November 2018

4 x 4: Self-Care and Parenthood with Divya Rao Heffley

Our “4 x 4” interview blog format aims to incorporate multiple perspectives on current topics in our field by inviting four thought leaders to answer four questions related to a chosen theme. This playful approach seeks to navigate pressing topics with the personal touch of a conversation. Our first theme features four approaches to “self-care.”

In this candid conversation held over email, MER board member Adrienne Lalli Hills chatted with Divya Rao Heffley about the challenges and joys that face working parents and caregivers, and how to best support your own well-being through intentional self-care.  Divya is Associate Director for the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh. An advocate of equity in the arts, she has worked with artists on a range of projects that address social justice and cultural equity in public, gallery, and online spaces. Divya has three energetic and incredible children, a PhD in architectural history, and an abiding passion for martial arts.

Adrienne Lalli Hills: When you and I met at conference last year, I recall chatting with you about some of the challenges working mothers face in the museum sector. What challenges have you faced and how did self-care play a factor into juggling an active career and children?

I remember one particularly challenging morning back when my son was a toddler. Everything from sweet-talking him into wearing weather-appropriate clothes to getting into his carseat without fighting me tooth and nail was an uphill battle. Leaving daycare that morning on my way to work, I felt utterly defeated. Another mother, recognizing the look on my face, said, “Sometimes, I feel like we need a standing ovation just for getting to our desks in the morning. I wish my coworkers only knew what I had to go through just to walk in the door every day.”

I have shared that quote with my immediate coworkers, which has allowed me to build a shared sense of understanding of who I am as a whole person. After all, whether or not we’re parents, we all have many other things going on in our lives outside of work. I’ve found that office culture is healthier and more productive when we’re able to see and respect each other as multifaceted individuals. Especially after mornings that require the tact, diplomacy, and patience of a United Nations ambassador just to get your two year old to put their shoes on. Care for yourself by sharing the challenges of motherhood with your coworkers, which coincidentally will also make it easier to appreciate the amazing opportunities and insights that come with raising a child (and make all the challenges worth it).

Adrienne: I’ve found that my pursuit of work-life balance can be a zero-sum game. I either worry that I’m spending too much time working away from my family, or I’m staving off feelings of guilt for hewing to “just” a 40-hour workweek (when I can). Things felt much simpler when all I was coming home to was an empty house! How do you handle work-life balance, all while squeezing in self-care?

Ultimately, I think self-care is mental. It can be as straightforward as acknowledging all the good things you’re already doing, and doing well. Are your kids happy, healthy, safe? Are you contributing to the wellbeing of your institution? Are you bringing your whole self to work, and your whole self home again?  Inasmuch as you can, get rid of the guilt. Fight the Catch-22 of feeling guilty at work that you’re not with your kids and feeling guilty at home that you’re not doing work. You are doing the toughest job there is –motherhood – and advancing your career at the same time. That’s no small potatoes.

I also try my best to resist “the evening desk vortex,” when you look up at 4:55pm and battle the inexplicable guilt you feel for leaving work on time. If motherhood has taught me one thing, it’s efficiency. I know that I only have from 9am to 5pm to get my work done, so I GET IT DONE. I don’t have the luxury of thinking that I can stay at my desk until 6 or 7pm because I have to pick up my kids or take them to after-school extracurriculars. Acknowledge that you got to your desk on time, put in a full day, and can therefore leave on time.

On those days there’s just too much work and you have to take it home with you, make sure you clearly delineate work from non-work time. In plain English: put your phone away, especially during what I call “the witching hours.” You know which hours I mean. Those hours between kid pickup and bedtime, filled with dinner, homework, bathtime, and other nightly routines. Your brain needs some downtime, and although taking care of kids isn’t technically downtime in any sense of the word, trying to get through witching hour while also checking emails for work is a fast route to a nervous breakdown. Switching up your tasks (i.e. turning your attention from an intractable exhibition timeline to an intractable toddler) presents your brain with different challenges and forces you to marshal different resources (I hope). You only have a few hours with your kids each night, and even though they may be filled with tantrums/sibling squabbling/tiny people trying to redefine what stubborn really means, you need your whole self present to deal with these challenges in the best way possible. On the flipside, being fully present will allow you to acknowledge and celebrate those evenings when everything (gasp!) does go smoothly.

Another thing I’ve found hard is learning to navigate requirements for evening and weekend work, usually art events. As any parent knows, finding childcare in a pinch is extremely difficult. Ideally, you have advance notice and can call in reinforcements. But even then, it can be difficult to leave your kids, and your partner certainly won’t appreciate being left without support on a recurring basis. Try to set boundaries that work for your family and work life, so that when you occasionally have to transgress them, it’s just that: occasional.

Adrienne: Negotiating the very different needs of your institution, your family, and yourself is such a massive task that can really tax your mental and emotional bandwidth! In all of this, how do you nurture your relationship with your partner and make space for their own self-care?

There is no way I’d be able to commit as much time as I do to my career without the infinite contributions of my life partner. To make it through this crazy journey of raising kids together, we need to find time just to be together. But this can become increasingly difficult as the years go by. Date night can be difficult logistically and economically, so we started going on monthly date lunches. If you work reasonably close to each other, try this: set aside one day a month when you eat lunch together. It’s the equivalent of a reset button. An hour when you don’t have to compete with your kids to have a grown-up conversation that lasts more than 5 minutes, and at a time of day when you’re not so exhausted that you can’t even think straight. It’s an evolving process. It’s working for us right now, so we’re rolling with it!

It’s also important to give your partner a chance to experience the same joy of self-care. This may mean you’re on deck for watching the kids one evening a week, but it’s worth it because you’ll both just be happier as humans.

Adrienne: It’s so refreshing to hear your authentic perspective on a topic that can be so laden with guilt and judgement! Any final thoughts on self-care for working parents?

Find one thing that is yours and that you own. One thing that relieves stress. Schedule it into your family’s calendar. Make it non-optional.  Maybe it’s 15 minutes of knitting every night before bed. Maybe it’s an hour of reading, or swimming, or hiking. For me, it’s karate classes. I found this became much easier to implement (let alone contemplate) when my kids were no longer infants.

My son was four when my twin daughters were born and it became increasingly difficult to find time for him while also working full time. After that first year of twin infancy (which is frankly a blur in my mind), my son and I started taking karate classes together. It was a great way to schedule in a workout as well as quality time with my firstborn. Now, my twins are in first grade and not only am I still doing karate with my son, but I’ve been able to set aside one evening a week when my husband watches the kids and I go to karate on my own. The endorphins from that class last a lot longer than one might think… no matter how I’m feeling when I step into that class, I always leave feeling centered, de-stressed, and ready to take on another week of work, motherhood, and life in general.

Lastly, I’d say that the most important thing I’ve learned from being a full-time mother and advocate for the arts is perspective. I’ve realized that any work crisis is surmountable as long as everyone is safe and healthy. I love my work and am incredibly passionate about what I do, but I also need to be raising happy, healthy children. I am convinced that this balance has made me a more efficient, effective, grounded, and well-rounded employee.

Thanks for your time, Divya, and for your candid assessment of the challenges that face working parents and caregivers!

Adrienne Lalli Hills is Manager, Exhibitions and Public Programs at ahha Tulsa, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Education Roundtable.