Working Moms

Some busy moms’ agendas include running their homes like businesses.

For the Chicago Tribune.

chicago-tribune-logo-2It’s 7 o’clock on a Monday morning and everyone is in motion.

The kids are getting dressed and tidying their rooms. Dad’s downstairs, his shirtfront protected by a towel, whipping up school lunches as oatmeal warms. Things are going so smoothly, Mom even has time to take her coffee out on the deck and spend a few minutes savoring the sunrise.

Yeah, right.

If you’re like most of us, your family’s morning routine resembles the sacking of Constantinople more than the idyllic scene above. But according to an innovative group of authors, that doesn’t have to be the case–in the morning, evening or anytime.

To tame the barbarian horde, these women say, you simply have to apply modern managerial techniques.

“The art of management in the professional world has become increasingly sophisticated–there are whole systems and ways of thinking about how you manage your time, how you manage your office,” said Stacy Debroff, author of “The Mom Book” (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, $19.95). “But when you come home, there’s no blueprint. The art of managing the family really hasn’t been focused on.”

Debroff and authors like her want to change all that. With most wives spending more than three times what husbands do on family chores, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, and most kids pitching in a mere six hours a week, they want moms to take charge of their situation.

They envision a type-A, cutting-edge caretaker who uses tactics borrowed from Fortune 500 companies to organize everything from lunches to laundry. She may not actually call herself a “family manager”–a term coined by Kathy Peel, who’s written several books promoting the concept–but whatever title she goes by, she’s no “mere Mom.”

“Family management is one of my favorite topics and one that I am always trying to learn more about and improve in,” said Katie Nelson, a full-time mother of two and Kathy Peel fan in Murray, Utah.

“I really feel like I’m the heart of the home around here,” Nelson said. “If I’m not organized and working right, then nothing is going right for anyone. My husband’s a very busy person, and how he does depends a lot on how things are running here. And my children are young, so they need that support.”

Children as customers

The family manager’s style can vary. She may carry home-specific day planner like Debroff’s “Mom Central: The Ultimate Family Organizer,” or treat her children like customers, per the advice of Roni Jay’s forthcoming “Family Matters: Parenting Tips from the Business World” (Parenting Press, $18.95).

She may just demand more accountability from Dad and the kids–a simple change that, according to one author, can make a big difference.

“At work we make sure there are follow-up meetings and everyone makes sure they know what their responsibilities are and who’s doing what,” said Neale S. Godfrey, author of the book “Mom, Inc.: Taking Your Work Skills Home” (Fireside, $13).

“At home we go on the `love syndrome’–`You love me, therefore you’ll take care of it,'” she said. “So if [you] have to work late, of course [your spouse] will figure out to take the roast out of the refrigerator and stick it in the oven.

“And then you come home at 8 o’clock at night and everyone’s sitting in front of the TV and nothing has been done, and you go crazy,” Godfrey said.

At first glance, the family manager’s approach to such a situation may not look much different from what moms already do. You may already have family meetings and chore schedules and a punch clock incorporated into your ordinary, old-fashioned family routine. (Well, maybe not a punch clock.)

But Godfrey and Peel emphasize that simply changing how you define your job can make it easier to be a mom.

“It’s easy for [the job of] running a home and raising kids to turn into this big, knotty ball of twine, like, `Oh, my gosh, I’ve got so much to do and I don’t know where to start,'” Peel said. “But it’s a management job, and just like any organization that you manage, you’ve got certain departments that you oversee, and when you start seeing those departments separately it becomes more manageable.”

So aside from being assertive and organized, just what does a family manager do? The answer depends on whom you talk to.

Take control

Godfrey takes an approach reminiscent of Wess Roberts’ “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” (Warner Books, $12.95): She’s all about owning your power. She urges working women to take control, be more protective of their time and set priorities aggressively. She’s all for hiring housekeepers and nannies if you need them, pointing out that corporations “outsource” all the time.

“I talk about outsourcing a lot,” she said. “It works the same way you outsource in the office. You don’t necessarily need an advertising division of your company–you may deal with an advertising agency. What I try to do is outsource the stuff that I don’t have to do, because my time is more valuably spent with my children and myself.”
Peel, on the other hand, directs moms to focus on the big picture–both practically and spiritually. It’s more of a Tom Peters “In Search of Excellence” attitude. In addition to drafting a set of “standard operating procedures” to manage household tasks, Peel emphasizes leadership skills. She suggests you build a sense of team spirit among family members, “helping each person find their niche and empowering them to succeed.”

And just as many companies have mission statements to which they adhere, she believes families should explicitly state their core values.

“You’ve got to empower the team to say what they’re feeling,” she said. “You’ve got to hit a middle ground. Family is not about getting your way all the time.”

However it’s interpreted, one thing’s for sure: Something about the “family manager” idea speaks to women. Hundreds participate in, Debroff’s online community and the source for much of the wisdom in her “Mom Book.”

Peel has turned the “family manager” concept into a small industry. She has written 15 books, the latest of which is “Be Your Best: The Family Manager’s Guide to Personal Success” (Ballantine Books, $12.95). She also is about to launch a product line on the Home Shopping Network.

Of course, there also are those moms who just don’t see the point. Even Katie Nelson has reservations about some of Peel’s suggestions.

“The quarterly schedule [for] taking care of such things as washing-machine hoses is pretty unappealing to even a die-hard organizer like myself,” she said.

Meeting resistance

Still, Nelson has tried to spread the word about family management among her circle, but she has met with resistance.

“My mom thinks I’m weird,” she said. “A lot of my friends don’t really see it. I think they kind of feel like they’re stuck at home, and they watch `Oprah,’ and they don’t really see [being a mom as] an important role.”

Nelson’s husband is more positive–though perhaps just a little forbearing–about his wife’s organizational “projects.”

“Rather than just do a short-cut clean–you know, stuff things in a closet–she always wants to take the longer approach to better organize so it’s easier to clean next time,” Jeffery Nelson said. “She does that a lot with the kids’ toys, with their rooms, all our functional spaces. She’ll want to take a room basically apart and put it back together in a way that’s more sensible, more organized.”

Jeffery Nelson’s reaction and those of husbands like him may have a lot to do with family management’s appeal. It may simply be a way for women to feel validated in their quest to balance career and children.

Debroff left a job at Harvard University to care for her two children and today combines her mothering duties with those of running her own company, Mom Central Inc.

On a mission

Peel, who was a full-time mom when her children were young, said she’s on a mission to improve family life and see that it’s recognized as the complex, fragile structure it is.

Still, some child-development experts are less than enamored by the notion of type-A parenting. Dr. Lauren Wakschlag, director of the University of Chicago’s clinic for preschool behavioral problems, cautions that managerial moms can impose unrealistic expectations on their home lives.

“A critical thing about parenting is that you’re not in control in the same way you may be in a workplace,” she said. “You can’t fire your kid. You don’t get overtime if you’re with your child extra hours because they’re sick.

“I think one of the challenges for working moms is letting go of some of [the assumption] that `I can manage, I can control everything’ that they have in the workplace. It’s quite different in a family context.”

Certainly many of these authors seem to dread the messy, unpredictable elements of home life–and so do many of their readers. Godfrey points to recent studies finding that working women tend to spend their extra time at work, not at home.

“The reason is because work works. Home doesn’t work,” she said.

Chaos at home

Debroff can relate. Rather than a quiet place to recharge, she said, her home used to be the most chaotic, stressful place in her life.

“Despite how organized I was in the office, I would come home to what would often descend into chaos,” she said. “My kids were 18 months apart, and I found that a lot of my time was spent as a human fire extinguisher putting out the problem of the moment.”

Debroff credits family management with changing all that. It’s a contradictory idea–bringing office-style routines home to make home the relaxing, nurturing environment it should be.

But if there’s one thing every mother knows, it’s that you do what works. If the new managerial moms really can make the home work better–even first thing Monday morning–their stock should keep going up.

Memo: Get life running smoothly

Authors and family-manager experts Neale Godfrey, Kathy Peel and Stacy Debroff offer the following tips to moms interested in incorporating business tactics into the family routine.

Stand up for yourself. Declare yourself the CEO and just set the expectations down and articulate them.

Develop systems. Have standard operating procedures, such as “we always take out the garbage at the end of the day.”

Devote time to sitting down with the whole family and clarifying expectations. “Meetings encourage your family members to sort out collective priorities, understand what’s expected of one another and air topics of concern,” said Debroff.

When you delegate tasks, explain precisely what you want done. “They prefer to know what they’re supposed to do. You have to make it really clear that if they’re going to help, they must do it exactly the way you want it,” Godfrey said.

Prioritize. No amount of organizing can fix an overcommitted household.

Don’t expect problems to work themselves out. “The family is an organization just like any organization or business, and it needs to be managed,” Peel said.

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2002

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