Navigating Being CHO and Family CEO

Tina Tormey, Director of Residential Education at The College of New Jersey

June 19, 2018

In December 2014, I managed to move off campus for the first time since 2005, separated from my partner of 7 years, transitioned my then three year old to navigating a world where mom and dad were no longer living in the same house, and I was promoted to director of residential education. To this day, I’m not sure if it was mega-multitasking or just the luck of the draw, but for nearly four years, I’ve been balancing being a single mom with the role of being a director of a mid-sized residential education program. Like many student affairs professionals who find themselves going to where the jobs are instead of staying near a support system, we don’t have family nearby. My ex also lives an hour away and works evening hours, which impacts childcare arrangements and my own ability to navigate that work-life balance once daycare is closed. 

I am reminded daily of how imperfectly I manage being a director of residential education at a high-touch, student-centered institution and how imperfectly I also manage my parenting responsibilities. Take the following examples:

This year, my son is in first grade. One of the first grade traditions is to throw a Mother’s Day celebration for all the first grade moms. I’ve never felt more significant in my life. For weeks leading up to it, the teachers sent home “save the date” announcements and information to us moms. My son reported that he couldn’t tell me about my surprises but that I should “wear something pretty” and know that there were going to be blueberry muffins. He told me that no matter how many times I asked or said please, he was NOT to go up to the Mother’s Day breakfast table to get me treats because the teachers said only the moms were allowed to go to that table (“but pretty please can you get me a blueberry muffin,” he asked with the most adorable toothless grin). The day arrived and my stubborn t-shirt-and-soft-pants-wearing son asked to wear a COLLARED SHIRT. He took a shower without arguing. When I entered the school cafeteria, he waved at me wildly and gave me a jack-o-lantern grin. One of my gifts was a beautifully-drawn portrait which said the following on the back:

No One Better Than My Mom

My mom is as beautiful as a rainbow. Her name is Tina. She is 41 years old. She has red hair and her hair is curly. My mom loves to read. She teaches her students. I love her because she is nice. We like to watch Nailed It. She always says “I can’t play with you.” I <3 my mom. 

She always says “I can’t play with you.”

Those words stung, perhaps a little more so because my custody arrangement with my ex means that I get the weekday logistical responsibilities: homework, dinner, bedtime and at most, I may get 30 to 60 minutes to play or watch a show with my son. The week he wrote this was likely the week I managed some evening duty calls related to a student experiencing a mental health crisis. I remember telling him, “I can’t play now. One of my students needs me.”

On the flip side, there’s work. They may have gotten my attention for duty calls, but they certainly didn’t the year my son decided to get hand, foot and mouth (a highly contagious virus) during training season (which I coordinated). Or the week he got the flu AND strep throat in the middle of selection and my duties as the homeroom parent coordinating the class Valentine’s Day party. Or that snow day that he got (and I didn’t), and he ended up wearing headphones and playing video games as my colleagues and I discussed a crisis situation during our Behavioral Intervention Team meeting. 

One thing I have learned is that it is really easy to throw yourself a pity party and fill your life with the “I can’ts.” I only live 20 minutes from campus, but when childcare is limited (and at $10-15/hour quite expensive compared to the $2/hour I earned in my own babysitting days), the distance from campus feels like worlds away. If you focus on what you can’t do, you’ll never recognize what you can do.

Take that Mother’s Day event as an example. My son reporting that I say I can’t play with him was a kick to the gut, but if it weren’t for this job I have, I wouldn’t necessarily have the flexibility to attend an event like that. Because my job can often include late nights, weekend work or bringing work home on weeks that meetings fill my actual work day, I also sometimes have the flexibility of assisting in his classroom and attending school events, which allows me to be connected to his educational experience and allows him to see how important I think his education is. 

Also look at the times he’s come with me to work (he’s currently shredding files as I type this courtesy of the Pennsylvania primaries giving him a day off of school) or the times I tell him I need to manage an emergency over the phone and can’t play with him. He gets to see a mom who loves her job, cares about her students and staff and does things of importance. I have explained that sometimes I need to help a student. Usually, he seems to understand it. 

When my son was first born, I did the exact opposite of what Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg recommended. I did not “Lean In” despite how driven and work-focused (some might have even said obsessed) I was prior to having my son. I leaned back. I didn’t go to conferences in that first year. I had been planning to start looking for director positions but delayed a job search. I was also more thoughtful about what I volunteered to do (and, admittedly, less confident in what I could add to my plate). But I felt crappy about it. This was the era of “Lean In” battling against Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”After years of being very career driven, it was strange for me to have competing priorities. 

Perfectionism is a common problem for women, and I am no exception. 

I recently started reading Randi Zuckerberg’s Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day),in which she states: “I wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Work. Sleep. Family. Friends. Pick Three.’”

Zuckerberg’s philosophy is that life is lived lopsided. Those who strive for “balance” are doomed to failure, mediocrity or unreasonable expectations. She advises readers to pick three priorities a day, but also keep notes on what your daily choices are so you can readjust over time if certain areas are suffocating others. If I were to “have it all,” my best day ever would include:

  • Doing some kind of professional involvement that contributes positively towards the future of my profession
  • Getting at least 7 (preferably 8) hours of sleep
  • Healthy, home-cooked meals
  • A good workout
  • The really annoying stretches my doctor makes me do to deal with tendinitis
  • Playing with my son
  • Reading with my son
  • Reading for myself
  • Watching my favorite medical drama or a great movie
  • Spending time connecting with a romantic partner
  • Working on a kick ass project at work
  • Doing some long-range planning or assessment analysis at work (and not under a tight deadline)
  • Having lunch or coffee with a friend
  • Meditation
  • Having a clean and organized house (AND office, for that matter)
  • Sending a thank you note to a colleague or student
  • Having some time (ideally early in the morning before anyone else wakes up) to write as I enjoy a cup of coffee
  • Teach (I started teaching an academic writing class two years ago and have loved the classroom experience)
  • Pursue my doctoral degree (although finances as much as time has prohibited this one, so far)

As you’ve probably guessed, I think the 24 hours we each have in a day ran out around the fifth bullet.

So now I pick three things—and I’m very specific to avoid the decision fatigue that can sometimes set in as the day fills. On a work day, for example, my three may be: seven hours of sleep, finish updating our crisis manual and send out for review, go ride bikes with Charlie after dinner. On most weekends, my son is with his dad, so my three may be: take a spin class, drinks/dinner with friends, prepare meals for the week (I almost nevercook on weekdays. Heat and serve! It’s such a time-saver.). With Zuckerberg’s “Pick Three” advice, I can invest my energy into my three priority areas for the day and release the guilt of not doing my best in ALL of the areas that are important to me. It also means that I can look forward to some of those important things and appreciate them more becauseI can’t do them every day. Case in point: I actually LIKE going to the gym now. 

Additionally, I book mini-retreats for myself. Dan Pink’s bookWhen: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing taught me how to learn my natural energy rhythms and plan accordingly. By Fridays, I’m tired so I try to keep my day mostly meeting free so I can work on projects that require some computer time and a good playlist (I’m an introvert—this energizes me). On weekends I don’t have my son, I may take a fun work project home and do it with a pot of coffee, yoga pants and Grey’s Anatomy reruns. 

These mini-retreats aren’t all work though. Many of us in higher ed make friends through our work and, as our careers advance, we soar off to different institutions in different states or even time zones. I’m thoughtful to coordinate trips on the weekends I don’t have my son to connect with those friends. Using AirBNB, staying at each other’s house and setting up Kayak alerts for cheap airfare keep costs manageable, but I also recognize my privilege both in being able to afford this and in having an ex around who takes responsibility for and appreciates time with his son. That said, when I was not able to budget these trips, Facetime, Skype and Google Hangouts along with some of the funniest and heartwarming text threads helped me stay connected. 

Strengthening my connections was critical to my success as a single parent in student affairs. Building local friendships was critical for me too, which I did partly by joining a book club. Having connections that had nothing to do with work and parenthood helped me de-stress. And having a “squad” that I could text when everything seemed to be piling up or to celebrate small successes was critical to mitigate any feelings of isolation or bearing too much responsibility. 

Finally, there are things you simply need to quit when you are balancing single parenting with a career. Those things may be different for everyone. I’ve learned to let go of a perfectly tidy house. What’s the point of picking up the Legos my son played with before school (or arguing with him to pick them up), if he’s going to go back to playing with them when we get home? I’m also tryingto let go of perfection. Years ago, a colleague led a session for our department that pulled from The Four Agreementsby Don Miguel Ruiz. It seems so obvious to me now, but she quoted, “Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.” That was the first time I realized my expectations (of myself and others) could shift. The trick to figuring out what I could let go of was to ask myself what I was really willing to spend my time on and what truly impacted my feelings of happiness, connection and purpose. 

My tips and tricks to living this lopsided life work for me, and it took a solid year to figure it out (and then it shifted when my son started school and our lives changed a little bit—thank you very much, kindergarten homework!) My advice is not to do what I do, but to take some time to reflect on your priorities and identify what contributes towards your energy and sense of purpose versus what detracts from it. Use that to shape your own lopsided life. If any of you—director or otherwise—are navigating this world of caring for your family as you care for your staff and students, and you are struggling to make it work or simply need someone willing to give a high five because you remembered both which lot your car was parked in and to send your kid to school with lunch, I’m willing to be that cheerleader. Our work with students—caring for them, continuing their development and helping them become people that make this world a better place—perfectly parallels our role of Executive Tiny Human Manager so let’s support each other in making it work. 

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