Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

When Emily Elliott’s oldest child Charlie was ready for kindergarten, she followed him to school, literally, taking a job as a fifth-grade teacher at his campus, St. Edward-Epiphany Catholic School.  “It was as close to homeschool as you can get without going insane,” she jokes.

Taking the job was a way for Elliott to earn needed income and be close to her children. Today, she’s the school’s principal, and still treasures the connection with her kids. I talked with her about leadership and the trade-offs she’s made to do her best as a full-time mother and full-time educator.

As individuals, we have personal and professional aspirations for ourselves. When we have children, we have these new beings we’re responsible for. That changes everything, starting with the amount of time we have. In what ways can being a mother help motivate us to pursue our personal goals?

When I had my first child, Charlie, it truly shaped my perspective in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Once I had him, I had to completely change the way I thought about myself. I couldn’t be a perfectionist anymore. I had to be more efficient with my time and be careful not to spread myself too thin. You have somebody that you’re responsible for. You have to be healthy.

Mom needs to be healthy to have a healthy child. Balance is everything. It’s still a struggle. I’m not saying I have the answers for that, but [having a child] helped me to figure out what was really important and to do something with purpose behind it.

In my situation, I need to have a job. I couldn’t do [this job] if my children weren’t here [in the school where she works]. There’s no way. It helps you prioritize, simplify, and to realize that the most important thing is your family. You have to keep that in mind.

Talk a bit about your partnership with your husband and how he’s supported your career choices.

Brad says, “Emily, you’re going to do it anyway, so why don’t I just support you from the beginning?” He knows I go over things in my head, but I usually end up going with my gut. He knows me better than I know myself.

His response [to the job opportunity] was, “You never know. Just give it a try.” He’s so much more relaxed than I am. He just goes with the flow.

He loves that our children are here [at this school] so much and that drives him to be supportive of the nature of the job. He bought into this place and the fact that our children are with their mom. He believes that’s important. If I can’t be at home, at least I can be with them at school.

There are a lot of books and articles touting the importance of women assuming leadership positions. To have more women leading organizations, we need more men taking a leadership role at home and doing more parenting and household work.

I know a 50/50 split isn’t possible anywhere, but do you think it’s important to try to pursue that equality with parenting and household things?

At first I thought that I could do it all. That was the mindset. In the era that I grew up in, I think our moms wanted more for us than they had for themselves. I always heard from my mom, “Make sure you get what you want. Get your degree.”

I always heard that women’s liberation type of motto from my mom. My mom was 21 in 1969. She was on the cusp. She only got a two-year associate’s degree, but she always wanted me to have more equality when it came to work choices and life choices.

On the other hand, I also have that model of a mom who stayed at home. She worked sometimes. She made dinner every night. Even though I didn’t realize how much work she did, she did it anyway. I tried to fulfill both of those things for a long time.

About a year into this position, I had to have the conversation with Brad. I had to say, “I can’t manage both. I need you to do more. You feel like you’re at capacity and I feel like I’m at capacity. What do we do?”

We had to sit down and be completely open. It was hard, because I had to say, “I can’t do it.” That’s really hard for me to say.

After a lot of dialogue, we decided to finally get a housekeeper a month ago because we both realized we can’t do it all.

I guess you could say that my job is more involved. I hate to use the word the “breadwinner,” but I make more income than him. We have that balance, but he also doesn’t want to feel that he’s not in the father role.

There’s a lot of open and honest dialogue about how it makes us feel, which we’re working through constantly. He does a lot. We also make sure we appreciate what the other is doing.

You’ve set a new direction and vision for the school. As the leader, how do you go about figuring out what the school’s values and vision should be or can be?

One of the first things I did is what I called a listening or sitting tour. The first year, I really let things sink in.

Walking around and recognizing what’s good and telling people over and over again what makes you impressed with them is how you start to channel that positive influence. With new leadership, you can’t really design by committee. You have to walk in and say, “This is going to happen.”

That has been hard for me because I’m a people pleaser. I want everybody to be happy. When you go in and shake things up and things have been the same for so many years, people are going to take it in different ways.

I got a book about helping people in times of change, understanding where their perspective is and not just saying, “They have to get over it. It’s just going to be a learning curve.” I really try to understand where they’re coming from.

When somebody walks through my door angry, my job is to make them walk out of the door content or at least not angry anymore. It’s listening to what children and parents need. There’s an art to it. It’s not just a science. You kind of have to go with your gut.

Talk a little bit about relationships among women in the workplace and good ways to support one another.

That’s a really interesting question, because I went from being a peer to a lot of women to their principal. When you go from a peer to more of a boss, your relationship has to change.

It can also stay the same in that you care about the person. You want to find their gifts. You want to listen to them. You also want to keep them accountable.

Even if you have to keep somebody accountable for something, it doesn’t mean you can’t like them as a person. You need to have that mutual respect.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important to mention about your growth as a leader?

People always tell me. “I don’t know how you do it.” When they say that, my first instinct is, “I don’t know how anybody does it.” I think we women have an image of the way other women’s’ lives are. We think they have it easier or harder, or they have more or they have less. Living in that place isn’t healthy for anybody.

I don’t know how anybody does it, all my teachers and anybody that works even part time. No matter what you do, you fill your time with things to do. I don’t do it very well. I do it just like everybody else. I have late nights, and I have to walk over laundry and leave dishes at the counter because I can’t take any more. I have to pay my bills and do all the things everybody else does.

I think it’s important for people to know that everybody has a tough time with full-time motherhood and full-time job. I think it’s hard for all of us.

The other thing I try to pass on to women is to try not to judge people too much. Whether they have their kid out at 9:00 or they don’t have socks on their kid’s feet, those comments to other women are harsh. You have no idea what their circumstance is. I try to pass that knowledge on every time. Don’t assume you know what other people are going through.

In order to provide for your family, be the kind of mom you want, and also support your school and be the kind of principal you want, there must have been things you gave up just to have the hours in the day.

You mentioned getting a housekeeper. What other time-consuming things did you have to give up?

There was putting my kids’ scrapbooks together. I used to do a montage of my family’s year video. I do like those things. I enjoy them.

This is a funny story. Over Christmas break, I was sitting in my in-laws’ closet in California wrapping presents on Christmas Eve for hours. I was so happy to be alone. I told Brad, “This is weird.” I was so happy to be in that closet. I had a glass of wine. I had music on my phone. I can’t believe this is what I’ve resorted to.

I didn’t realize how important alone time was, because I’m a people person. I savor driving home alone in my car. I don’t have any down time. To nurture my soul, whether it be sitting and making a scrapbook by myself late at night, just being in my own mind, out taking pictures, or having any kind of moment to myself, I miss that.

I still don’t make that time for myself as much as I should, but I’m listening to my gut that’s saying, “You need to take care of yourself. You need to still jog. You need to walk. You need to be alone,” but it’s hard to find the time.

Did you consciously make a decision to give up some things, or did you just hit the wall?

I hit the wall. I don’t think I consciously made the decision to give it up. It just doesn’t happen. You have the expectation that you can do it all, and then reality sets in. You think, “I can’t.” You just let it go. That’s hard for me too, because I want to do it all.