THE BALANCE PROJECT | No. 65: Colleen Oakley, Writer/Author

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…

  • Looking for THE BALANCE PROJECT, the novel that was inspired by these interviews? It’s here.
  • The Balance Project interview series recently celebrated its first birthday!
  • Fortune ran a feature about The Balance Project.
  • Want to be a part of The Balance Project? Complete the interview.

No. 65: Colleen Oakley, Writer/Author

Age: 34
Where I live:
 Atlanta, GA
Job: Writer/Author
Kids: a boy (4 1/2), a girl (2 1/2), and boy/girl twins due this month

colleen2Have you changed jobs or adjusted anything in your career to have more balance?
When I got the contract to publish my first novel, I scaled back on my magazine freelance editing and writing duties. I just couldn’t do it all.

If you’re a parent, is the job you have now the same one you had before kids? If not, how and why did you change directions?
It’s essentially the same—I went freelance in my magazine career about seven years ago—so a little more than two years before I became a mom.

Do you think having “it all” is realistic or overrated and why?
I think it’s both realistic and overrated—let me explain. When I hear the phrase “having it all,” it’s like nails on a chalkboard. When and why has this become the thing women are supposed to aspire to? What does it even mean? And most importantly—why aren’t men ever encouraged to “have it all”? It seems to me that the phrase “having it all” has become just one more societal standard for women to aim for, and then feel badly about themselves when they fall short.

But on the flip side, ironically, I do think people can have it all—if they define what “having it all” means to them, and don’t let the media or society define it for them. To me, having it all—for women and men—is about finding balance and happiness in your life, whether that’s having a full-time career and no kids, or being a stay-at-home mom/dad, or having both a career and kids—or floating around Europe for a year by yourself with no real agenda. I think we need to eliminate this image of the working “supermom,” who can do car drop-off, create Pinterest-worthy cupcakes for the school bake sale, while excelling at an 80-hour-a-week corporate job, all while looking put together and sexy enough for her loving husband. Those impossible ideals are a disservice to everyone.

What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
Being a work-at-home mom, I really struggle with compartmentalizing my work-time and my mom-time. When I’m working, I feel guilty for not being with my kids. When I’m with my kids, I’m often thinking about my work—trying to answer a few emails or composing novel scenes or dialogue in my head—so I’m not fully present with them. I have this fairly constant feeling that I’m not doing anything as well as I could be. Although, on the bright side, I’m getting better at just doing the best I can, and not beating myself up for any perceived failings.

What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I’ve gotten good at saying no when I know that I don’t have the time to do something or am stretching myself too thin. I think it’s really important to know what you can and can’t handle, and to make those choices without feeling guilty about it.

What was the best advice you ever heard on balance…
From your mother? “You can have it all—you just can’t have it all at the same time.” This really helps me look at life in stages—some years I’ll be really focused on my career, some years I’ll be more focused on being a mom. It’s about priorities, and how they shift over time—and more importantly, how that’s OK.
From your spouse? “Take one day at a time—make a list of the one, two, or three things you really want to get done that day. If you’ve checked them off by the time you go to bed, it was a successful day.” This advice helps on those days that I feel like I’m not doing anything well. It gives me concrete goals to conquer (even if they’re small, like “call the insurance company to dispute claim”) and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, instead of an overwhelming feeling of all the things I didn’t do.
From your kids? “Let’s snuggle!” (Reminding me that there’s no email or assignment that’s so urgent that I can’t take a break for some QT with the people I love.)

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?
I’d read! That’s probably a boring answer, but reading is my relaxation/me time and helps me unwind after long, stressful days.

What are you reading right now?
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.

Biggest vices…
Activity? 
Reading.
Food?
 Hard to pick just one, but “anything fried” should cover it.

How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
8. Being currently pregnant with twins, sleep is something I can’t (and won’t!) skimp on.

What do you read every morning?
theSkimm, CNN, Twitter, and the AJC

[Atlanta Journal-Constitution].

Complete the following sentences:
I think I: haven’t showered in three days. Maybe four.
I wish I: had the ability to sleep while standing in line (at the grocery store or post office) and/or driving. That would be the ultimate in multi-tasking.
My kids: are cuter than your kids. And I’m glad biology makes me think that, so I don’t strangle them when they pour green acrylic paint all over the new beige carpet and white cabinets. Hypothetically.

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book coverAbout Colleen:
Colleen Oakley is the author of Before I Go (Simon & Schuster/Gallery). Her articles, essays, and interviews have been featured in The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Redbook and Martha Stewart Weddings. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, two painfully cute kids, and a huge lapdog named Bailey. According to her doctor, she has twins on the way, but she won’t believe it until she actually sees them come out of her in March.

Find more about Colleen here:
www.colleenoakley.com
Facebook: writercolleenoakley
Twitter: @OakleyColleen
Pinterest: OakleyColleen

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