March 2016

Black turtlenecks

Mar 13, 2016 9:09 AM
Jane Thompson

My husband’s best friend and business partner skied off a cliff last April and was killed instantly.  We flew to Edmonton for the funeral; in the cab, we saw the airport flags at half-mast.  The driver wondered why, but we knew. Flags flew at half-mast all over the city, in front of the many public and private buildings Tom had worked on, shaping and re-shaping his hometown. The basilica was full – a thousand mourners there in appreciation of this brilliant architect, dead at fifty-three.

Back home we talked about selling the cottage, pretending it was not about Tom.  We both loved the place, but it seemed like too much work, too much money.  Just too much. It had been in my husband’s family since 1947, but nothing lasts forever.

Drying my tears that day in May, I said, “Okay, but not until next spring.  I want this last summer.  I’m going to go up there at the end of June and stay until Labour Day.  Come up when you can.” 

“I’ll really get to work on the next manuscript.” I thought.  “All that peace and quiet – it will be perfect.”

The July long weekend Craig arrived.  Saturday morning, his eye fell on an ad in the local newspaper. “Jayne’s Cottages,” it read. “Let me rent your cottage.  Leave all the work to me.” Always open to new ideas, Craig called her up.  She listened to the description of the second cottage on our property and quoted the rent she thought we could get.  I thought it was per month; it was per week.  She came by, suggested a few minor changes, took some pictures, and there it was on her website.  We rented it for four weeks and a long weekend, paying for all the repairs. Some of the weight of responsibility lifted from Craig’s shoulders. Selling receded.

Tradespeople and renters tromped across my tranquility. I thought I needed more quiet to think and to write, but soon had to acknowledge I still had plenty of quiet; what I needed was something to say.

My first book had been about women in their thirties and forties, struggling to find a way to manage raising children while also building their careers.  I wrote it, not quickly, but with dogged determination. Each woman I interviewed felt she just was not managing very well – that she was lazy, or crazy, and all alone in her struggle.  I believed I had useful things to say to those women. It took me years to get the words down on the page, but the long gestation didn’t matter.  I got older, but I kept meeting thirty-two year old women with the same issues.  I enjoyed writing the book, was thrilled to finish it, and appreciated the response from young mothers who read it.

Now in my fifties, with my son grown, I had been thinking a lot about the issues facing women of a certain age.  If women over fifty spend too long staring at photos of Taylor Swift or Beyonce in the pages of Vogue magazine, they will become discontented with their crepey skin, furrowed brows, and gravity-ravaged flesh.  I thought about women I knew who no longer felt included in the portrayal of ideal, desirable womanhood, who saw younger women and men fill the workplace around them, and who woke in the night to hot flashes, or financial worries, or rage at unfaithful ex-husbands, and who felt unappreciated on all fronts.

I had thought that my second book would be about this tragic devaluation of women over fifty in our culture.  I had a rough vision of resurrecting the important role of the wise-woman as it had existed in other times, other cultures. My first book had been anchored in my own experience. Last summer, my outward gaze fixed on the lake view from my screened porch, my inward gaze directed to my own experience as an older woman, I was a little surprised to find I had no real problems. And if I had no problems, maybe I had no book.

I kept showing up at the page, as the writing coaches tell us we must.  I contemplated my own mourning of lost youth and dewiness. I scanned Facebook updates on the campaign that Geena Davis is leading to raise the profile of women, especially older women, in Hollywood. I read the Globe’s Report on Business articles repeating the news that women remain under-represented on Fortune 500 boards. I watched reality TV shows about the extreme things some women are willing to do to their faces, only to end up with rich face, bitch face, trout face and worse.

Despite all this public sturm und drang I have decided that in the bigger picture of the world, white, affluent, able-bodied women over fifty don’t have much to complain about. Divisions of race and class are costing people their very lives. Alive is so much better than dead, that the minor differences between thirty and fifty just don’t count for much. I am a good example of this. The problems I had as a young working mother are gone now.  I have a great job, granting scholarships and working with recipients and alumni who are busy making the world a better place for all.  I work part-time, from home or cottage –a gig custom-made for my introverted soul. My son is pretty much grown-up, reasonably happy, and more or less healthy.  Friends, family, health, meaning, joy – check, check, check, check, check.  People ask my advice and seem to value and appreciate it. 

Many, many women do have problems, of course – problems, regrets, misfortunes.  But someone else will have to write that book.

Life after fifty: it turns out it’s not about less.  It’s about more.  If our hearts are still beating for one more day, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s about taking each of those days, greeting our wrinkles as badges of survival, and going on to make something constructive and meaningful happen. It is not wise to bleat about our ropey necks and how we no longer turn heads; it is much better to find a fabulous black turtleneck sweater and get on with tending to hearts and souls. It’s not about ditching the cottage; its about finding a way to keep it, so we can share it, not only with renters but with writers, artists, and social visionaries in need of a retreat.

The winter has passed, and as the days grow longer I sit at my third-story desk and look out over the bare branches of city trees.  We will mark the anniversary of Tom's death in a few weeks.We just received an email from Jayne telling us the cottage has been booked for next July. There are no Vogue magazines in my house now. I look instead at pictures posted beside my desk:  Gloria Steinem, June Callwood, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader-Ginzberg, and Audrey Hepburn, all over fifty. One I was proud to call my friend, one I just met.  All did or still do good in the world. They look out from these photos, appreciated, appreciative, and looking really great in black turtlenecks.  I’ve got one on myself.


May 2014

Happy Mothers’ Day: Please plant a tree!

May 10, 2014 5:17 PM
Jane Thompson


I never thought I would become such an ardent environmentalist.  I did women’s issues; my husband did environmental issues.  But I am celebrating Mothers’ Day by doing a little something for Mother Earth.  We need her, and she really needs us right now.


I used to think women and the environment were separate issues.  Then I started working with Community Forests International ( and the more time I spend on climate change, the more I see that all these issues are thoroughly connected – poverty, women’s rights, economic inequality, climate change – the whole thing.


Here are my top three reasons for believing that women need to sort out how they raise the next generation and contribute to the economy and create social change:


  1. There is nothing in the world to rival the motivation of a mother who perceives an immediate threat to her children.  Climate change is here, and the catastrophic effects are not going to happen to unknown future generations; they will affect our very own children in the next few decades.  That makes mothers a very highly motivated force for fighting environmental degradation.
  2. Women are half the brains, talent and energy available, everywhere on the planet.  Climate change is a super-wicked problem, and we need everybody to be involved in fixing it. We have to support the mothers of the world who should be part of every environmental team – but they can’t help in the fight  if they don’t have great child-care, health-care and education for their children.
  3. Ever since the industrial revolution, we have been running on a model of social mobility through constant economic growth.  We have finally grown our way right out of the capacity of our planet to support us.  But many human societies in the past were based on a model of stability, not growth.  I believe women are more attuned to this idea – that there is value in keeping what we have, not always making new and more.  If women are the keepers, then we are more easily inclined to pull back from the model of constant growth that has brought us to this precipice.


And let’s face it: if our children and grandchildren run out of drinking water, and sea levels rise to flood New York and Vancouver, and the bees die so our crops can’t be pollinated, no one will remember whether we spent those extra four hours a week at work or baking cupcakes.  So let’s get busy – we know moms can handle just about anything!

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June 2012

Ages and Stages

Jun 17, 2012 3:35 PM
Jane Thompson


My son is in the last stages of high school, stands six feet tall, and will qualify to vote in whatever election looms on the horizon next. This fully-grown citizen decided in May that the time had come to get rid of his childhood collection of stuffed animals. I think it caused me a bit more of a pang that it did him, but I bore up. We gathered them all up (okay – not all of them – I kept a few), took a picture, and then set them out on the front step with a big sign: “Free to a good home.” As you might expect, they vanished like snow in summer. My street has a lot of pedestrian traffic, and a lot of contractors at work with their own trucks, so there is a lively economy in all sorts of free goods, large and small, left on the front walk.

While I know this system generally works well, there was one little critter I feared would be left unclaimed, unwanted and unloved. Years ago, my son lost a stuffed toy in the shape of a bird while we were staying at a big hotel. We asked the staff about it, and though they couldn’t find the original, they very kindly sent a substitute up to our room as a gift. I didn’t recognize the slightly strange creature, with its brown furry feathers and long stiff beak. The tag, however, informed us it was a kiwi bird. The kiwi came home with us and took up residence with its stuffed fellows. A decade later, out onto the sidewalk it went.

The day the stuffed animals were sent out into the world, I went on with my day, running errands around the neighbourhood. As I climbed the hill that afternoon, returning home, I looked up to see a man striding down the sidewalk toward me. He was carrying his daughter, a little girl about three years old, on his shoulders. They made an appealing pair, both with curly dark hair and happy smiles. My eyes lingered on them as they drew closer and I realized that the little girl had Kiwi – our Kiwi- in her hand. The bird had his beak in her ear, and the two of them were clearly having a perfectly wonderful conversation. Her eyes were dancing with the joy of the whole thing, and you could almost see the thought bubbles over her head containing the fantastic world of imagination that she and Kiwi had found together. I passed them and continued on my way, and now I was the one wreathed in smiles. It was such a great message from the universe, one I needed to hear pretty badly. “Enjoy your blessings as they come. Don’t hoard them past their time. If there is something you no longer use and don’t need, send it back out into the world to be united with someone who will use it and appreciate it.”

One of the challenges of adult life is that it is not marked off clearly into pieces the way that childhood is. Every year, children start a new grade. Every few years, they get a graduation ceremony and they move on to a new school. Even when we start to work, new jobs and new titles are often more frequent in the early years. Then we may settle down at one level. If we are at home with our kids, there are even fewer markers of our own growth and progress. But time passes all the same and we do move from one age and stage to another. It is so important that we do not hoard – not our material possessions, but also not our ideas about who we are, how we should look, and how others should see us. Instead of simply mourning the drooping of an eyelid or the general losses to the forces of gravity, we need to see that we have moved along to another stage, complete with its own adventures. To embrace the new phase, we need to let go of the last one.

I’m not the mother of a small child any more. I am, among other things, the mother of a wonderful young man. Time to take on some new challenges and let the things of the past flow away, to find their own rightful place somewhere else.

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Super Woman or Mad Woman?

Jun 10, 2012 10:00 PM
Jane Thompson

 This weekend I went off to the cottage with my book club, a group of eight wonderful women, which is still going strong after twelve years. One member died last year of cancer. Other members have weathered divorce, chronic illness, career ups and downs. Children have grown up. Parents have passed away. But our companionship and love of great books continues. And along with discussing literature, we talk a lot about work and family and the conflicting demands that result. On Friday evening, I recounted a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a woman occupying a very senior position in a large Canadian financial institution. She has a big job, as does her husband, and they have raised two children. How did she manage, I had asked her. Three nannies? Two grannies? No, no, she replied. Just one nanny at a time, and it all seemed to work out. She conceded that she had been very fortunate in her husband and in the women who had helped them raise their children, but she wasn't suggesting that the obstacles were all that difficult to surmount. Well, I said to my book club, I'm pretty sure there is a bit more to the story than that.

I like to let my thoughts simmer slowly on back burners. Over days and weeks, interesting ideas and bits of news come along and get stirred in, and eventually, new solutions to stubborn puzzles get cooked up.

An important part of this process is the Sunday New York Times. Once a week, on a day when I have the chance to read slowly, and ponder things even more slowly, a wonderfully curated collection of news and opinion shows up on my breakfast table beside my cup of tea. In today's Sunday Style section, there was an article about Mary Wells Lawrence, one of the original Mad Women, who founded her own ad agency in the 1960s, enjoyed great success and raised two daughters. (See )

What can today's harried working moms learn from the 83-year-old former exec? Ms. Lawrence sounds as though she pretty much phoned in her child-rearing duties and commented "I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy." One daughter became an investment banker and is apparently fine with her mother's choices. The other daughter, a stay-at-home mom, - well, not so much. On the work front, Lawrence says she "believes success comes only from the extreme and urgent desire to be successful...You can't just be you...You have to double yourself. You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know."

That kind of effort takes a lot of hours a day, many days a week. I agree that this is what it takes to make it to the upper echelons of any realm of endeavour. But it is not a model that many working mothers of my acquaintance can manage to sustain.

Then I turned to the Arts and Leisure section and an article titled "All Hail 'Heidi': Beyond Feminism but Still a Dream." (See )  Playwright Gina Gionfriddo discusses the relation of her new work "Rapture, Blister, Burn" to the late Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles." Both plays deal with women who pursue their careers and regret the damage done to romantic partnerships and their chances of having children. After achieving career success, Wasserstein's protagonist, Wasserstein herself and Gionfriddo all decided to raise children on their own. Gionfroddo wonders if the normalization of "single-mother-by-choice" is a victory for feminism - or post-feminism - or post-post-feminism. She concludes it is not, and that the challenge that remains to be resolved is "How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better?" One of the characters in her own play says "My middle-aged observation is that, in a relationship between two equals, you can't both go first."

These two articles, from somewhat unlikely sections of the Times, help articulate what I believe is true of most "having it all" stories. The first lesson is that the lives of the blazingly successful do not actually provide many useful lessons for those of us who are simply trying to be reasonably successful. The women and men who end up in the top jobs have twice as much as most of the rest of us. Twice the brains, twice the energy, twice the drive. Mary Wells Lawrence says you have to double yourself, but I suspect she was well on the way to having double the capacity of many of her peers to start with. Then she worked at least twice as hard.

And the second conclusion is that while it is occasionally possible for two people in perfect concert to pass through the archways of life in a graceful, waltzing embrace, for most of us, someone will have to stand aside and say "No, no, after you. You go first, and I will be following right behind." Life is a lot simpler when everyone agrees who is the default parent, which one is usually going to get to make their client meeting, and which one is generally going to change their work commitments to take the toddler to the doctor, or to talk to the teenager's disgruntled teacher. It may change from year to year, but often it does not.

I tell these stories because I believe we need to hear about the giant success of headline-making women executives with children and understand what goes into those narratives. For the most part, they are people of great talent and energy, with large and complex (if not always visible) networks and structures of support. They may be wonderful mothers and partners, but they do not often step aside and say "After you - you are more important than my career." I believe they put their careers first, and figure out how to make the rest of it work after that. So we should not feel bad that we do not seem to be able to manage the same super-human feats. Most of us are regular mortals, doing our best with the resources we have, and frequently putting the interests of others before our careers. And that is not such a bad choice to make. Our families and our communities are all the better for it.

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One Step Forward, Two Steps .......

Jun 3, 2012 9:45 PM
Jane Thompson


Are things getting better for women? I sure would like to think so. Books and magazine articles are coming out in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. saying an increasing and surprising number of married women make, not just as much, but actually more than their husbands. The numbers range from 25% in the U.K., to 31% in Canada, all the way to just short of 40% in the U.S., according to author Liza Mundy. And when women earn more, these authors argue, they have more choices, more independence and their husbands do more of the chores at home. This is good, isn’t it?

With these happy figures dancing in my head, I went to a client meeting last week in Toronto’s financial district. I saw women driving subway trains and directing traffic. I rubbed shoulders with lots of women in well-tailored suits riding up and down elevators with their male colleagues. I dealt with intelligent women in my meeting. “Yes,” I thought, “things are looking good here on the equality front.”

With that happy idea in my head, I went along to my next appointment, lunch with a girlfriend. Not far from the bank towers, we met at a restaurant where the food was supposed to be good. The food was pretty good, and the restaurant had a great patio, but the real attraction for most customers, it turned out, was the great view of the flesh of the young, female, wait-staff.

The waitresses were all very attractive, between 20 and 24 years old, and half naked. They were all dressed in black, and while the clothes were not a uniform, the effect was identical. All the girls had bare legs, bare arms, bare shoulders and lots of cleavage. They all wore 4-inch heels. The young men working there were either bussing tables or serving drinks behind the bar. They were also dressed in black - long pants, long-sleeved shirts, flat shoes. There was no male flesh on display.

As I said, the food was pretty good, and the sunshine on the patio was pleasant. The service, if you were a middle-aged woman, was appallingly bad. The business model was crystal clear. The girls, and the management of the restaurant, were selling men the opportunity to ogle and chat up very attractive, scantily clad young women, younger than most of the clients by decades. The management sold a lot of liquor and some food. The girls got (I fervently hope) great tips. We got a few rays of sunshine, a decent salad, and a waitress too stupid to place our orders in the kitchen or to know how to divide a bill in half. Women customers were not really part of the plan.

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Gloria Steinem’s landmark article “I was a Playboy Bunny.” Steinem went undercover in Hugh Hefner’s New York City Playboy Club to investigate the club’s claims that Bunnies had glamorous jobs and made lots of money. The reality, of course, was terrible working conditions, constant sexual harassment, lousy pay, and the tortuous experience of working half naked in skin-tight costumes and high heels.

Almost fifty years have passed, and women have made huge gains in educational attainment, employment opportunities, reproductive freedom, and legal protection from discrimination. Hugh Hefner is an old, old man, and perhaps I should be worried about the proliferation of hard-core porn on the internet, not the persistence of this Playboy-esque business model in twenty-first century restaurants. But I was very sad to see these young women hustling for tips from leering business men.

I am a big believer in glorious sensuality and sexuality among consenting adults. I am not a believer in trading sex – real, promised, imagined or implied – for money. It is very rare in human history for that exchange to turn out well, in the long run, for the people doing the selling. I am also a big believer in young women working to be the equals of their male counterparts in education and employment. If they surpass them sometimes, that’s good too.

So my restaurant dollars will be going to establishments where there are men and women waiting on tables, men and women being served, and everybody gets to keep their pants on. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

(If you’re interested, you can read Gloria Steinem’s original article at:

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September 2011

Let’s get off the fence about finances: do you know what your credit rating is?

Sep 8, 2011 2:29 PM
Jane Thompson


There are a lot of jokes that start “A man walks into a bar…” This story, and it is no joke, starts “A woman walks into a store…” Lise, a friend of mine, recently received a rude shock. While paying for her purchase in a large department store, the clerk asked if she would like to apply for a store credit card, and save fifteen per cent on her purchase. Lise had heard this pitch before, but decided that fifteen per cent of today’s purchase added up to a worthwhile amount of money, so she said “Sure.” The clerk took down her particulars, typed them into the computer, stared at her screen for an uncomfortable length of time, and said “Uh, I’m sorry, your application has been declined. It’s probably just a computer glitch, but we won’t be able to do this for you today.”

Lise gave a mental shrug, as she had never really wanted a store credit card in any case, paid for her purchase, and went on her way. But as she drove home, a stray memory surfaced. This same thing had happened to her once before, about five years previously. She began to wonder if there was some problem with her credit history. She and her husband paid their bills on time. They had recently paid off their mortgage. She knew all this because she was the one who wrote the cheques from their joint account. She was a busy professional, with more freelance work than she could accept, a solvent, responsible taxpayer. What was going on?

She told me the story a few days later and asked me what I thought. By this time she was wondering, not if she had a bad credit rating, but if she had any credit rating at all. She had realized, she said, that while the credit card in her purse had her name on it, her husband was the primary card-holder. Where did this leave her?

Like all good storytellers, I am going to abandon my tale at this cliff-hanging moment of suspense. Our heroine Lise, never daunted, has now made an appointment to talk to her bank manager, and is putting in a request for her own credit report. A quick search of the internet has revealed that her status as an authorized user of the card…..just depends, mostly on the jurisdiction where you live. Sometimes authorized users can use the card but the card history has no effect on their credit rating. Sometimes it does affect their credit rating but they are not legally responsible for the debt. If they are what is called joint users, then they are equally responsible for paying off the debt, regardless of who made the purchase.

On many, many aspects of the subject of women and how they manage work and family commitments, I am a devoted fence sitter. Work part-time, work-full-time, stay at home, hire a nanny, find a day-care; I really believe that there are as many valid options as there are moms, and the important thing is to find the one that works for you and your family right now. Things will probably change next year, and that is okay too.

But as Oprah says, here is what I know for sure. I know for sure that you are always better off with one bank account of your own, no matter how small. You are always better off with a credit card of your own, no matter how low the limit. Use it and pay it off, on time, every month. Make sure you and your spouse each has a will, a power of attorney for health care and a power of attorney for financial and legal matters.

None of these things means that you are planning on leaving your husband. They do not mean you are planning to hide things from your husband. They do not mean you are scheming for his demise. They mean that each of you is a responsible grown-up, who may have to function without the other one at a moment’s notice. I know one woman whose husband died in a car accident when her twin babies were just weeks old. Two other women I know – two! – have husbands completely disabled by catastrophic strokes. They are not widows, but have entered a strange legal limbo. For all these women, legal and financial matters have eventually been straightened out, but the early weeks and months following tragedies like these are made much easier if you have your own money, your own credit and clear legal authority to act.  

Your own financial identity, including a credit card and a sound credit rating, is a crucial factor in building your resilience to the challenges that life may throw your way.  Suze Orman would tell you you also need a savings account with enough in it to cover several months of expenditures.  She is not wrong - I just think you should get a credit card first, then start saving.  Financial resilience is one more piece of the puzzle - along with the physical resilience that fitness and good eating habits give you, the emotional resilience that good friends and family give you , and the spiritual resilience that a clear sense of meaning gives you.  We need them all.

When I got married, I had been on my own for many years, as had my husband, so we each had our own financial identity, and it seemed natural to maintain those identities, while simply adding a joint account to the mix. As Lise pointed out to me, she and her husband met early and built their adult lives together, so everything was established in common. I just suggested to her that in the same way I added a joint account to my portfolio, she should add her own credit card to her portfolio. Not a big deal, but a wise strategy for financial resilience. And we all have things to learn. I am turning fifty in a few months, and, inspired by Lise, today is the first time I have ever checked my credit rating. Three weeks ago I bought my first car. I may become a grown-up yet. Zoom, zoom!

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November 2010

Life as a photo mosaic

Nov 4, 2010 1:24 PM
Jane Thompson

You know those pictures that are made up, like a mosaic, of thousands of tiny photographs? They are a popular device in television and magazine ads. If you are very close to one of these things, you can see the detail of each tiny image, but can’t make any sense of the whole picture. If you are very far away from it, the tiny images blur into the one another, and the big picture comes into focus.

Just lately, I have been thinking that this is a lot like the lives of working mothers. When my mother was raising her children, the public image of moms was not a mosaic. It was a slightly grainy, black and white still of June Cleaver on the television show Leave it to Beaver. She wore nice dresses all the time, and while she might get a little cross with Wally and the Beav, she was never really mad. And she was always there. Putting breakfast on the table, offering up snacks and advice after school or at bed-time. Never distracted by her Blackberry, that nice Mrs. Cleaver. My mother didn’t watch much television, but if she had, this image of mom would have been pretty reinforcing. My mother looked a lot like a brunette, trouser-wearing version of June Cleaver. But what about the working mom who cleaned our house? What about the divorced mother who lived across the street? The East Indian mother two blocks over? None of those women saw themselves in this television icon of motherhood.

In the fifties and sixties, the culture had a more unified image of motherhood than we do now. Very helpful if you fitted the mold, not at all helpful if you didn’t. These days, instead of one dominant image of motherhood, we have a mosaic. Popular culture is full of dozens, if not hundreds of images of how to be a mom. Stay at home and make your own organic baby food. Go back to work and jog on the weekends with your baby in a zillion dollar stroller. Join a co-op day-care centre. Refuse to leave your child with anyone who does not share your DNA. Hire a nanny. Hire two. Recycle the baby clothes into a handmade quilt. Blog about cracked nipples. Have a c-section. Video tape your home-birth. On and on it goes.

For many of us, this feels like a giant mosaic on the side of a building. We are standing with our noses inches away from it, and all we can see are the picture tiles right in front of our noses. If we catch sight of an image that looks a bit like us, a bit like the choices we have made, that makes us feel better. But often the pictures in front of our noses seem to say we have made the wrong choices. If we are staying home with our kids, the images we see on television are all of women who have gone back to work, who have some money to spend and who are continuing to build their careers – and we are seized with doubt. If, on the other hand, we have gone back to work, our magazines seem to be full of reports on the deleterious effects of day-care and pictures of moms making muffins with their children and exploring farmers markets with them, teaching them about local, organic food – and once again, we feel we have come up short.

It’s really important that we take a deep breath and back up a few steps. Or a lot of steps. If we think hard, we can imagine that we are standing far away from that huge photo mosaic on the wall. And slowly, or perhaps all at once, we see two things. First, we see that there are actually thousands of different images in that mosaic of twenty-first century motherhood. We are in there somewhere. So are our friends, our neighbours, our sisters – even that bitch down the street who seems to have it all together and is unforgiveably flawless and cheerful in the schoolyard at 8:15 with her four – four! – perfect children. And second, we see that taken together, all those tiny picture tiles do form a wonderful picture. It is a picture of what it is to be a mom in the twenty-first century. It is a picture made up of a whole lot of women doing their best, loving their kids, contributing their gifts to the world. It is a picture of a woman, holding the hand of her child on one side, and the tools of her trade, on the other. Your tool may be a surgeon’s scalpel, or it may be a soup spoon. But if you show up every day, loving your kids, bringing your gifts to the world and remaining true to your values, then you are doing the very best you can, and you should feel great about that – even if you don’t get your mascara on before the school run.

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February 2010

I Dwell in Possibility

Feb 22, 2010 6:46 PM
Jane Thompson

Emily Dickinson is one of my favourite poets, and her poem “I dwell in possibility” one of my favourite poems. Being a mom and having a career is not an easy row to hoe, but it is a path that is full of possibilities. Things change all the time, and, like the weather or a bad haircut, if you don’t like the way things are going right now, just wait five minutes.

Sometimes the choices that face us are tough ones. Our kids could use our presence at home right now; but if we hang in there at work, we might get a great assignment - or avoid the next round of lay-offs. Not an easy choice to make. But don’t mistake hard choices for no choices. Or the next choice for your last choice. Chances are pretty good that there will be more choices to make after this one.

And don’t feel that if the big choices are tough, that you have no room to wiggle. Small choices are good too. Is this the night to be conscientious and make dinner from scratch? Or is this the night to go with pizza and really enjoy it? Is this the Saturday night to spend with your partner, or with your girlfriends? Is this the day to throw on the sack dress that hides all lumps and bumps, or the day to put on your Spanx and that slightly more shapely skirt? Flats or heels? Any choice that buoys you up and carries you forward is an important one. These are the possibilities that add joy to our days. And if you have some joy in each and every day, you know what you have? A joy-filled life, that’s what. A pot of daffodils on your desk in February, a piece of dark chocolate, a Motown song on your Ipod – they are all the tiny building blocks that give us the resilience to face the bigger challenges when they come along.

Bigger than a pot of daffodils or a dose of Aretha Franklin are the people you choose to spend your time with. You only have a finite amount of time and energy, and what is left over after family and work is precious indeed. Are you going to spend it with friends who believe in great possibilities for you? Or people who only see the down-side of everything? People who celebrate your successes, or people who only want to hear about your failures? People who appreciate your support, or people who build themselves up by tearing you down? What feeds you and helps you handle the rest of your life with ease? I certainly prefer the folks that I look forward to seeing, enjoy while I am with, and feel energized when I leave them. Life is just too damned short for the other ones.

So – even though it is February, and it’s grey, and summer is far away, invest in a little joy. Read your kid an extra story. Give your partner an extra backrub – or ask for one. Buy yourself a trashy magazine or a classic work of literature. Think of the friend or sibling you treasure the most and call them up. Make a lunch date with your funniest friend. Dance in the living room. Sing in the shower. Dwell in possibility. You are doing the most important work in the world, you deserve joy, and you’re worth it.

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December 2009

Reclaiming Redundancy

Dec 7, 2009 5:49 PM
Jane Thompson

Somewhere along the line in recent years, the concept of redundancy has gotten a bad name. “Redundant” has come to mean “unnecessary” and hence “to be eliminated in the next thirty-five seconds.” Employees who are “made redundant” are fired.

This pursuit of efficiency in employment is very much in line with the “just-in-time” approach to inventory management. There are no parts stored in a warehouse. The parts are delivered to the factory just as they are needed on the assembly line. No money is lost having an investment in parts just sitting around gathering dust. On the other hand, there is absolutely no flexibility in a system with just-in-time inventory, or just-barely-enough-employees. A truck is delayed at the border and the assembly line has to shut down. A big order comes through and there are not enough employees to process it. A key person calls in sick and no one else can do the work. The other people with the same skills were redundant, so they were fired.

For a system to have flexibility and resilience – to be able to respond to challenge and change – you need some built-in redundancy. You need a little excess capacity, and more than one way to get the same thing done.

The lives of working mothers are very much the same way. Often it takes all of our time and energy just to get through our work day and then to do the bare minimum, however we define that, with our kids. We may be able to do that for short stretches of time, but if you are in that situation, I urge you to start thinking about creating a little redundancy in your system. What are your options if your child is too sick to go to daycare? You can take a day off work. Can your partner do the same thing? Have you talked to your partner about this? Can you trade days with relatives, neighbours or friends? The time to think this through and make arrangements is not at 6:30 in the morning on the day of an important presentation to a client.

If redundancy is under-rated, then I would argue that busy-ness is over-rated. When we fill up every moment of every day with commitments to our employer and to our children, there is no time left for us. No time to walk around the block, no time to read a novel, no time for coffee with a friend. We have all heard the oxygen-mask metaphor – if you faint from lack of oxygen, you won’t be able to help anyone, so put on your own mask first. We have all heard it because it contains a really important truth. I suppose there is the occasional mother who is so selfish that putting herself first would be bad and unnecessary advice. But really, the vast majority of mothers have to be coerced into doing less for their children and a little more for themselves. Sometimes our partners support us in doing more to take care of ourselves – but sometimes they don’t. After all, our free time often comes at the expense of their free time!

A little while ago I was having an attack of guilty conscience over some time I had spent curled up with a book, time not spent at my desk. As I thought about this, the image of a farm field came to me. And you know what? If you plant the same crop in a field year after year, the yield drops. Crop rotation helps, but sometimes a field just has to lie fallow. A field lying fallow looks as though nothing is happening. But in fact, earthworms are burrowing, organic material is decomposing and turning into nutrients, and the soil is returning to a productive state.

So go ahead, lie fallow for a bit. Do something for yourself – or do nothing at all. I know you could be doing laundry, but your teenage son can do it when he gets home from soccer practice. Working moms need time and space to regenerate. A little breathing room in your schedule is not inefficiency – it is just a necessary measure of redundancy that makes your life resilient – and ready to meet the next challenge.

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November 2009

Nothing Lasts Forever

Nov 22, 2009 9:31 PM
Jane Thompson

Nothing lasts forever – and that’s a good thing

Before I met my husband Craig, every time I went on a date there was a voice in my head asking “Is this the one? Is this the guy forever and ever? Is this the RIGHT guy?” It is amazingly difficult to be relaxed, act naturally and have a good time with that voice in your head. For one thing, it’s really hard to hear what your date is saying to you.

I wish I knew then what I know now. Quite recently, someone told me the solution to my old problem. This wise woman said to me “The question shouldn’t be "Is this the right guy?"  The question should be "Is this the guy for right now? " "

Brilliant, isn’t it? And so true. I think it is also true of the agonized choices we make about whether to go back to work after our maternity leaves, when to go back, full-time, part-time, licensed day-care, neighbour’s house, nanny. We think each and every decision has to be the RIGHT decision. Sometimes it’s just the decision for right now.

I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of the choices we make about our children and our careers. Every choice is important, and every choice will have consequences. But you know what? We don’t have to live with it forever. Make a choice and live with it for a while. If it doesn’t work out, you can try something else later. Lots of these choices, of course, affect other people, so we need to honour our commitments to our colleagues, childcare providers and other family members. But very few of those people are asking us to make a binding promise lasting for the next eighteen years. Twelve months is a very reasonable period of time to try something out. Reasonable for us, reasonable to those around us.

And don’t forget that children and careers are not static, either of them. You can research childcare options until the cows come home, interview dozens of candidates, find a situation which is available and affordable (miracles do happen) and settle right in. But you know what? The perfect childcare arrangement for your two-year old may very well not be perfect by the time they are four and are enrolled in junior kindergarten half-days. Or in the new and bizarre every-other-full-day-option some school boards are now adopting.

Similarly, you can negotiate with your employer for the perfect arrangement of flexible hours combined with working from home combined with job sharing and the very next day your manager will be fired, or there will be a re-organization or a merger or a mass layoff or you will be promoted or given an amazing new assignment and all your carefully laid plans will evaporate, faster than the steam coming off your morning coffee. And you will have to make a new plan.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should give up, not plan, not negotiate. All of those things are really important. Just try to maintain an attitude of flexibility and resilience while you are doing it. Careers evolve, children grow. Life changes all the time, and thank goodness for that. So by all means, have long term goals, and keep working towards them. But remember that the path from here to there is a winding one, and sometimes the detours are the best parts of the voyage!


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