Recently, I was in Pittsburgh for a speaking engagement. I called a colleague of mine to ask her something. She answered the phone, so I launched right into it, but she quickly interrupted me. “Coco, this doesn’t sound urgent, can I call you back?” she said. “I’m with my daughter. After all those years of not being there, I’m not allowed to take phone calls now when I’m with her.”
That brief phone call immediately transported me back in time more than 10 years ago. I’m walking the beach with my daughter, Malia, as we did so often when she was in elementary and middle school. It was our time—our walk with the dog, our time to explore the trees near the water, to talk about our day. Our routine. I recall when she would protest my work distractions, similar to my friend in Pittsburgh. “Mom, get rid of your phone, it doesn’t belong on our walks,” she would say.
No phones on walks. It became the rule.
When my children—Malia, 17, and Kai, 20—were born, a new appreciation of time was born within me. Every day since the day they were born, I’ve been aware of the passing of time. I’ve thought about the day that would come, inevitably, when they would be gone. Somewhere in the exhaustion and haze of early motherhood, I knew I had an opportunity: the unstructured time spent with kids is where the bonding happens. The moments playing with Legos; building couch forts; crafting; acting out Star Wars battles on Hoth. So much is created in those in-between moments; a foundation is set for a lifelong relationship.
I would come home from work and declare to my husband: “Hand me the baby!” and I meant it, all of it, every second of it. It wasn’t “my turn” and it wasn’t “an obligation,” and I wasn’t just pulling bedtime duty. It was a moment in time that I knew I could never get back.
There was no I’ll do it next quarter. There was no I’ll make it up later. And it was rarely I can’t tonight, honey, Mom’s too tired, no matter that I often was. I didn’t put off anything with my kids that I could do today, this moment, now.
I volunteered in the classroom. I let the kids sleep in so that I could take them to a special Mommy-Kai breakfast before eventually succumbing to the school day. I read to them late into the night after I came home from hours upon hours of meetings in San Francisco. I drove hours along the coast with my daughter after her first breakup, and I held my son—for days and days—after the death of his childhood friend.
There is preciousness in the moment.
Yes, there were still the phone calls. Mommy has a call. There were the board meetings. There was travel, international travel. There was me, trying to cook dinner. There were the emergencies, I have to step out, I must take this call. There was no perfect. There was mess, chaos, imperfection, and disappointment.
We make space for things that are a priority to us. There is no truth in saying you do not have time; there is only convincing yourself that you do not have time. For me—as a leader, as a wife, as a mother—that realization changed everything.
It gave me power; it gave me control, even on my imperfect days.
It gave me perspective.
It gave me choices. Even when some choices meant yes, I am taking the business trip or no, I won’t be home for dinner. It was me deciding, me holding the keys to that moment.
It gave me freedom. It’s okay if my kid is late for school. Yes, I’ll take them with me on that business trip. I’ve received my share of school truancy letters, but I assure you I don’t regret one.
I recently heard a woman say that the culture at her company was such that the young women she worked with worried they might have to respond to emails from the labor room. I laughed spontaneously; inappropriate, I know. I had to catch and explain myself.
I was the woman who sent an email from the labor room. But not because it was the culture expected of me, but rather because it’s who I am. Life and work are intertwined. When I sent that email from labor, it was because I realized in a moment that I had a moment, and wanted to address something at work. But, I get the issue this woman was illustrating—“can you imagine the intrusion?”. This is how Malia felt on our walks; to this little girl, my phone on her walks was a big intrusion. And she was right.
Sometimes it works to blend life and work, and sometimes we have to draw hard lines. But the blending can’t be on the personal side, while the hardlines get to be for work (example of a hardline—mom’s in a meeting, do not interrupt me). I let my kids interrupt any and all meetings, until I know if it’s truly an emergency or not (less so now that they are older).
We, mothers and fathers, are the ones who can decide on a day-by-day and case-by-case basis how we weave in and allow for unstructured and structured time as parents. And, we are the ones who lead businesses and can set the tone from the top to allow everyone around us to do the same.
I feel joy as I think about the mothers everywhere, around the world, who don’t have to choose (as much) as I did. I think about the parents who can wake up in the morning, kiss their children over their breakfast cereal, then pad down the hall to their office or to grab their laptop to start their day. I think about the flexibility that has now become the workplace norm in many businesses.
It brings me joy when my kids pop into my conference calls and meet my team. It brings me joy that I can still drive them to doctor’s appointments; that they still want to do lunch with me. That we hang out and throw clay a few times a month on sunny afternoons.
And that Malia, now a young woman, still wants those beach walks with me. We still meander and explore, only she’s taller and so are the trees along the coast. And she still tells me, “Mom, get rid of your phone, this is our time.”
Okay, Malia. No more phone.
I choose you.
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