Anyone who’s a fan of Real Simple magazine knows it’s full of helpful tips to make life for harried families more organized and easier. Having a third child at age 42 when you have an 8- and 11-year-old would hardly seem the way to accomplish that, but that’s exactly what Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple, did. It was something she and her husband had talked about for about for a decade before finally deciding to go for it.
Three children or not, van Ogtrop knows there are countless mothers just like her: “Women who want to succeed at work, and do what’s best for their children, and who — when those two goals seem to be most at odds — find a way to flip the advantage,” she writes in her just published book, “Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-insane Working Mom ” (Little Brown, April 2010), a humorous look at motherhood, work and the ever-illusive balancing act.
Before joining Real Simple in 2003, van Ogtrop, 45, worked at Vogue, Premiere, Travel & Leisure and Glamour — all positions she says she got serendipitously. She lives outside of New York City with her husband, a New York Times editor; their three boys, aged 14 1/2, 11 and 3; and a menagerie of pets. And, she happily admits, with chaos.
In a column you wrote for the Huffington Post, you wondered if the women in your office judge you as a mother as you used to judge women when you were younger. Why do women worry about what other women think?
We, men and women, worry about what people think of us. For women, it’s the most important job, and you want to think that you’re doing a good job. There have been so many shifting models of what it means to be a good mother over the years. The way to be a good mother in our culture, on the superficial level, is constantly changing. It’s really confusing for women.
How has being a mom challenged you, and in what ways has it made you become a better person?
It has challenged me in more ways than I can begin to discuss. It’s forced me to be more patient, which I am not. I think being a mother has made me be more empathetic, it’s made me realize how hard things can be. By experiencing life through the eyes of my children, it made be empathetic. It makes everything more exciting, even something as boring or tedious as driving a car. If you have a child approaching that age, you think, yeah, it is cool.
Were you ever a stay-at-home mom, and, if not, would you ever be one and why?
I never was, and it was mostly driven by economics. When my husband and I got married, he was getting a Ph.D. in English. Again, I was leaf floating down the steam. I kept getting jobs I liked. I think I would have been happy if I had not worked as soon as I started having kids. If I started today, I don’t know. It would take a tremendous adjustment for me. I know how to do this.
In your essay in the anthology “The Bitch in the House,” you bemoaned the fact that you’d never be able to share the surprise your kids feel when they find a cicada in the grass because stopping to marvel at it would mean that you’d miss your train. What do you feel you’ve sacrificed by working full time and what have you gained?
Aside from not being there all the time, I think I’ve sacrificed being an incredibly creative mother. I’ve never made a Halloween costume, and I have a friend who made a wonderful Halloween robot costume. I think I gained more confidence in myself as a human being. When I was growing up, I had a mom who didn’t work until I was in high school. When I look at my mom when I was growing up and my role models, there was the mom who worked and the mom who didn’t but maybe had a garden. You didn’t do both things at the same time. I always assumed I wouldn’t be able to do both.
Women always talk about work-life balance; how do you handle yours?
It’s an impossible question to answer. I don’t know what work-life means. I think I have a sort of compartment in my brain; one is work and one is life. The division between them is not porous. When I close my office door, I close off the work compartment. Because of the nature of my work, I’m able to keep them separate.
Real Simple offers tips on making life easier — what’s your best tip for moms, whether they’re in the workplace or stay home?
Don’t set the bar too high. You don’t have to meet anyone’s standards but your own. Perfection is not the goal.
How do you and your husband handle household chores and childcare?
We’ve been married 18 years and without any sort of planning or agreement, I tend to do the things I’m good at and he tends to do the things he’s good at. He does sports and finances, I do the traditional female stuff — food, medical care and contractors, things with the house. We both, over time, gravitated to where our strengths are.
What are the things you refuse to compromise when it comes to your family?
Change a vacation for work; I would never miss any concert or parent-teacher conference; the first day of kindergarten. I will miss the strep-throat culture, but I won’t miss the pediatrician’s annual check up. I do like my kids to feel like I’m always available to them.
When your boys grow up and look back on their childhood, what do you hope they’ll think of it and you as a mother?
That it was fun and happy. What do I hope? I hope they think that I always put them first, that I was someone who liked her job and was able to balance being a good mother and having a good career. What do I think? That I always put them first, that I was someone who liked her job. I think they’d say I was a really good mom, but they’d say I was too stressed out. When I’m really time-pressured, dumb things around the house drive me crazy while my kids say, “It’s just dirty laundry,” or “It’s just cat hair,” or “We can just have pizza tonight.”
Author Kristin van Ogtrop was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.