PERSONAL SPACE: Balancing Act

In late February, I traveled to the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus where my mother, Marguerite Ross Barnett, was once chancellor. I was there to give a short speech at a reception to announce a memorial plaza that the school is building in her honor. Coincidentally, the date the event’s steering committee had picked was the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death. Naturally, I was feeling somewhat pensive as I took the stage. What I had thought about as I was writing my speech was that even though my mom worked, literally, every single day of her adult life into the late evening (and for much of that time, as a single mother in cities where she knew no one), she made me understand profoundly that there was nothing in her life more important than me. When I was young, we would sit side by side on her bed: me doing homework and Mom poring over paperwork. Every now and then, she would talk to me about some job situation I didn’t really understand, just so I would feel involved—and so I would begin to appreciate how she looked at problems and made strategic decisions. Also, she would tell me she loved me many times each day.

I now find myself in a similar situation: I am a newly single mother with a big job in a city where I know few people. And like my mom, I work a lot and have almost no free time. So on good days when I’m in Chicago and don’t have to work late, I see my son for an hour in the morning, about an hour and a half at night, and every other weekend. I know there are a lot of working moms out there who can identify with me and whose struggle to balance job and family is just as complicated as mine. Our own First Lady Michelle Obama, with whom I had a wonderful, candid conversation about motherhood and wellness, has spoken openly about how hard it was to raise her children and develop her own career when her then-senator husband was on the road extensively.

Of course, I ask myself all the time: How do I make sure that my happy, bright little boy knows his mommy cares more about him than anything? How do all of us working mothers find the time and resources to prepare our kids emotionally and financially for their own futures? How can we give 100% to both our families and our jobs?

What I’m coming to understand is that we can’t. There will simply never be enough time to give everything in life 100 percent. What counts is the passion and focus we put into any given thing at any given time. When I’m at work, all my attention is fixed on finding the most creative ideas and efficient solutions I can come up with. When I’m at home, I do the same. For me, that means I’ve got an au pair and a network of local sitters. My son does Kumon, sports and takes guitar lessons. My slow cooker is on almost constantly. And every morning, my son and I take a half hour of precious time to snuggle in bed and discuss what’s going on in our lives. He’s only 6, but I talk about my work in simple terms so I can start to pass on lessons I’ve learned in my career that he can use later—just like my mom did for me. (Plus, my little boy has the benefit of knowing that mommies can work and even “be the boss of people,” as he says.) I also tell him that I love him many times per day—just like my mom did with me.

This Mother’s Day, I’d like for all mothers to stop expecting to do everything perfectly, and to appreciate that you are doing your best—and to understand that just maybe witnessing your daily juggling act will equip your children to better handle their own lives and jobs down the road. Hit me up on Twitter or e-mail with your ideas and solutions for balancing your job and family.  

Read more in the May 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine.