I’ve just read an article in The Times about a woman who’s putting the skills she acquired as an Arthur Andersen management consultant to good use managing the lives of her four children. She uses negotiation, time management, financial planning, delegation, outsourcing and performance appraisal. And now that she’s got her home life all nicely wrapped up, she’s written a book about it too (called Time Management for Manic Mums), thus cleverly capitalising on her resources. Bully for her.
Allison Mitchell decided that applying her management techniques to her family would make her home run more smoothly and give her more control as a mother. I can see her point. As a journalist on one of Johannesburg’s dailies, I was forced to meet deadlines with mere seconds to spare – often with a news editor tapping his pencil and staring at me urgently over his spectacles. To this day, I am religious about my deadlines. I am also pretty anal about getting to ballet/swimming/speech therapy/play dates/school pick-up on time, often arriving ten minutes early. There’s a skill, especially given that I am usually marshalling three people and all their necessary equipment. I am applying my time management skills fairly successfully in making things run smoothly.
However, when time management and people management start to clash, then things can go awry for me. For example, when I worked as an inhouse journalist one of my roles was to ensure that our inhouse magazine came out on deadline, despite the attentions of a perfectionist editor. He wanted blisteringly perfect prose; I wanted on deadline and it was my job to juggle the two. It’s a bit like trying to leave our house for the school/kindergarten drop-off on time when someone needs a particularly complex hairstyle or a certain pair of shoes that cannot be found. I’m thinking shoes without holes in will do, and small child is thinking she wants the pink ones, with the flowers on, that haven’t been seen since last Tuesday. The skill of biting my tongue while an editor rethinks headlines at the 11th hour has been lost in the mists of time: in the name of getting to kindergarten before the doors are locked (good time management), I may resort to yelling (bad people management). I wonder what Allison would recommend?
Painful work experiences are also good practise for parenting. For a short time I worked as an assistant to a fundraiser. To her, “assistant” was a wide-ranging term, covering everything from representing her at meetings and writing fundraising appeals, to doing her grocery shopping and taking her dog to the vet. With my three South African degrees, I was having The Devil Wears Prada experience about fifteen years earlier than Lauren Weisberger (just not quite as glamourously, although I did once shake the hand of the Duke of Edinburgh and trespass the Houses of Parliament on the same day, but that’s for another post). What the experience did teach me was to cope with randomness. The ability to handle unexpected random orders is brilliant skills training for having children. In the course of any given five minutes, I may be required to build a tower, rustle up a delicious snack from three pieces of dried pasta and a raisin, draw a mermaid, bathe a wound and have a philosophical discussion about the nature of friendship. Unlike Allison, I am really, really good at being delegated to.
Allison’s book is for the Manic Mums amongst us. While I do have the odd frenzied moment, my daily life is lived at the pace of a six, four and one-year-old. Things can be somewhat slow. Tolerating the lack of eventfulness and enjoying the company of the same group of people are skills I learnt while working as a writer at a not-to-be-named German software company. Cutting-edge software companies can be very s-l-o-w places to work: systems crash, software must be tested and tested again, developers change their minds and redo things. As a documentation writer, I must have spent 30% of my time actually working and the rest of the time waiting to work. But I always managed to keep entertained: typing away on my keyboard (e-mails to my friends), going to meetings (with my friends), having coffee (same friends) and lunch too (ditto friends). That kind of slow beingness amongst a limited group was great training for parenting.
While I really admire the likes of Allison and her ability to manage her family, what my working life taught me was how to cope with being managed by my family. They do it so well too: my performance is frequently appraised (“you don’t sing very well, Mummy”), they outsource (“let Daddy do Ollie’s nappy so that you can carry on drawing princesses with us”) and they negotiate (“if I finish my vegetables, can I watch the Dinosaurs DVD?”). But best of all, they are very good at rewarding performance – I am the happy recipient of a lot of kisses and large hugs. It’s not a bad pay package.