Finding Balance: Claire, a Full-Time Education Advocate and Mother of Three
When my oldest was born, I was desperate to find information, guidance, and like-minded people as I experienced new motherhood. I was among the first of my friends and my family to have a baby, and it was all very new to me.
I lived in West LA at the time. My OB-GYN pointed me in the direction of a place that not only set the foundation for my way of parenting but also helped me to discover an important group of women who would become some of my most influential and supportive friends. This magical place was called The Pump Station, and I was an immediate devotee. The Pump Station primarily serves as a breastfeeding resource, and they helped me troubleshoot the many challenges I had in the early days of breastfeeding my son and my twin girls. They also had a breastfeeding support group (yes, this exists! and it's amazing!) and mommy and me groups. It was here where I met a group of incredibly talented, smart, loving, working, new moms, who, like me, were trying to find their way through parenthood. Claire Abbott was one of the first I met there, and I knew immediately that I loved her. She is brilliant, kind, and personable. As our babies grew, we got together with a group of moms from The Pump Station for playdates and Moms' dinners, and we traded middle-of-the-night emails with desperate questions about sleep (or lack thereof), breastfeeding, and anything else that was of-the-moment.
Claire moved to Boston and we immediately felt a void among our group. Fortunately, we have kept in touch, and it's been a joy to see both her family grow and to hear about her continued growth professionally. In a continuation of the balance series, I am so happy to share Claire's experience finding a balance while pursuing a career as a education policy advocate and leader and raising three adorable kids. Here's Claire's story.
Tell Us About Your Work/Life
My husband, Dave, and I live in the Boston area with our three kids: Libbey (20 months), Theo (4 ½), Gideon (7 ½).
I work full-time as the manager of K-12 educator effectiveness policy at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In laymen’s terms, I oversee the development and implementation of state-level rules and regulations that affect teachers, principals, and district leaders in Massachusetts public schools. I supervise a small team of policy analysts and work closely with other teams within the Department who are responsible for curriculum and assessment, and teacher preparation.
Did you take a maternity leave after your children were born?
Yes. I took four months with Gideon and returned at 80% until he turned one. I took three months with Theo and returned at 100%. I took three months with Libbey, telecommuted part-time for a fourth month, and then returned 100%. The process of returning each time was relatively smooth because I had a strong team back at work that kept projects going in my absence. We also engaged in extensive project planning leading up to the maternity leaves to ensure that the work was appropriately “paused” or shifted over to others while I was gone. I work with a group that experiences frequent maternity leaves so we’re accustomed to working around and supporting them. That said, Massachusetts still does not provide adequate leave – state employees receive 10 days of paid maternity leave. The remainder is protected under FMLA, and employees must use paid time off (vacation and sick days) to receive any income during a maternity leave.
How do you handle childcare?
When we had two kids, we placed them both in full-time, private daycare. With three (including one in public school), we do a mix of childcare solutions. Gideon attends public school followed by after school programming, Theo is in private daycare 40 hours/week, and Libbey has been home with an au pair. We decided to get an au pair for several reasons: we couldn’t afford two kids in daycare (an au pair is almost half the price of full-time infant care or a nanny), the public school schedule is ridiculous (so. many. days. off. and wtf summer break?), and three kids get sick ALL THE TIME. It’s a lifesaver having someone who can help with all of those random childcare needs. It’s also been a great way to introduce the kids to another person who’s loving, supportive, and reliable. That said, an au pair brings its own set of considerations: they tend to be quite young (the average age is 18 to 19), they don’t have formal childcare experience like a nanny or daycare teacher, and despite multiple interviews, you never really know who you’re going to get until they walk off the plane.
“Matching” with an au pair is a lot like online dating, and our three au pairs reflect the many pros and cons associated with that process. That said, our current (and third) au pair is amazing, and we couldn’t imagine our family without her. We’ve since decided to get a fourth au pair for next year—a lovely 18 year-old from England. We’re rolling the dice again, but between my promotion and having two kids in public school (with all the holes in that schedule), we think it makes sense. Libbey will still start daycare but attend only 2 days/week. All of this is to say that figuring out childcare remains a challenge that has me constantly second-guessing myself – wish us luck!
What is your daily routine like?
My life in 15-minute increments...
- 6am-7am: wake up, shower, dress, make two lunches, drink two cups of coffee, listen to Morning Joe, and send the quick 1-2 emails to get a head start on the day. (Things I’m not doing: exercising, makeup, or drying my hair.)
- 7am-7:45am: get the kids up, dressed, and fed. Dave then takes Theo to school, Gideon walks to school with a neighbor, and Amy takes over Libbey at 7:45am.
- 7:45-8:15am: commute (this 30-minute commute is another reason I’ve stayed in my job – there aren’t many 30-minute commutes in the Boston area)
- 8:15am-4:15pm: acting professional, taking over the world...
- 4:45pm-5:15pm: pick up Theo and squeeze in a quick grocery stop
- 5:15pm: arrive home (usually 15 minutes late for the au pair)
- 5:15-5:45pm: boys do 30 mins of iPad while I make dinner and keep LIbbey entertained
- 5:45-6:15pm: kid dinner
- 6:15-7:45pm: mix of homework, play, visit neighbors nextdoor, bath, etc. Dave gets home around 7:15pm.
- 7:45pm-8:45pm: put kids to bed
- 8:45pm-9:15pm: make adult dinner (if not a Blue Apron meal, either eggs or take-out)
- 9:15pm-10:15pm: catch up on work or laundry while watching CNN
- 10:15pm: bedtime
What do you do for personal time?
I don’t feel like I have much personal time. I love my alone-time from 6:15-7am during the week, but it’s not sufficient for things like working out or a hobby. Weekends are filled with kid- and home-related activities (soccer practice, grocery shopping, trips to Home Depot, shoe stores to buy cleats, haircuts, etc.). I will duck out for a brisk walk with a friend or a brief 2-3 mile run, but that’s about it. That said, we live in an amazing neighborhood with families in every house, and we’ve established close friendships with several households. Our weekends are therefore filled with impromptu pizza/wine nights with other families, including “Gideon/Beckett Fridays” where we all go next door to our friends’ house for pizza, wine, movies, and the kids have a sleepover. This is definitely “personal time” in the sense that it’s rejuvenating to spend time with close friends in the same phase of life. What’s missing? Regular exercise (I’ve gained 15 pounds in the last 2 years) and quality time with Dave.
An important part of my life over the past four years has been a Lean In Circle that I launched back in 2014. Our group is comprised of 14 women who work full time and have at least one child. We meet once a month and devote each meeting to topics related to career development and professional growth. We occasionally dip into the top of work/life balance, but we intentionally keep the focus of the majority of meetings on issues related to our careers. As a group, we’ve supported one another through promotions, career changes, challenging work/life balance issues, and other professional growth-related milestones. We’ve explored the benefits of “leaning in” versus “leaning out” and supported one another to follow either path. I have relied heavily on their counsel and friendship over the years.
Have you ever considered a different work/life situation than the one you currently have?
My job is intense. Although it’s “only” 40 hours/week, it’s a fast-paced job with a high profile and high performance expectations. I’ve considered moving on to a less intense job, but I’ve made an intentional choice to remain for a few reasons. First, I really enjoy the type of work I’m able to do – Massachusetts has one of the more active state-level education departments, and we have significant influence and oversight over public education. So, from a quality-of-work perspective, it’s very rewarding. Second, the hours are regular and there are clear expectations of a 40-hour work week. When I leave at 4/4:30pm, I am “off” and there is little to no expectation that I remain available during off hours. That said, I’m currently transitioning into a larger leadership role where those expectations are likely to change. I’ve put this type of promotion off for a couple years as our third child was born and we adjusted to that new reality. But I’m at a point where my career necessitates the upward movement if I want to remain invested, competitive, and frankly, marketable if/when I leave the department. It will likely require more hours during the week.
Equally important, we are a two-income family in the Boston area with a lifestyle (i.e. mortgage, daycare, etc.) that depends on both salaries. Neither myself nor my spouse can afford to work or make less.
What is the greatest lesson in finding balance?
I struggle with the notion that we can “find balance.” It implies an aspirational end goal that I’ll ultimately achieve if I keep working toward it, which is exhausting in and of itself. There is always something I’m not doing. “Balance” to me is an ever-changing reality informed by the needs and wants of everyone in my life. My goal is to do what works for me and my family, and to not model myself after others who may have made different choices. Our children are happy and thriving, but my house isn’t always clean. Gideon enjoys school, even though I can’t be “mystery reader” once a month. My kids love babysitters (and frankly get to bed earlier on nights I have evening meetings). And I still enjoy persevering in my career, despite (or because?) of the fact that I’m the only person—male or female—in my office with three kids at home. If anyone in our family were struggling, Dave and I would reassess and make a change. Right now, I feel as though we are conscious and deliberate about the choices we make. I try to be aware of what I’m “sacrificing” so I don’t beat myself up over it (even though I’d LIKE to exercise more, or read a novel once in a while). The reality is that we’re constantly balancing everything. Another apt metaphor would be putting all of the pieces together in a puzzle that hopefully stays intact from day to day. The puzzle itself will probably look different next year... or next month, for that matter, as I embark upon training for my next half marathon. ☺
Thank you, Claire! You are an inspiration. Here's my own story on finding balance, and I look forward to continuing this series and sharing more stories soon.