Tuesday, April 26, 2022

I Know How She Does It: A Deep Dive


I adored this book, and I didn't think I would. I think I mentioned this after I read Four Thousand Weeks (another great one), but time management books are not usually my thing. I am an upholder and extremely set in my ways. I feel like I have developed a system that works for me, and I don't think my way translates to other people. I also get A LOT done, so I generally feel pretty OK in terms of time management.

Still, I do love to think about work and family. In fact, if my giant family didn't impact my own career trajectory, I think this is something I would have fun thinking about in a systematic, academic kind of way.

(Also, the author has a similar podcast that she hosts with one of my favorite bloggers, and I need to listen to it)

But, anyway, a couple of really important takeaways from I Know How She Does It. First, let me give you a really short synopsis: Laura Vanderkam looked at time logs from high earning (at least 6-figure) women with kids. She asked women to record 168 hours (1 week) of their lives, and then she studied 1,000 weeks to note patterns, etc. Here is the call for participants Vanderkam used. After viewing all of these weeks, Vanderkam had so many insights about how working moms use our time. Here are a few things that really resonated with me:

1. Arlie Hochschild's famous idea of the second shift has worked to make women feel like we can't have it all, and it has worked to make us feel like we're doing it wrong if we work at night after working all day. Hochschild was talking about house work, of course, and the idea that women can go to work but we also have to be the scullery made. AND THIS IS TRUE, but Vanderkam was quick to point out that it is not as true as it used to be. She also encouraged readers to reframe working after the kids go to bed as working a split shift, and she argued that the spilt shift lets parents spend time with their kids and help relieve work stress. This was such a lightbulb for me because I do work a second shift most days, and I always feel kind of put upon about it. BUT I SHOULD NOT. Working at night makes me feel like I am somehow doing life wrong, but in reality, I like spending my early nights being a mom, and I like starting my day knowing a bunch of emails have already been scheduled to send, etc.

2. You don't actually have to choose between quality time and quantity time because even if your kids are school-age and out of the house all day, you still spend a TON of awake time with them. Culturally, though, we only think of the daytime hours as counting, and that's just silly. Mornings count. Breakfasts can be the new family dinner (this really resonated for me because our after school activity schedule often obliterates the family dinner, but we are all home for breakfast). Evenings count. Vanderkam talked about ways to reframe these busy times of the day as family hours, and she gave excellent ideas for ways we can make mornings and evenings less busy and more interactive. It's just not true, she said, that working moms never see our kids. Instead, we need to do a better job of giving ourselves credit for the time we already spend doing hands-on parenting.

3. Americans like to overestimate our work hours, and this makes us tell ourselves the wrong stories about how we spend our time. Vanderkam promoted the idea of time diaries for all of her readers, and she argued that tracking our time would make us see how in control of it we actually are. I loved this suggestion because I think I embrace a martyr/victim role when I talk about work/life balance, and I forget that I am lucky enough to be a person who really gets to choose how I spend my time. I did not want to be a tenure track professor or pursue academic research. I wanted to stay home with my little kids, so that's what I did. But sometimes, I see my academic friends living the life I very consciously didn't choose, and I get jealous. It's easy to rail against the patriarchy and think about the life of the mind I could be leading, only that's not the life I wanted. Full stop. Kind of a scary, sobering realization but also such a liberatory one! I felt almost instantly happier and lighter. I am truly living the life I have always wanted.

4. There are no typical weeks. Because she had the advantage of looking at so many weeks in so many lives, Vanderkam was able to unpack the myth we often tell ourselves that we will get back to "normal" after [insert extenuating circumstance here]. Instead, she said, every one of our weeks will probably be full of a teacher in-service or a sick kid or a meeting that takes up free work time or a social obligation we can't shirk, etc. It is probably better for us to plan on irregularity and adjust our expectations accordingly.

5. Motherhood has seasons that make it more and less compatible with careers. Think about babies who don't sleep or kids who are too young to go to school. Vanderkam pointed out that these things don't last forever, so we have to manage them accordingly. She advocated paying for the most and best childcare we can afford, but this doesn't jibe with my own core values about having little kids. I have written before that I want to be the one who is with my kids before they go to school-aged school, and my life choices reflect that belief. While I disagreed with the author there, I think the seasonal frame is a really good and helpful one. She also did talk about a couple of women who stayed home with their kids and fit work around toddlers, etc, and this was helpful for me, too. I like seeing myself reflected in books-- DON'T WE ALL.

This was not an academic book, so I did not expect rigorous study design or anything, but I did want her to more fully account for privilege. I think she felt like because she said at the outset that she was talking about high earning women, she didn't have to, but there's a huge difference between a mom making 100K and someone making say 350K. When Vanderkam talked about layering childcare-- having a nanny after daycare or having a babysitter to come give the nanny breaks, etc, this felt very out of touch with middle class moms. Because 6 figures is very much middle class, especially in certain parts of the country. I also just felt very turned off by the idea of layered childcare. It's one thing to suggest (as she does elsewhere in the book) that parents can take turns going in late and coming home early so kids can have more daytime hours with their parents and quite another to talk about working 14-16 hours away from small kids and babies. Like, I understand that that's what dads have been able to do with moms at home to take care of the kids for decades, but is that really the work/life system we want for everyone now that both parents work? Like, let's REMAKE the system, not just join an already flawed one. Also she assumes that childcare work in just drudgery beneath high earning women and again, I disagree and would rather see either an argument for including dads in this care or standardizing childcare in some way, etc. 

If you've read the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I loved the focus on reframing, and I honestly feel more positive about my work/life balance than I did before I read the book, even though I have changed exactly nothing.


  1. I adore LV; I'll admit this wasn't my favourite of her books, but that may be because I have always only worked part-time since becoming a mother so I'm in an odd middle zone of being a SAHM, but not really being a SAHM since I also have work deadlines, but no real childcare. It's well-written and I love her voice, but it just didn't speak to me nearly as much as...Off the Clock did.
    I LOVE Off the Clock and it's one of my favourite time management books ever. Have you read that one? (Also by Laura Vanderkam?)
    I've read it 2-3 times and have several friends who have also loved this book. Highly recommend. It has a lot of time management strategies but feels slightly less geared toward women with very big, full-time careers.

  2. I've read her blog sometimes and most of these messages are very consistent with what she posts. Definitely some useful stuff, but also aspects are a little frustrating, especially assuming that everyone has tons of $$ to throw at all problems. definitely not in keeping with the experience of many working moms, even those with 'big jobs'. Makes a big difference if your husband makes as much as hers does.