goats. We spent the evening with some friends who had a goat-sized dog. This also inspired delighted squealing.

My son isn't going to remember anything from this chunk of his life anyway. But if he could, I doubt he would have preferred a Saturday of laundry to the zoo and hanging out with a puppy.

"I find it so interesting that it is commonplace in our society to outsource childcare, but the burdensome routines of keeping house are, for the most part, not outsourced," Sarah says. Finding a laundry service has let her spend more relaxed time with her little ones without dreading that Sisyphean chore. "We have all been happier ever since."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Transition times

I have been trying to monitor my own time to see where I lose minutes (and occasionally hours) on non core competency activities. A few culprits:

* Exercise. Don't get me wrong. Exercise is a core competency activity. No one else can do it for me! But exercise can burn a lot of time that isn't spent actually elevating your heart rate. For instance, for me, exercise involves finding my workout gear, changing clothes, finding my keys and ID and walk-man, traveling downstairs to the gym or to the street, then coming back upstairs afterwords and usually showering before other human beings have to smell me. This is, at best, a 15 minute addition to my workout, and usually more like 20-25 minutes.

There are two ways to make this more efficient.

First, I've started keeping all my winter outdoor exercise gear in a pile by the bed. Yes, this looks messy, but it also means I don't have to hunt for my gloves and headband.

Second, I try to exercise fewer times per week, but longer each time. If I lose 20 non-exercise minutes every time I exercise, then it is better to run 3 days a week for 5 miles each time (roughly 3 x 50 minutes or 150 minutes plus 60 transition minutes), then 6 days per week, running 2-3 miles each time (150 minutes plus 120 minutes of transition time). Indeed, I can add another 4 mile run to the 3 5-milers (190 minutes plus 80 transition minutes) and still come out at exactly the same total time as the 6-day regimen, but with a higher proportion of it spent on the core competency task of exercising.

* Post Office trips.
Yesterday, I had a realization. I am never going to purchase Christmas gifts in stores for out-of-town relatives that I won't be seeing again. I spent about 30 minutes the other night packaging up gifts and addressing them, then spent 12 minutes in line for the automatic postal machine (not even a clerk!) at the post office. Online stores offer gift boxes and ship things for you for less than I could have earned in the hour-plus this all took me (not to mention the time I spent at the mall -- though that's kind of fun).

* Kid product maintenance. Jasper needed more wipes at daycare. We will probably make a big shopping trip this weekend and buy loads of wipes and diapers in bulk. But he needed the wipes Wednesday. So...I went to Duane Reade and bought them. Unfortunately, this involved waiting in line for 5 minutes, in addition to the 5-10 minutes stopping in the store required. It's not much time, but since I'll be buying more this weekend anyway, it's completely lost time. Lesson: buy in bulk and monitor levels. I never seem to know when Jasper will run out of wipes and diapers at school. Another lesson: Don't waste time monitoring levels, just order diapers and wipes online every 2-3 weeks regardless.

* Picking up.
Part of having a 19-month-old child is the constant mess created by a sharing a house with a tiny little force of destruction. Over the past few weeks, Jasper has broken Christmas ornaments, torn apart a garland, dumped a bag of pretzels on the floor, dumped an entire box of Lucky Charms on the floor, thrown Cheerios all over the dining room, scattered blocks into every corner of the apartment, dribbled milk in little swirls everywhere he goes, hidden the remote control in cupboards, and so forth. One evening I was trying to pick up the blocks as he was getting ready for bed and he came over and immediately dumped the tub over again. Lesson: Don't bother. We pick up before the cleaning lady comes, and before company comes, and will at other times once Jasper is, say, six.

* Web surfing. Oh dear. I was recently obsessed with a handbag which, miraculously, Santa will be bringing me for Christmas. Unfortunately, to do this, Santa decided to compare prices on six different sites, check out other handbag collections while he was there, look at the outfits at Net-a-Porter for a solid half an hour, fantasize about the Christian Louboutin shoes he will not be bringing me (I haven't been that good) and then spent another half an hour dithering over color. These are not your core competencies, Santa! You have elves. And one of these days, I'm going to try a personal shopper.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Real Simple, Real Life

My review of Real Simple, Real Life (the reality TV show) ran at Culture11.com today. I'm also reprinting it, below.

Real Simple, Real Life, Really Must-See TV

Real Simple enters the reality TV world -- and leaves life a little better behind it.

By Laura Vanderkam, December 15, 2008

Wendy’s life borders on chaos. She works more than full time as an associate professor at a local college because she chairs so many committees that her meetings stack up. She has 151 unheard voice messages. At home, food goes bad in her war-zone pantry because she can’t find things. Disaster seems to follow her around; when her husband takes her sons to volunteer at an animal shelter, a dog bites her 6-year-old, necessitating a trip to the ER. What could make her life easier?

If you answered “a team of experts in colorful blouses with good hair” than you’ll understand the appeal of Real Simple Real Life, Real Simple magazine’s new venture into the reality TV realm. Every week, host Kit Hoover and her team of designers, money coaches, life coaches, wardrobe consultants, and the like descend upon a hapless woman – usually a working mom of young kids – and try to improve the most disorganized aspects of her existence. By the end of 60 minutes, she’ll have a budget. She’ll have an organized kitchen. Sometimes she’ll even land some colorful blouses or at least a household message center. As the print ads for the show promise, “Life doesn’t have to be this hard.”

It’s a seductive concept, that all that stands between us and a perfect life is labeled bins in our closets. Indeed, as a daily barrage of emails and stuff threatens to overwhelm the good intentions of American women, decluttering has practically become the religion of the modern era. With its promise of redemption from chaos, Real Simple Real Life is closer to the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour than the usual reality TV sludge. That fundamentally optimistic (if unrealistic) premise makes you want to keep watching – even if the show is so awkward at times that its uncanny sense of the cultural zeitgeist is all that keeps you hooked.

Real Simple, a magazine devoted to “life made easier” debuted 8 years ago, in March of 2000. It remains one of Time Inc.’s best launches ever. I was working at another Time Inc. publication shortly after the first issue hit news stands, and was told that it had tested off the charts with focus groups.

As a longtime subscriber myself, I believe it, though at first glance, the magazine’s appeal is hard to understand. The features are a hodgepodge of unexceptional how-tos – how to decorate a house in five-minute chunks; how to make squash and white bean soup with Parmesan biscuits. There are often clever essays; in December, the editors asked several famous writers to pen letters to Santa “sent” at different stages of their lives. But the feature well is not nearly as full of great writing as, say, O magazine (which has a similar target demographic). There’s not as much fashion as Vogue, or as much housekeeping advice as Martha Stewart Living. Women looking for career or financial advice are better off reading the Wall Street Journal.

Yet month after month, millions of readers flip through the pages, even though those pages more resemble museum catalogs than the usual happy, multi-color spreads of, say, Good Housekeeping. Text is kept to a minimum with lots of white space. Illustrations are composed in muted colors; a page of December’s gift guide suggesting a cast iron pot and a wooden salad tong is styled on a worn beige cloth with sprigs of green berries sprouting from twisted branches. There’s no particular reason for it. But the aesthetics are so striking you don’t care. The magazine is a fantasy – of clothes modeled on dressmaker dummies or even against a white background, rather than on models who might distract us. It’s a diversion for women whose lives feel busy and cluttered, and wish they weren’t so busy and cluttered.

Real Simple Real Life brings this fantasy to TV. Wendy, for instance, the subject of one early episode, has “been wasting food, money, and energy trying to keep up.” Her cluttered home looks nothing like the pages of Real Simple. Her husband Greg reports that “something’s always missing.” There is hope for her – the camera keeps flashing to stylish Real Simple-esque family photos that show Wendy, Greg, and their three boys in crisp, unfussy white shirts – then cuts to a scene of her rushing to work, late. On the way home she stops at her favorite clothing store. This is a problem, because the family has credit card debt, but as Wendy points out, after she works all day, she likes a little retail stress release. The kids have no place to put their backpacks and lunch boxes, so they wind up on the dining room table – so there’s no place to eat family dinners. The kids are also always underfoot because they don’t have a place to play. The garage-turned-playroom is too full of junk to be useful. “I need help organizing my life!” Wendy pleads.

Enter the Real Simple team. Alas, as soon as the cameras arrive, the dog bites the 6-year-old and the family decamps for the ER. But in the meantime, organization expert Jodie Watson cleans out the pantry, removing all expired food – including one item from 1998 – and puts everything in labeled bins. Finance expert Farnoosh Torabi calculates exactly how much money Wendy wastes on sale items she never wears, expired food, and her morning convenience store coffee. Designer Gia Russo creates a “circus-like” playroom with a 42-inch plasma screen TV that no kid in his right mind would ever want to leave.

After a whirlwind three days, Wendy has weekly meal plans, chore charts with stickers for the boys, and a resolution to make her coffee at home. At a one-month follow-up visit, she gushes that she’s making fewer supermarket trips. The family eats at the dining room table. The boys can play, unsupervised, in the safe playroom, so she has time to pay the bills and catch her breath. “I feel so much calmer and more organized,” Wendy says. Or as Torabi puts it, “considering how we started, wow.”

It’s uplifting television. Of course, there is a fundamental disconnect. One reason modern mothers feel so harried is that we spend our time watching reality TV shows like Real Simple Real Life instead of, oh, labeling storage bins.

Also, like Real Simple magazine, the show is still struggling to figure out its format. For eight years straight, the magazine has sported a section featuring oddball new uses for old things – such as storing scarves on an empty paper towel tube. Yet, as managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop admitted in a recent editor’s letter, it’s unclear how many readers try this sort of thing themselves.

Likewise, Real Simple Real Life operates under strange rules. For instance, Kit Hoover announces each week that she can only take three of her colorful-bloused experts to each subject’s house in a Saturn (Saturn sponsors the show; one suspects the contract requires at least three product mentions per episode to reach the TiVo audience). She then plucks the three lucky contestants from the couch as the others complain loudly. Maybe the three-expert limit is because of budget problems. Maybe it’s to inject a game-show type element into the mix. The reasoning is never explained. Regardless, it adds nothing to the show.

Furthermore, we never learn enough or care enough about Hoover, the host, to tune in just to watch her. She tells her experts that her own pantry is disorganized and, as a working mom of three, her life is chaotic, but given her high-maintenance ensembles (how many moms-in-chaos can pull off skinny jeans with shiny high heels?), it’s hard to believe. Nor does she have the kind of chemistry with her co-stars that launched Stacy London and Clinton Kelley of TLC’s What Not to Wear to prominence. The focus stays on the harried princesses in need of rescue from the clutter dragon – a risky strategy for a TV show. It’s not easy to hook enough appealing “real people” to renew for a second season.

On the other hand, we live in a navel-gazing era. We like to watch ourselves, and the hapless stars of Real Simple Real Life are very much like us. Sometimes exactly like us (one episode featured a woman who worked full-time from home and whose 1-year-old looked a lot like my son). These women may not end the show with perfect lives. Indeed, Wendy’s whole life would have been vastly more improved if Hoover had tapped a workplace coach as an expert. That coach could have told Wendy that no one in human history has advanced her career by sitting in five committee meetings per day.

But Wendy does have a perfect pantry. She does have a perfect playroom. How many TV shows feature such happy endings? As her husband Greg told the cameras, he didn’t want to see the Real Simple team leave. And, despite all the show’s flaws, neither does the audience at home.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough, Some People Lay Off the Nanny

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story this morning in its front-page-bottom-middle-human-interest spot on the luxury of hired help. The problem? It's the first thing to go when times are tough -- allegedly. You can read the article (at least for a day or two) here.

Reporter Miriam Jordan does an excellent job tracking down several families who once employed nannies, housekeepers and the like and then, as the economy went south, had to let them go. Dolores Jacobo, for instance, ran a Malibu, California household. Then this month, her employers "tearfully informed her that her $1,000-a-week position is being eliminated" because they had "to cut expenses by 75%."

As the nut-graf says, "The weak economy is wiping out a symbol of the wealth boom: the megananny and other high-end help." (Though interestingly, a neighboring story points out that remittances are holding steady... so clearly not everyone is letting their nanny or housekeeper go).

Jordan also gives us some useful stats: In a Pinch Inc., which supplies household staff in 11 New Jersey counties, reports that business is down 30% this year. Annie's Nannies Household Staffing in Seattle estimates a drop of 10% so far this year. "Since the 1990s, household help has become accessible and even de rigueur for many middle-class families. The number of domestic placement agencies jumped to about 500 today from about 30 just 15 years ago," the article notes.

But then the story goes on to tell a rather horrible story about the Sirof family, which has a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and a stay-at-home mom. The family used to pay their nanny, Alba Monterrosa, $600 a week. Mrs. Sirof reports that she was "a second mom to my kids." But, "a few months ago, the family decided they couldn't afford Ms. Monterrosa anymore and let her go. Mrs. Sirof's daughters took the separation badly. They inquired incessantly about 'Vita,' as they called her. Normally, a lively child, daughter Addie became sad and withdrawn. A doctor Mrs. Sirof consulted suggested renewed contact with Ms. Monterrosa."

Mrs. Sirof reports that she feels "horrible" about all this, but she is not willing to give up other perks to keep Ms. Monterrosa around more. "Nothing deters me from my Botox treatments."


While the article is right in noting the rise of outsourcing household work, I think it misses the mark with some of these stories. For starters, it has people with nannies trading down to daycare -- which would not be a financially savvy move in our case. Jasper's daycare plus hiring a sitter 1-2 nights per week (which we might not need if we had a full-time nanny) comes out to about what Ms. Monterrossa earns. Daycare isn't a financial choice, it's an educational choice. It does note that some strapped families are looking at "nanny shares" which is probably a good idea for socializing children anyway (if the nanny is up for it).

But -- and this is the big but -- the largest anecdotes in this piece are clearly about families with stay-at-home moms who still have full-time nannies. This is a phenomenon I've never entirely understood, though I do see it from time to time. For instance, Dolores Jacobo's employers "have busy lives" that include "volunteering at school, going to the gym, visiting the chiropractor and getting various beauty treatments like facials, manicures and pedicures." Mrs. Sirof, likewise, notes that Ms. Monterrosa was there "when she went on spa trips or outings to get Botox and Juvederm injections."

This makes for good copy, but this is not the usual experience of people who outsource household tasks. You know what I do while I am outsourcing things like housecleaning? Working.

This is actually a good financial choice for me. In recent years, things like maid services ($80 every two weeks), laundry services ($25 a week), meal delivery (like buying ready-made meals from Fresh Direct) and the like have become relatively accessible, even to the upper middle class. This is mostly because these days, people outsource to small businesses rather than individuals per the WSJ story (think Merry Maids, not a housekeeper, or grocery delivery, rather than a cook). I earn more per hour than any of these things wind up costing me. By outsourcing these tasks, 2-income couples can focus on their core competencies of work and nurturing their children.

Childcare is, of course, a slightly different matter. Not only is it a core competency that most of us don't want to outsource any more than we have to, it is still relatively expensive. But in 2-income households, everything else -- Botox, Juvederm, spas, even car payments, eating anything but rice and lentils, etc. -- has to be cut before childcare, because it isn't a "luxury." It's the one thing that enables the two incomes to exist in the first place. If you do have to cut household expenses 75%, it's probably because one party lost his or her job. But then, letting the nanny go makes sense -- not so much because "the going gets tough" -- but because one party is available to be a full-time stay-at-home parent.

As it is, I have a solution to Mrs. Sirof's problem. Clearly, the children want their nanny back. The best way to afford her and the Botox?

Get a job.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

My piece comparing the December issues of Good Housekeeping from 1958 and 2008 is up on Culture11.com today. You can read it here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Where does our free time go?

Once upon a time, if you wanted butter, you had to get the milk from a cow and churn it. Any dish used had to be washed by hand; any clothes worn had to be scrubbed on a washboard. The industrial revolution changed some of this, but also introduced incredibly long work days -- the 40 hour workweek is a relatively modern invention. Furthermore, people in all industrialized countries have far fewer children than they did 100 years ago. Fewer children require less care and upkeep. It begs the question: if we have a lot more free time these days (and there's no question that we do), why do we feel so rushed?

I've been checking out some research from Geoff Godbey, a professor of leisure studies, and others, and have been finding some interesting things. Americans estimate that they only have about 18 hours of free time each week, but in reality, time diaries reveal they have twice as much. This is consistent with my calculations; with 168 hours per week, even if you sleep 8 hours a night, that leaves 112 hours for other things. The average woman with a full-time job only puts in 36 hours per week on the clock. So where do the other 76 hours go?

The problem, Godbey and others say, is that we use many of these free hours to watch television. Indeed, almost all the additional leisure time gained over the past generation has been spent on the couch in front of the tube. Television is easy and ubiquitous. It's possibly addictive. On the other hand, it does not in any way help us advance toward our life goals, and in fact, isn't even all that relaxing or pleasurable. We definitely think sex is more pleasurable than television, but how many couples stay up late to watch Letterman or the Daily Show, and then don't have sex because they're too tired?

Second, this free time gets lost in transitions and small chunks that don't seem big enough for anything else. You know how this goes -- you grab the mail on the way in, then spend 15 minutes looking through a catalog that you know full well you are never going to order from. While checking your email, you click on an article that then takes you 15 minutes to read, but doesn't exactly improve your life in that 15 minutes. You heat something up in the microwave, and stand in front of it the whole time. You try on different outfits in the morning.

Being a Core Competency Mom requires spending lots of time at work (enough to truly be the best at what you do). It also requires a lot of thoughtful interaction with your family. Within a 168 hour week, there is plenty of time for both. But there isn't time to watch the 30 hours of TV the average American puts in, nor is there time to waste on things that don't matter. Turning off the TV is easy, but filling the other small chunks with productive things is a bit harder. That's one of the topics I'll be exploring in later posts.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

10,000 Hours

I recently reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for City Journal. You can read the review here. There are some good things and bad things about the book, but one of the most interesting assertions is the idea that achieving expertise in anything requires about 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles were forged in the crucible of a Hamburg gig that had them playing 8 hours a night day after day. Bill Gates got access to one of the first time-sharing computers in 1968, and so spent his teen years programming. He'd probably put in 10,000 hours by the time he started Microsoft in 1975. Top violinists likewise put in that many hours of solo practice trying to get better.

What does this have to do with Core Competency Moms? Broadly, being a Core Competency Mom is about focusing on what you do best: nurturing your kids and your paid work. But to really have a "black belt" in the concept, you need to follow through on the full definition. Core Competencies are things you do so well that other people cannot readily imitate them. This may be easy to do with your kids (no one else can be the mom you can to them) but few of us ever achieve this level of competence at our work. Do we ever deliberately practice any aspect of our jobs for 10,000 hours with the goal of getting better?

Maybe if your work is in the creative sphere you do (I have probably spent 10,000 hours writing and trying to get better at my writing). But what if your work is, say, managing an HR team? Do you regularly spend even a handful of hours trying to get better at it, let alone 10,000? It's a sobering thought. On the other hand, it's an inspirational thought, too. If you spend 10,000 hours trying to get better at something, you will definitely be better at it by the end. Will it be your core competency? Maybe not yet, but you'll be a lot closer than you were.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Outsourcing homeschooling

As I think more about the topic of core competencies, I'm continually amazed by the variety of things we can outsource. For instance, homeschooling.

I have a column in USA Today this morning called "Tailoring school to the child" that discusses the experience of families -- often with working moms -- who have managed to make homeschooling work. Well-to-do families can hire tutors or governesses; the rest of us can use online courses or even part-time schools. Many jobs these days allow a parent to be home and available during school hours. About 35 million corporate employees telecommute on occasion and the number of non-employer businesses (i.e. self-employment) is up 35% in 10 years. Mom or Dad can get junior started on his online math class, then go to the home office to make phone calls. You check in after a bit, and have lunch together. This allows parents to focus on their core competencies of carefully chosen work and nurturing their kids. Teaching need not be one of those core competencies to homeschool. Given all the educational benefits of homeschooling, it's a good thing that it's becoming available to people who don't want to or can't teach.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Brush Lightly to Lift Nap"

I just turned in a draft of a feature to Culture11.com that compares the December 2008 Good Housekeeping with the December 1958 Good Housekeeping. I love combing through old magazines; these monthly missives show exactly how our society has changed on a day to day, personal level.

I'll post the piece once it's published of course, but in the meantime, I wanted to point out the most striking difference between 2008 and 1958. In 2008, we are obsessed with time. All the recipes discuss exactly how much "active time" is involved (a bit of information not deemed relevant, apparently, in 1958). Even the craft section talks about how "fast" these activities are. In 1958? It sounds like housekeeping was a full-on occupation -- one which could easily fill a whole 35-40 hours per week. My favorite instruction is for the proper care of an electric blanket. This is just for the drying stage: “Spread blanket over two parallel clotheslines to dry. When it’s almost dry, brush lightly to lift nap. Press binding with iron set at ‘synthetic’ or ‘rayon.’"

Heaven forbid our naps be unlifted!

I keep details like this in mind when people talk about how children have suffered from the march of mothers into the workforce. Perhaps in some cases they have. But on the whole, the reality is that women are spending just as much time interacting with their children now as they did in the 1950s and 1960s, not just per capita (we have smaller families now) but on an absolute scale. How have moms managed to pull this off? It's simple, really. Work did not take time away from kids. Instead, mothers on the whole have stopped thinking that lifting the nap on our electric blankets is a useful way to spend our time.

I think we can live with this trade off.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Core Competencies at Work

Part of being a Core Competency Mom is identifying your core competencies at work. These are the things you do best, and that other people cannot do nearly as well. We win at work by focusing as much as possible on these things, and outsourcing or ignoring everything else.

Interestingly, according to the new book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, such focus may be part of a virtous cycle in becoming better at whatever your core competencies happen to be. I won't write too much about the book because I'm reviewing it for The American, but the gist is this: world class performers in a great many areas become best in class not necessarily through innate ability, but through sheer hours of deliberate practice. They figure out their weak areas within their core competencies, focus on improving these areas, and so become even better at their core competencies than everyone else.

I've been thinking about this as I'm trying to move my writing career to the next level. As I approach my 30th birthday, I have proven to myself that I can make a living -- a good living! -- as a professional writer. I can score bylines in national publications and get my ideas out there.

I have also been heartened, reading some of my work from my college days, at how much better I've become at shaping phrases than I used to be. According to Colvin's book, this makes sense. In college I was doing many things. Now, I spend at least 8 hours each workday, and usually more like 10 or 11, focusing on my writing projects. I also crank out an incredible number of words. I was adding it up from this year the other day: a 50,000-word ghosted book, 25 (so far) 500+ word columns for Scientific American, about 8 USA Today columns, 10 or so book reviews, multiple 3000-word plus features, about a dozen Huffington Post columns, a so-far unpublished book proposal and enough revisions of the novel I've been writing that I'll give myself credit for about 40,000 of the 80,000 words it entails. Plus a lot of blog posts and other stuff I'm forgetting. This is well, well, well over 100,000 words of material. And that's in one year. Given that I'm almost always getting feedback from editors and readers in ways that help me improve, how could I not be getting better?

But, of course, getting better is not necessarily the same thing as becoming world-class. In this globalized era, it is becoming more important than ever to truly be world class -- to truly be focusing on your core competencies -- because almost anyone's job can be outsourced. Even dentists. If flights are cheap, you can always go to another city, state or country for your dental work. This makes every occupation a winner-take-all field. So you need to define your occupation to the point where you can be that winner -- or if your field is broader, then you need to be the best that you possibly can.

So, after achieving a certain level of competence, how does one improve? How does one go from "good" to "great?" Some people swear by coaches. Some study the best work that exists and take what they can from that. Some take a ruthless inventory of their faults and set about correcting them. Others seek out new opportunities. I think there's probably a reasonable amount of luck involved, too, in achieving major career breakthroughs. In the coming months, I'll look at some people who have gone from good to great, and how they made this transition.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Turbo Productivity

As mentioned in the previous post, Jasper was home sick today. So I was mostly hanging out with him through some very cranky hours today. The one sick day reprieve? Nap time. He started rubbing his eyes around 12:50pm. By 1pm he was out. He wound up sleeping until almost 4:00 (though I was only banking on a 2 hour window). Let me just say, it was the fastest 3 hours of my life. I managed to crank out:

* A post for Gifted Exchange
* A post for this blog
* Emails regarding a potential new market - sending in clips and so forth
* Another revision of a previous Scientific American column
* A draft of another Scientific American column
* Most of a draft of a feature piece comparing the December 1958 Good Housekeeping with the December 2008 Good Housekeeping

This actually turned out to be a couple thousand words of material, all done in three hours of solid, pedal-to-the-metal work. Of course, it's not sustainable long term. These drafts will require many more hours of editing and such, and I totally ignored emails, phone calls and research that will need to be done at some point and would have been done had I had my normal 10-11 hour workday. But the point is, if you only have a certain number of hours to work, you will get your work done in that amount of time. That's what kills me about people (mostly men) who insist that their work cannot possibly be done in less than 12 hours a day, or some other amount of time. You know what? Get off the phone. Stop responding to stupid emails. Focus on exactly what needs to happen and ignore everything else. If you had to be the primary parent for a child and work during nap time, you'd figure out a way to do an 8-hour job in 3 hours. Working sweatshop hours is more about feeling important than anything else. That's not a core compentency, and we fool ourselves if we think it is.

The Real Gender Gap? Count the Dads in the Pediatrician's Office

Author's note: This piece originally ran in November, 2007, at The Huffington Post. As the "runny-nose season" hits us again, I thought it was worth resurrecting. Jasper is home sick today -- a fever of 101, a runny nose (which was bloody when he woke up) and some GI issues. Fun stuff.

A few weeks ago, the World Economic Forum released a report documenting the "Global Gender Gap." Each country was ranked according to the parity it had achieved on a number of dimensions such as workforce participation and health outcomes. To no one's surprise, the Nordic countries topped the list. The US was ranked 31st, below such countries as Belarus and Sri Lanka. As the study authors pointed out, parity does not imply that either gender is doing well.

It's interesting food for thought. But the question of whether girl and boy babies are vaccinated at equal rates is one thing. A more germane question for the average woman in a developed country -- where almost all children are vaccinated -- is who takes those girl and boy babies to get their jabs? The answer offers a lot of insight into the reality of gender equity here in America in 2007.

I've got vaccinations on the brain because this morning my son, Jasper, went to the pediatrician's office for his six-month visit. I tagged along this time for moral support, but my husband does a lot of work with vaccines, professionally, so pediatrician visits are his thing. He chose our doctor. Generally, he goes solo.

As usual, he emailed our son's stats (18 lbs 6 oz!) to the relatives. His pediatrician brother was suitably impressed with our kid's size, but was surprised that my husband had been present for the weighing and measuring. Seeing a dad at the pediatrician's office, he wrote, is a "rarity." Statistics back him up. One recent study of six community practices in New England found that only 9% of pediatrician visits featured a father attending alone. A 2002 study in Pediatric Nursing looking at outpatient visits to pediatric cardiologists found that mothers made 64% of visits, solo, with their kids. In 29% of cases, both parents came together, and in 5% of the cases, the father visited, solo, with his child.

I have been trying to figure out why this is. Sure, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that in 30% of married couple families with children under age 18, only the husband works outside the home (in 4%, only the wife works). But both are working in 64% of the cases. That's a much bigger number than nine. Indeed, roughly a third of married women with children under age six work full-time. If only 5-9% of doctor visits involve a father showing up, solo, that means the majority of married women who have small kids and work full-time are still doing doctor duty.

Maybe, in these families, the wife earns less than the husband or has a more flexible job. But this is a chicken and egg question. While a number of pediatricians' offices do offer evening or weekend hours (in which case, why aren't the dads there then?), taking a kid to the doctor generally involves taking time off work. You come late. You leave early. You race over on your lunch break and watch the clock the whole time. There is some evidence that women optimize for different things in life than men (a balanced life, vs., say, status). Also, kids don't go to the doctor that often. But if you are the one who always has to take time off work for doctors' visits or other events during the day, or take time off when kids are sick, it does affect your availability for work. The fact that many fathers do not arrange their work lives to accommodate this - because they trust that their wives will pick up the slack - is one of the reasons men earn more than women. Yes, the vast majority of women who work full-time enjoy caring for their kids (which is why working moms and stay-at-home moms report spending roughly the same amount of time tending to the emotional needs of their children; working moms compensate for having two jobs by sleeping less and doing a lot less housework). But no one really enjoys holding a wriggling baby's arms while the doctor jabs the kid in the leg.

Yet someone has to do it. The truth is, there is a certain amount of work associated with parenthood that simply has to be done. You can outsource a lot of it. You can hire folks to do meal prep, laundry, vacuuming, and so forth. But almost no one would send anyone but a parent to the doctor's office. If fathers refuse to do half of the visits, and stay home with their kids half the time that they're sick, that means we're a long way from domestic equality.

We may never reach parity. Anyone who's managed an office knows that men can be very good at getting out of work that they don't perceive as high value, or don't want to do. Indeed, the study from Pediatric Nursing found that one of the major reasons fathers missed pediatrician appointments is that they anticipated a lengthy wait at the office. Of course, someone had to deal with that wait -- clearly, these men were stating, in not so many words, that their time was more valuable than their partners' time.

But things are changing. Fathers spend 153% more time on child care each week than they did in 1965. It's still less than moms, but not as much less as it used to be. More women than men now go to college which, over time, will change the dynamic in families of who has the breadwinning job. And hey, my husband takes our baby to the doctor. This morning at the office, I saw two other dads with kids in Baby Bjorns. That's reason for optimism - even if the US never overtakes Sweden (or Belarus) atop the World Economic Forum list.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Second Shift

If you have a job and kids -- and want to spend time with them -- the rhythm of the workweek can present a challenge. Many professionals put in 12-hour days from, say, 7:30AM to 7:30PM. Unfortunately, this almost precisely overlaps with the hours small children are awake! What do you do?

I am never "done" with work at 5pm, but what I'm trying to do in my journey to becoming a Core Competency Mom is to consciously stop working around then. I then devote my attention to Jasper for the next few hours. Then, around 8pm when he goes to bed, I start working again. I can usually get in another 2 hours of work, giving me closer to an 11 hour day. Add in another 5 hours on the weekend, and you can still put in a near 60 hour week while still spending a reasonable amount of time with the kids.

I am also finding that the hours of 8-11pm are good for scheduling "date night" or events with friends. The sitter has an easy time of it (she shows up after the baby is in bed) and Jasper never knows the difference.

My guess is that more family friendly offices understand this second shift concept. No one schedules meetings that end after 5pm, but people do schedule phone calls and answer emails from 8pm to 10pm. If you're interviewing for a job, though, and see that people regularly schedule meetings from, say, 3pm to 7pm -- you should run!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life, Uncluttered

(Author's Note: This piece originally ran at The Huffington Post on May 29, 2008. We have since moved to a bigger apartment).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that major life changes tend to involve a lot of stuff. My husband Michael and my wedding four years ago increased the amount of glassware in our apartment exponentially. The birth of our son last spring - without trading up from our 1-bedroom apartment - necessitated putting our dining room table in storage and turning the dining "alcove" (read: hallway) into a nursery. Jasper's toys and clothes quickly filled the available space. Add in the constant barrage of newspapers, magazines, and review copies of books that arrive on the desk in my home office (read: a corner of the bedroom) and the whole house was starting to look like a "before" scene on TLC's Clean Sweep.

I suppose it's not surprising. I've always been a relatively messy person, albeit one with enough self-awareness to recognize that. When I went off to college, I requested neat roommates in order to keep my habits in check. Now, though, since I've been known to log 23 hours a day inside the apartment, I've been feeling the need to do something about the mess. I recently threw out two bags of trash from my desk when I couldn't find a document I thought I needed. I ordered a toy basket to give everything a home.

Still, the clutter seemed to be winning. So I did what any modern woman would do.

I called a professional organizer.

The field of professional organizing is relatively new - and is thoroughly a creation of the modern era. In the past, a home maker was simply expected to have these things under control. Standolyn Robertson, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and owner of the organizing service Things in Place, told me that years ago, she described her vision of organizing closets to her high school guidance counselor. The counselor told her "You want to be a wife."

But that wasn't quite it. Organizing is a skill, just as composing advertising jingles is a skill. In theory anyone can do it, but some people do it much better than others. The hilarity of professional organizing is not that it exists, it's that in the past all women were expected to have this skill, just as the job description of "wife" roped in cooking, cleaning, laundering, home decorating, landscaping, birthday party planning and scheduling in addition to childcare.

Now, a growing number of women are focusing on their core competencies - nurturing their families and their paid work - and bringing in the professionals for the other stuff. Organizer Peter Walsh is a staple on Oprah. You can become certified in professional organizing. NAPO has about 4,000 members.

In my attempt to make my life run smoothly, I decided to try professional organizing services myself. My family has some experience with this, at least on the time management side. About a year and a half ago, my husband's employer contracted with organizational guru Julie Morgenstern. She met with Michael and tried to wrestle his schedule under control. First she made fun of him for having a 100-page "To Do" list (it isn't really 100 pages, he just keeps making new lists on top of the old ones, so the file is 100 pages, but there's only a limited number of active items at any given time). Then she gave him some tips: Don't check email all day long. Carve out blocks of time to work on projects. Enlist his assistant as a partner in managing his schedule (that is, establish priorities so she could check everything against those priorities before sticking anything on the calendar).

He didn't do well with following her advice. As he explained to me, in a lot of corporate environments these days, people expect immediate responses. That creates the risk that someone is sitting around, ineffectively waiting for the next piece of direction. In other words, like an arms race in which the first person to buckle loses, everyone is checking his Blackberry every two minutes, because he thinks everyone else is checking his Blackberry. It's hard to change habits.

That's something Janine Sarna-Jones, the New York-based owner of Organize Me, said when she showed up at my apartment last week. I'd given her a call to see if professional organizing might prove more effective on our closets than on my husband's schedule. Janine, a former protégé of Julie Morgenstern's, noted that people needed to be committed to making changes in order for them to actually stick. So for the next two hours, as I studied her methods, she studied my home office and kid space systems, and my commitment to actually doing things differently. She examined my teeming bookshelf warily. She opened the coat closet and asked if I had any idea what was in there. She noted the stack of Pampers boxes currently supporting a basket with diapers, wipes and a trash can at changing table level. She took notes.

Then she sat me down on the sofa.

"Here's the scoop," she said. "You guys have done an amazing job." I raised my eyebrows. She explained. We had managed to create a nursery in the former dining alcove of a 1-bedroom apartment that looked pretty good. We had proven ourselves able to go through stuff and dump it. Despite our chaotic schedule, we'd kept our kid well-fed (I guess the bar on organization is pretty low). We were not disorganized. We had a more specific problem: "You guys are lazy," she said. Quite simply, if our messiness actually bothered us, we would have done something about it long ago. As it is, we have the ability to walk daily past the car seat and bouncy seat our son has outgrown, know there is a storage space in Long Island City that's been leased to us, and yet we still haven't rented the Zipcar or hailed a cab and gone back out there. "You get 80% there," she said, "and then the last 20% you say screw it."

I've never been one for accepting 80%, and certainly a number of tweaks could make our lives smoother. We could corral the tub toys into a mesh basket so I wouldn't step on them when I showered. I could create a standing date with a house cleaning service, rather than scheduling it when we remembered. I should just order new sheets rather than hating the old, discolored ones stuffed into the linen closet. I should find spots for a few step ladders around the apartment ("you're not short; you have high ceilings") and hang brooms, mops and the umbrella stroller on the backs of closet doors. My son might benefit from an actual bedtime.

But as Janine pointed out, messiness and clutter don't necessarily mean you're dysfunctional. In fact, my life functions pretty well. My desk is a mess, but I know before any given week starts what my priorities will be, both professionally and personally. I know what my long-term goals are for any given year. When I identify a problem that bothers me, I fix it. Quick. When I realized that a jogging stroller would let my husband and me run together on weekends without having to find a sitter, a jogging stroller arrived in the apartment inside three days. The fact that I have a mail station in the house? Bonus points. "Most of the time when people call me, it's because they're in pain," Janine says. "You guys have a lot of clutter," but she didn't feel the hurt. Quite frankly, we didn't need a lot of ongoing organizational help.

So was the assessment worthwhile? I think so. It's always good to get an outside opinion on a situation. Thinking through the hot spots in my house has given me the motivation to start cleaning out the closet and getting rid of the clothes that I don't wear. But it's nice to know that, for all my messiness, I could be doing a lot worse. I mean, doesn't everyone store their pans on top of the stove?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In which I discover rotisserie chicken

Today was not a great one on the core competency front. I lost a lot of time running around. Granted, the things I was running around for were mostly things only I could do (get a flu shot, vote). I also managed to outsource most of the planning for my birthday party, so that's one less thing to think about. But I also spent several hours fact-checking a feature of mine -- if I still had my assistant, she could have done that. I had to check a Post Office box and fax two forms from Kinkos -- again, things I could have outsourced. I really need to get a fax machine for my home office. By the time I was on my way to pick up Jasper at 5 o'clock in order to spend an hour with him before I left for choir, I was tired, hungry, and didn't have the energy to make dinner.

Then it happened. I walked past the D'Agastinos grocery store on 38th and 3rd. The most wonderful rotisserie smell was wafting out the doors. I paused. Then I went in. I grabbed a whole roast chicken from the counter by the check-out for $7.98. Is this a great country or what? I brought it home and Jasper and I had a dinner of chicken and apples. Tasty, satisfying, effortless and -- since there are enough leftovers for lunch -- cheaper than a burger and Happy Meal at Mickey D's.

I realize that the fact that one can purchase pre-cooked rotisserie chicken at the grocery store is not news to most people. It technically isn't to me, either, but I've never done it. Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I've always viewed grocery stores as the province of, well, groceries. You should at least have to stick stuff in the oven if you bring it home, right? I don't think my childhood ever featured a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I think the reason that I never wandered over to the ready-made hot meal counter before is that I assumed purchasing such things was wasteful.

But it's only wasteful if I value my time at zero. As it is, purchasing a ready-made, hot meal meant I could simply walk in the door, stick Jasper in his high chair and start feeding him and myself. I didn't have to wall myself off in the kitchen to keep him from opening the oven or reaching for the pans. I didn't have to use any of my limited time with him to do anything but be with him. And so, I'm guessing Tuesday may be rotisserie night more often.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Welcome to the Core Competency Mom blog!

Here's the story of how I came to start this journey:

March 6, 2008 was, by any measure, a nutty day for me. I was up early to change, dress and nurse my then 10-month-old son before shuttling him over to his daycare. I hopped in a taxi and battled traffic to Penn Station. There I caught the Acela to Washington DC. I met with editors all day while – during breaks – cranking out a column for USA Today on college financial aid policies. I got back on the train at 10pm and tried to think through my priorities over the next week: meeting a new editor at Scientific American to talk about a potential columnist gig, speaking at the NYU School of Journalism, flying to Boston to interview an MIT economist so I could turn around a profile of her as quickly as possible. My husband had been able to care for our son that evening, but he would be gone most of the next week for yet another business trip.

Functioning as a single parent always made me worry, so I couldn’t sleep. I decided to check the headlines. I found myself reading an article about a beautiful woman who had just announced that she was expecting her fifth child in May. No huge news there – except that she also happened to be the governor of Alaska.

Seven months later, everyone knows about Sarah Palin. She burst on the national scene in late August when Sen. John McCain selected her as his running mate. Even people that didn’t like her politics were awed by her big career and big family. The Economist quoted one voter musing that, as a mom of five, she could barely keep milk in the house.

I usually have milk in the house, but my first reaction was awe as well. Publishers have kept bookshelves and magazine racks full over the past few years with tomes about how hard it is to “have it all.” In these tales of woe, the “having it all” bar is often set low enough just to mean a regular full-time job and one child. Palin was running a state, running a family that could field a basketball team, while simultaneously finding time to run 8-9 minute miles outside in the Alaskan cold and eventually run for vice president as well. By the time Palin appeared at the Republican National Convention in September, her husband Todd had taken over most of the childcare duties for their family. But this had not been the case during much of her rise to power, during which he’d been working on the BP pipeline, running a commercial fishing business, and winning the snowmobile race known as the Iron Dog.

The more I thought about Palin during that late night train ride, the more I kept coming back to a number: 168. That’s the number of hours in a week. Unlike the electoral college system Palin would soon face, it’s an absolutely democratic concept. All the money and power in the world won’t buy you an extra second. It’s the number of hours allotted to Palin, to such luminaries as mom-of-three and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, mom-of-three and CEO of WellPoint Angela Braly, single-mom-of-two and now Princeton president Shirley Tilghman and, of course, to me. Clearly, some women had managed to do a lot more than I was doing in 168 hours. They raised multiple children while engineering the kinds of career breakthroughs that made the world take notice.

As I disembarked in Penn Station at 1:50am to cab it home for a date with my breast pump, one question I had, of course, is how they did it. The second question, a more personal one, is whether I could do anything like that in the 168 hours per week that the universe allots me, too.

I've been considering that question for months. I wrote a 9-part series for The Huffington Post in May-July of this year about what I called "Core Competency Moms." The idea is that -- as a working mom -- time is your most valuable resource. So, like a business, you do best when you allocate your most valuable resource to its highest value purposes. For working moms, this is nurturing your family members and work that focuses on Brand You. You outsource or ignore everything else -- and hence have time for the things that actually matter.

This blog is an extension of that series. I hope to continue the discussion, and to document how I am attempting to take my writing career to the next level while (hopefully) expanding my family as well. This blog will also serve as an archive of my writing for various publications on this topic. Feel free to get in touch with me (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com) with any questions or to share your own story.