Joann Lublin dismisses the myth of work-life balance and makes a case instead for “work-life sway.” She shares with Zibby the biggest challenge she’s overcome, and her forecast for the future of the female workforce.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joann. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Joann Lublin: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Your book was fantastic, Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life. This was awesome. By the way, the subtitle does not reflect that it’s not only moms of one generation, but also the adult children of the next generation, which is genius to contrast and compare. I loved that.

Joann: In fact, the book is about three different generations if you think about it. I interviewed 111 women altogether of whom 86 were women who had children and became executives from two generations, my generation, the boomers, and the generation of millennials and Gen Xers, women in their thirties and early forties. Separate from that, I interviewed roughly two dozen adult daughters of the boomers who, for the most part, were women in their twenties to ask them, what was it like growing up with fill in the blank, somebody like Mindy Grossman of WW, Weight Watchers International, having her as your mom? What was that like? Of course, there’s also a very personal side to this book because my publisher insisted that every chapter start with a personal anecdote. My husband’s in here. My adult daughter’s in here, my adult son. It became kind of a family affair, so to speak.

Zibby: Honestly, those were my favorite parts. I appreciated all the advice. I need that. It was great and helpful and interesting.

Joann: You’ve got four kids, right?

Zibby: I have four kids. I feel not so power mom today. Everything being up in the air on your cover, that is an accurate reflection of the state of my life.

Joann: How old are your children?

Zibby: I have thirteen-year-old twins, boy/girl, and then a seven-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy.

Joann: Fun.

Zibby: It’s busy, but it’s great. I loved, first of all, how you threw away the concept of work-life balance and called it work-life sway. Tell me more about that. I’m like, finally, I don’t have to try to achieve balance.

Joann: Frankly, this notion that work-life balance is an impossible ideal is something I addressed in one chapter of my first book which was called Earning It. That was a chapter whose title was Manager Moms are Not Acrobats. Duh. When I started reporting this book and reaching out to these younger executive moms, these women in their thirties and early forties, the first one I actually met said, “Have you heard of work-life sway?” I was like, “What? What’s that?” She said, “It’s the idea that we have to accept that work-life balance is a myth. It’s an ideal. It never can be achieved. We have to acknowledge the fact that we have two different parts to our lives. We’re going to sway back and forth as needed and have one part of our life intrude in the other when it’s important and not get all bent out of shape about that.” I was like, “Okay, tell me here what you’re talking about.” This woman is an executive for a very important global auction house. She runs their photography business, worldwide. When one of her two sons took his step for the first time, her nanny texted her a video. I guess it was live, is what it was. She was watching her toddler take his first step, and she was at the office. Those in my generation, if god forbid our child did take their first step while they were being cared for by the caregiver, the caregivers knew not to tell you so that you could see it happen. Frankly, I have no idea if either one of my children started walking for the first time when they were in the care of a childcare giver. I doubt it with my son. He walked when he was nine months old, which was a little young.

Zibby: That’s early.

Joann: The good news was he walked when he was nine months old. The bad news was our childcare provider had cared for him in her house and said, “I will take care of your newborn until he starts to walk. Then you got to find somebody else.”

Zibby: Uh, oh.

Joann: I was like, oh, my gosh, I got to go find another caregiver.

Zibby: The sway that particularly the younger moms talked about is sometimes quite literally bringing their children into work, the daughter at the legal office board meetings and conference calls with babies. That is just the way it is, especially now with COVID with everybody at home.

Joann: Especially now with COVID, we’re bringing our children to work twenty-four/seven. I think it’s even more important with COVID-19 to try and forget about work-life balance and to accept not only that we are imperfect, but that work is going to intrude on home life, and home life is going to intrude on work life. You need to go with the flow. That’s the principle behind work-life sway. It all gets taken care of in the end. Frankly, the children all grown up grow to be perfectly capable adults. If we have been good parents, we’ve raised them right. Even if we haven’t been good parents, they often turn out okay. You got to take the longer view.

Zibby: I think you’re absolutely right. Your book, also, it’s not even just about the demands of kids at home. It’s all these other things that impinge on your work life. When work becomes such a central part to who you are as a person, when you lose a parent, when you have a child who’s ill, when you have really anything going on, it affects work. The book is more a guidebook to how to be a working person at all in the world, how to balance a giant career and anything, because life happens.

Joann: That’s right. It does. There’s a very, very important chapter called Power Over Pain that relates to just the issue you’re talking about. What happens when you yourself develop a life-threatening illness, or a loved one whether it’s a baby or a grown child or a spouse or a parent and god forbid one of those treasured family members dies? How does that affect your view of yourself? How does that affect your view of the world? Frankly, the idea for that chapter came from my daughter, Abra, who around age twenty-nine was diagnosed with a genetic condition that she inherited from me and from my mother’s side of the family. It is a joint condition in which you never know when your joints are going to go out of alignment. She described it to me recently very well, I thought. She said, “Mom, having this EDS is like having the radio on at all times in the background. You never know when it’s suddenly going to become loud and debilitates you.” That’s the other horrible thing about a chronic illness. You don’t have any way to control it. In fact, she was joking with me the other day. She says, “I can give lots of advice to people about how to quarantine and how to isolate yourself because often, I can’t function and have had to do that pre-COVID-19.”

Zibby: I’m actually going to interview soon, another author who has a whole book on her experience with chronic illness. I should just send you the link to whatever the book is. Of course, now I’m blanking on the title. It’s about her experience with chronic illness and how it affects so many people in the United States. It made me think of your daughter. That chapter was so poignant, especially when you describe yourself crying as she’s crying because what can you do? You were like, what I can do aside from cry? It was so sad. Yet your daughter is the one who was like, I have to choose life because what choice do I have? That’s the only way to go. She, in the book, seems to be inspiring you and then, of course, all of us reading it.

Joann: She has. She has been so inspiring to me. Yet on a day-to-day basis, she has no control over her life. She has to essentially live in the moment. Frankly, that is good philosophy for all of us. We have to live for today because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. That’s part of my own philosophy of life. Tell the people you love that you love them today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Also, view the world as the glass half full.

Zibby: It’s true. Those are good philosophies. You have been through so much even professionally yourself having been such a head honcho at The Wall Street Journal and career columnist. You’ve seen so much. You’ve grown up in such a time where all these things have been thrown at you in all the ways that you talk about. You’re still standing. I feel like you’re in a carousel where all the horses are going up and down. You’re in the middle. Every horse is a different thing. You’ve been through so much. Yet you’ve come out on top. Now you’re sharing all of your secrets with us. When you look back on your career as a journalist and a manager and a mother and all the things you’ve accomplished, of all the challenges, what was the biggest one? How did you get through that?

Joann: I think the biggest one was coming back to work after my first maternity leave. The year is 1979, is when my son was born. What happened was half a dozen journalists at The Wall Street Journal all declared their pregnancies within the same two-week period earlier that year. The managing editor threw up his hands in disgust. He was like, “This is not in my job description. What am I supposed to do?” Only two of us came back to work after maternity leave. The other one, who was a reporter in New York, lasted a month or two. She quit. It’s just me. There’s no role models. There are no books. There’s no internet. There’s nobody to talk to about this. My first day back at work was just horrible. Horrible. I remember waiting for the bus with one of The Journal colleagues, a guy of course. He said, “So where do you park your baby all day?” It just really, really hurt. It was even worse seven months later because a colleague of mine at the Washington Bureau who had decided not to come back after her baby was born — he was born very soon after Dan. We were asked by the editorial page editors to write opposing op-ed essays on why, in her case, she chose to stay home and why, in my case, I chose to come back to work. Again, this is before you’re working on a computer. You’re still typing stories because it’s 1980.

The articles run back to back with a drawing of a scowling infant looking at this typewriter. What happened was the story appears and then a week or so later my husband and I went away for a long weekend, first time since the baby was born. Left him with my parents. I come back to work after this long weekend. Of course, I missed my baby terribly. Come back to work on Monday. I find there’s an entire page of letters to the editor attacking me personally. On my desk is another thirty letters that were too basically libelous to publish. They were mostly from women who chose to stay home and be a stay-at-home mom who were accusing me of an unfit mother. One of them said, “It’s a good thing that you’re not with Daniel all day because obviously you’re not fit to be his mother.” I got, as you can imagine, a blinding headache. I left work at lunchtime, went home. I was walking home from the bus stop. It was too early to pick him up at childcare. Plus, I really needed some time to myself. Stopped off at a friend’s house who was a schoolteacher. She was already home from work. I just lost it. I was like, I can’t do this. The whole world is against me.

Zibby: Ugh. How did you regroup? What did you have to say to yourself?

Joann: She asked me whether I really liked being a journalist and liked having a career. I said, “Yeah, I love it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do my entire life. I’m having a ball.” She said, “Would you be happier at home with Dan?” I said, “No, I think I would be miserable. I think it would affect him.” She said, “F them.”

Zibby: That’s it. That’s the perfect piece of advice for the whole thing. Everybody has their own way of having to navigate this whole thing, or work and life. I think back to the challenges not so long ago in your generation compared to how easy it is relative for people like me. I can be on my phone writing something in front of my — they don’t even know what I’m doing. I could be texting my best friend. I could be writing for a newspaper. It doesn’t matter. They don’t care, but you’re there in person. Things change so quickly. Then I have to wonder, in another thirty, forty years, the women working then, what’s that going to look like when my kids are working? Who knows? I don’t know.

Joann: You want to hear my forecast?

Zibby: I would love that.

Joann: It’s going to be better. You know what? Both my generation and your generation know the importance of raising feminist children. We have to raise feminist sons as well as feminist daughters. That’s what I did with my son and my daughter. I think it was harder with my son, frankly, but I liked the result. At one point not that long ago, he ends up becoming a boss. The people in his office split down the middle. People who have older kids are opposed and the people who have younger children or have just had children the first time want to bring the babies to the office, to the point you made. He reached out to me and said, “Mom, what do I do? I have essentially an insurrection in my ranks here. Half the people want to bring their kids to work up until age one and let them crawl around and do whatever.” I don’t think very many people there — it’s a government agency — have private offices, so it’s not like you could close them off. The people whose kids are school age or older or have not had children said, no way. He was thoughtful about it. He looked at both sides. He could speak from his own position because he has three kids under nine years old.

Zibby: If I were to add my own prediction into the hat of life in forty years, I wonder if there will even be offices. It seems like there’s almost no reason to even have an office. I’m thinking of your son. Now that everybody’s working from home and nothing bad is — I mean, not nothing bad. It’s a horrific time. I just mean a lot of businesses can still function in this new format. All the time spent on commuting, is that worth it versus how much you could get done in those thirty, an hour — you commuted for a long time when you were in DC or something.

Joann: The commute was really the hardest when I was working in the Manhattan office.

Zibby: Manhattan office, yeah. All that wasted time.

Joann: Well, it was wasted and not wasted. I had a colleague who wrote three novels on that same commute that I was on when I was blissfully continuing to write my stories or reach out to sources or reach out to the kids and let them know that I was on the way. There is something to be said for decompression time. On the other hand, there’s a recent survey that came out that showed about forty-seven percent of employers are willing to let people continue to work from home full time even after they’ve mostly let people come back to the office. That’s one of the very profound changes that has come about from coronavirus and COVID-19. Guess what? You can work from home and be successful in your career. You may go a little nuts in the process, but productivity doesn’t have to suffer. I think that’s been a major, major breakthrough from this whole horrific experience.

Zibby: Before, people thought that working from home meant you weren’t actually working. Now everybody knows that, yes, you’re working and you’re dealing with eight thousand other things, so actually, it’s even more impressive.

Joann: In my case, I asked for a reduced schedule after I went back to work after Eva was born. It was turned down. A year later, I then got it. I worked a four-day week for several years. Then when I went into management, I went back to working five days a week. When we moved back to New York, to the US from London, I was offered a chance to work from home on Fridays by the then managing editor. Initially, I was like, I don’t need this. Kids are school age. Then I thought, you idiot. I will have this hour, hour and a half commute each way. I said, okay, I’ll do that. I did for over twenty years.

Zibby: Wow. At this point, you have a new book coming out. You clearly have not slowed down at all. What’s coming after this? Where do you see the rest of your career? Do you want to do another book? What gets you up in the morning?

Joann: After I wrote my first book, Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World, I said, okay, I can check that box. I don’t have to write any more books. I never thought I was going to write one book, much less two. I didn’t think I had it in me to do any books because I was a journalist. At this point, I don’t have any plans for a third book, but who knows? At the same time, The Journal ended my career column after twenty-seven years in May. I pivoted to work for another section of the paper as a contributor. It’s called Personal Board of Directors. It’s a feature that looks at high-potential, high-achieving executives who have advisors that have helped them figure out their philosophy of life, of work, and have also helped them advance their careers. At the point when I started writing for that section this spring, they realized even though this little feature had been around for two years, they had done very few profiles of women and very few profiles of people of color of either gender. That’s my focus, is doing Personal Board of Directors profiles both of women and women of color and men of color. Funny thing about that, I happen to know a fair number of executive women.

Zibby: I can tell you know a lot of executives.

Joann: One of my first Personal Board of Directors features was about Stefanie Strack who’s one of the younger power moms. It was great because it ran just before she launched her startup. The startup, of course, turned out to take longer to get off the ground because of COVID. She was hoping it would launch in June. It launched in August. In fact, I just heard from her overnight. She’s doing okay.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors? Let me throw journalists in there because you’re such a renowned journalist.

Joann: I would have different advice for aspiring journalists than I would for aspiring book authors. For aspiring book authors, it’s especially important, as Virginia Woolf once said, to have a room of your own. You have to have space where you can think. You have to have space where you can have quiet. You have to have space where you can work. For some people, it’s the closet. You just throw out all your clothes and put your little desk in there. It can be the laundry room. I’ve done Zooms with people having their laptops on top of the dryer. If there’s a door, more power to you. You really have to be able to think big and think hard and think differently, especially if you’ve spent your entire career as a journalist. That, frankly, was the hardest transition. To put it as my first book’s editor put it, you have to think writerly and write writerly, which means you have to have longer than one-sentence paragraphs. In terms of advice to somebody who wants to be a journalist, I think you ought to be looking at some of these nonprofit social media outlets like Publica that are doing really great social good as well as achieving some great journalistic breakthroughs. I’ve been predicting for thirty years that print journalism is the dodo. So far, I’ve been proven wrong, but I think it’s a matter of when not if. The Wall Street Journal is a great example of this. There are many, many more subscribers now to the online journal than the print journal, but they can’t fold up the print journal tent because there’s still a very large core of loyal readers who only read the print journal.

Zibby: I only read the print journal, I have to say. I love print.

Joann: It’s a very big piece of journalism. The Personal Board of Directors feature is a great example. My pieces there run about 1,100, 1,200 words online. In print, it’s five hundred words. It’s like the frosting without the cake.

Zibby: I try to read three newspapers a day. I feel like I can do it a lot faster when I flip

Joann: It is. It is faster.

Zibby: Now I feel guilty. From now on, I’ll try to skim both.

Joann: Just look for my byline on Personal Board of Directors. You can find it.

Zibby: I’m going to set a Google alert now for you so now I can follow all your stories. How about that?

Joann: Awesome. That is awesome. I do hope my new book will be of help to women, not just ones who already have kids, but women who are thinking further down the line, I want to, at some point, get involved with a life partner or a spouse. I want to have kids. I want to have a successful career. How do I make that work? That’s really the goal of the book.

Zibby: You communicated that. There was fantastic advice and inspiration. It was really great. It’s super helpful and came, at least for me, at a perfect time. This was great. Thank you so much. It was so nice to get to chat with you today

Joann: You’re welcome.

Zibby: I’ll be reading your essays now whenever they come out, all your pieces. Thanks, Joann. Have a great day.

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