As editor of Real Simple magazine and a mother of three, Kristin van Ogtrop barely had enough time to give to those two all-consuming tasks. So what did she do? Add a third all-consuming task: a book project. The fruit of that labor, Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom, is out now. She spoke with TIME (owned by Real Simple's parent company, Time Inc.) about managing working-mom guilt, why "reply all" e-mails are annoying and how she prioritizes time with her kids and husband over time spent alone.
What are some differences between how you were raised and how you are raising your kids?
Our schedule is crazier. I don't think that's just my family. I think that's the way parents raise kids today. Kids have a gazillion activities, and somehow it's O.K.
Is that better or worse?
I think it's worse. Kids have too many activities, but they don't want to give any of them up. Also, I think if you were to ask my kids, "Is your mom stressed out?," they would say yes at least part of the time. When I was growing up in the '70s, if someone had said, "Is your mom stressed out?," I would have said, "What does that mean?" We're more emotionally aware of things like stress now than we were when I was 10 years old.
As editor of Real Simple, I would imagine people perceive you as being very organized and put-together. Do you feel that way?
Oh my God, no! There are two types of people who read this magazine. There are those for whom this magazine is really affirming. They're already doing all the things we [write about]. Their closets are already organized. The other side of the readership is people for whom Real Simple is aspirational. You read these tips, and you look at the things that we publish and you think, It can be like that. I'm in that group.
You write about managing the guilt working moms feel. How do you keep a lid on that?
It's gotten a lot easier as my kids get older. For the first couple of years of motherhood, there was a part of me that felt like my working was an impediment to having healthy, happy children. As they get older and you start seeing the kids they go to school with some of them have real problems and have working moms, and some of them have real problems and stay-at-home moms. You begin to realize that it's not about whether the mother works. I read a study a couple of years ago that talked about kids' happiness, and it concluded that it's not whether the mom works; it's whether the mom's happy.
Why do you hate "reply all" e-mails so much?
I hate it because I get so many e-mails every day. I don't hate "reply all" when you're actually getting something done. It's "reply all" when the reply is a two-word "I agree!" It's a giant e-mail-cluttering tool that is helpful sometimes but is usually just really annoying. I have a deadline. At 5:30 p.m. a buzzer goes off, and I have to go home. Being a working mom has turned me into a humorless killjoy efficiency machine.
You mentioned that you won't stay at the magazine forever. What are your other ambitions?
I've never really had career plans. I just take opportunities, and either they work or they don't. And I haven't grown out of that. So I like what I'm doing now. It's a hard question to answer because when you like what you're doing, it's hard to imagine what the next thing is.
Do you have ever have a day to yourself?
To me, a day on a plane is a day to myself. Because I've got no one calling me, I've got no one e-mailing me, I have no one wanting a meeting with me. That is like a little vacation. This time when I've got kids at home is so short. All the stuff that drives me crazy I know I'm going to really miss in 15 years. And for that reason, I pretty much always choose to be with [my kids] when I can.
You've always talked about the tension of staying in touch with friends and not really wanting to be with friends because you're so busy being a mom. Have you figured that out yet?
I have not figured that one out. As a working mom, the thing that goes is a social life. That's a place I can give a little bit, and I do. When work is over, then I feel like I should be with the kids. Whether I really should or not, that's how I feel.
How are you able to be so honest in the book about what frustrates you about your daily life?
I think what I'm saying reflects the feelings of a lot of women. Readers can tell when you're being true to who you are and when you're not. One of my co-workers read the book and said, "Wow that's really revealing!" I guess it is, but everything I say in the book, it's all things I would say to just about anybody. I don't think there's anything dangerous about that.