THE BALANCE PROJECT | No. 59: Jessica Lahey, Writer and Teacher

Welcome to THE BALANCE PROJECT: a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews featuring inspiring and accomplished women talking about balance. I’ve always been curious—and maybe a little obsessed—about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified “doing it all” craze. So I asked them. As I suspected, no one really does “it all.” Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us all feel a little better. I hope the conversation will be steered toward that reality rather than toward the flawed and dangerous assumption that we should try—or even want to try—to perfectly do “it all.”

BY THE WAY…

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No. 59: Jessica Lahey, Writer and Teacher

Age: 44
Where I live:
 New Hampshire
Job: Writer and Teacher
Kids: Two boys, ages 11 and 16

JessLaheyIs the job you have now the same one you had before kids? If not, how and why did you change directions?
I’ve had so many permutations over the past 16 years it’s hard to name them all. I took a year off from law school to have my oldest son, and when I finished school and went back to work, it was with the help of a friend. We both taught part-time, so we arranged our schedules so she could take Ben from 9-2 while I taught, and I took her three girls from 2-6 while she taught. Later, with my younger child, I used a combination of preschool and the help of a literal village (I live in a small village in rural New Hampshire) to make my teaching schedule work. Luckily, my teaching day ended at the same time as my children’s school day, so working afternoons out was less of an issue for our family.

Do you think having “it all” is realistic or overrated and why?
Having it all is completely unrealistic. As I head into a year of pre- and post-book release publicity, I’d really like to be able to take every offer to speak, every signing and event. However, my husband works long hours, and that’s just not always feasible. We’ve made tradeoffs—the first two decades of our marriage were really dedicated to the rigors of his career, and I’m calling that chit in now that I need more time away. But it’s hard, no matter how supportive friends, spouses, or parents are of your goals.

What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
The whole “I’m guilty when I’m playing because I feel as if I should be working and I’m guilty when I’m working because I feel as if I should be playing” thing. Work is play to me. I love my job so much, and it’s really easy to let that take over every moment of my day. Social media is a significant part of what I do to promote my work and that’s a sneaky beast—it can become the thing that takes over an entire day. I also have trouble focusing on my family when I’m inspired by a work idea, and because I work at home, it can be hard to draw boundaries. I’m still working on that—pun intended.

What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I really try to stop working when my younger son walks in from the bus at the end of the day and pay total, undivided attention to him for a bit. If I don’t do that, we can easily get to bedtime without ever talking to each other about real stuff, the important stuff.

What was the best advice you ever heard on balance…
From your mother? “Figure out what’s most important to you, and do that.”
From your spouse? “I trust you.”
From your kids? “Would you read to me?”

If you had one extra hour in each day and you couldn’t work or be with your family, how would you spend that hour?
In the garden in the summer, in the woods cross country skiing in the winter, with a Great Courses podcast or audiobook on my iPod.

What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
That energy spent disliking things about myself is wasted energy.

What do you hope to know by the time you’re 60?
How to quiet the squirrels in my head and really listen.

What one part of your home life do you wish you could outsource?
Unloading the dishwasher and cleaning up rabbit pee.

Whose job do you wish you had?
Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum and host of the Brain Scoop.

Whose job are you glad you don’t have?
The person who unloads my dishwasher and cleans up my rabbit’s pee.

Favorite books?
There’s a long, complicated answer to this, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going with 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

What are you reading right now?
Lots of academic books. I’m in what Mary Roach refers to as the “three month flail,” researching for my next book.

Biggest vices…
Activity? 
Sitting. The job requires a certain amount of it, and I hate it.
Food?
 The British Kit Kats a parent of a former student sends me as writing fortification.
Website? Twitter.

How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
I’m a big fan of sleep. I’m pretty hyper, and my brain is racing all the time, so I go to bed early and tend to sleep later than I’d like. I usually get at least 9 hours of sleep a night. We also have “naptime” in our house every weekend afternoon. The kids don’t usually nap, but since they were little, the understanding is that everyone will do something quiet, the phone will get turned off, and I almost always nap. I got a pretty significant head injury about a year or so ago and since then, I’ve required more sleep, and I’ve learned to listen to the signals and give my brain what it needs.

What do you read every morning?
Twitter and our local paper, the Valley News.

Complete the following sentences:
I think I: can. (Sorry, but it’s true, I’m an optimist.)
I wish I: was more patient.
My kids: inspire me.

Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
“I decided to make my life my argument.” —Albert Schweitzer

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Anything else you’d like to add?
My book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will be published by HarperCollins in August 2015.

cover_The Gift of FailureAbout Jessica:
Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer, and speaker. She writes the biweekly “Parent-Teacher Conference” advice column for The New York Times, is a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and appears as a commentator on Vermont Public Radio. Jessica currently teaches high school English and writing, and lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two sons.

Find more about Jessica here:
www.jessicalahey.com
Twitter: @jesslahey
Facebook: JessicaPottsLahey
Pinterest: TeacherLahey

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