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 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.”

2015 brings new changes to The Balance Project! First, my second book, THE BALANCE PROJECT: A NOVEL, will be published in April. It’s women’s fiction and it was inspired by these interviews. More about that here. Second, in preparation for the launch and because these interviews have received such tremendous response, I will publish new interviews two or three times per week, not just on Fridays. Thank you for your continued support!

No. 39: Mary Laura Philpott, Writer and Editor

Where I live: Nashville, TN
Job: Writer; Editor of MUSING, the online literary magazine produced by Parnassus Books; Author/Illustrator; Social Media Director for Parnassus Books
Kids: An 8-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son

MLPbwIs the job you have now the same one you had before kids? If not, how and why did you change directions?
It’s the same type of work, but the focus and structure have evolved over time. Before I had kids, I had a series of full-time jobs in which I wrote for the same company or organization all the time. (I was the editorial director at the national home office of the American Cancer Society, for example.) I transitioned to freelance writing and editing when I had my first baby, and I did a wide assortment of freelance jobs for several years. The older the kids got and the more hours they were in school, the more time I had for work, and the bigger the projects I could take on.

Nowadays my work seems to fall into three categories: one main ongoing job, a big side project, and some smaller side projects. The main job for me right now is MUSING. I write, edit, and produce it, so most days I’m doing something related to that: interviewing an author, writing a book review, posting something on social media, etc. My big side project this year is Penguins with People Problems, the book coming out in 2015 from Penguin Random House, based on a goofy little illustrated tumblr I created. The smaller side projects lately have been guest columns and essays (I just finished up a series at The New York Times) and a few little odd illustration jobs.

That’s a long way of saying that I’ve always been a writer and creator, but I’ve changed the volume and arrangement of work as I’ve moved in and out of different life phases.

Do you think having “it all” is realistic or overrated and why?
It’s a catchy phrase that’s not going to go away, but it’s nonsense. What is “all”? All of what? I’d like to have all the cheese. All the cake. All the magic.

What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
I’m stymied by the challenge of maintaining balance in my kids’ lives. Workwise, for myself, I’m good—I know when to take on more or less or change the way I do things. But I stay in a state of constant low-level frustration when it comes to figuring out how the kids are supposed to do all the things they need to do, including just chill and be children.

I’m always reading about how we need to make sure kids have plenty of free, unstructured time to play and explore and develop executive function, and I believe very strongly in that. That’s how I lean. But I’m also a big nerd, so we take schoolwork seriously. Homework can take hours at a time, which I hate, but they can’t just revolt and not do it. If a child wants to pursue a hobby or join a team or play a sport or something, that eats up a bunch of hours each week. Then there’s sleep. Kids need a lot of it, so they have to have a reasonable bedtime.

How are we supposed to fit all that in? Start with 24 hours and subtract the hours they sleep, the hours they’re in school, the hours they’re at practice for whatever other thing they’re doing, the time they spend on homework, and the time they spend doing basic things like eating or showering, and what’s left? Almost nothing. We actually do a lot less than many other families in terms of kid-activities, and I still can’t figure out the math of it. I don’t want my kids to feel rushed and pressed all the time, but I feel like that happens despite our best efforts to the contrary. It’s always go-go-go: “Hurry up and eat your breakfast and get in the car and hurry up and get to sports practice and hurry up and do your homework but slow down because hurrying leads to careless errors and hurry up and relax and hurry up and sleep. HURRY.” It’s the opposite of what I want for them, but it seems to be the way things go if left unchecked. I’m always fighting the busyness battle and never quite winning.

What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I’m much better at saying no to things I don’t have time for or don’t want to do. When I take on freelance clients now, it’s for fewer, bigger, more personally rewarding projects. I’m also more careful about volunteering. I love to volunteer at school, but after a few years of saying yes to everything, I’ve pulled back a bit and have been a bit more strategic about which things I volunteer for. I want to have time left over to work on non-kid-related causes that need help, too.

What was the best advice you ever heard on balance…
From a mentor/co-worker?
 Oh man, it’s hard to choose. I’ve been so lucky to work with really smart people. One of the most recent pieces of advice I got was from Ann Patchett (the novelist who co-owns Parnassus Books with Karen Hayes). It was when I was writing that series for The New York Times, and the essays were being published online where anyone could post a comment. She said, “Never read the comments. Never. They’ll change the way you write, and not for the good.” I already tended to avoid the comment section, but hearing her say that cemented it for me. If you open up the floodgates and let in every piece of unsolicited feedback and opinion, you can lose your sense of direction and your focus. If I were to start trying to please everyone (or stew over all the people I’m not pleasing), balance would go out the window.
From your mother?
 “Put on some lipstick and suck in your gut.”
From your kids? “Let’s go outside.”

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 sit outside on my screened porch and read a magazine. And then I’d have friends over and cook dinner for them. And then I’d say, “Wow, I sure am magical for cramming all this into an hour.”

What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
That a lot of the things it seems like you have to do, you don’t really have to do. And that high-waisted jeans were not a flattering choice.

What do you hope to know by time you’re 60?
That I haven’t wasted the time I’ve been given and that I’ve made some people happy.

What one part of your home life do you wish you could outsource?
Supervising homework. I hated algebra in middle school, and I don’t like it any better now. I can think of five million other ways I’d prefer to spend time with my family.

Whose job do you wish you had?
I’ve always thought it would be fun to be the person who picks the songs that play in the background of certain scenes on movies and TV shows. Music editor-—is that a thing?

Whose job are you glad you don’t have?
I’d be a horrible teacher. I’m not very patient. I am so, so grateful for teachers. I think they have special DNA, and as far as I’m concerned they are superheroes. They should be paid a lot more for all they do.

Favorite books?
Instead of making a list a mile long, I’ll do two. Favorite classic: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Best book I read this year: Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. OK, wait, one more… Nonfiction humor: Anything by David Sedaris. (If you go to the Staff Picks section of MUSING, you can see other favorites, too!).

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Amazing.

Biggest vices…
Activity? Putzing around at night and doing “one more thing” until I’ve done 20 more things and it’s midnight and I’m tired.
Food? I work around the corner from a doughnut shop. Sometimes I walk down there to “get coffee” and come back with a cronut the size of my leg. Also Diet Coke. I keep trying to quit, but then it seduces me back with its sparkly terrible goodness.
Website? The whole damn Internet. I’ll “check” tumblr and Twitter and look up later wondering when the sun set or the seasons changed.

How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
If I’m at home, I try to be in bed by 11, and I’m usually up at 6.

What do you read every morning?
My calendar. theSkimm. I wish my answer to this was “one beautiful poem” or “a chapter of a novel.” But my mornings just aren’t like that right now.

Complete the following sentences:
I think I: forgot to be somewhere this morning.
I wish I: knew where.
My kids: probably know.

Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
Before the kids get out of the car every day for school, we do a group fist-bump and say our motto: “Be brave. Be kind. Be wise.” That pretty much covers everything.

IMG_0004_2About Mary Laura:
Mary Laura Philpott is an author and illustrator in Nashville, TN. She is the editor in chief of MUSING, the online literary magazine produced by Parnassus Books, for which she is also the social media director. She has written for outlets including The New York Times, The Toast, and The Queen Latifah Show. Her next book, Penguins with People Problems (featuring illustrations like the one at left), is forthcoming in 2015 from Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Find more about Mary Laura here:
Twitter: @WhenIBlink
acebook: IMissYouWhenIBlink
Instagram: therandompenguins
Pinterest: I don’t quite get it.
Wordpress: imissyouwheniblink.com

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