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Hello From the Other Side. Reflections (and Advice) on Being a Working Mom


I’ve recently become an empty nester, which really rocked my world. I had my first child at 24, so being a mother has been intrinsically tied to my adult sense of self, my marriage, and my career.

The public debate rages on about motherhood vs. career. About “leaning in” vs. staying home. Studies question whether you really can have it all and whether “balance” is possible. Those studies are never helpful. I think what was always most useful to me was talking to people who had been through it. To that end, here’s my take from 25 years of being a working mom (with a little help from my friends.)

You can have it all, but probably not at the same time.

For working moms, balance doesn’t look like the “scales of justice”. It works more like a seesaw. You go back and forth between the two competing forces. On average, the forces are balanced, but they’re sequential, not concurrent.

You’ll go through periods where work is taking too much attention, you’re traveling or you’re working late. That’s OK. You just balance it later. Being an effective working mom means continually making choices about where to focus your time and attention. You can’t always choose career and you can’t always choose family. If you tend toward being a perfectionist, then being an effective working mom often means that you’re never happy with your performance in either space. There’s always more that you can do. Get used to that feeling and give yourself a break. Look at your performance in totality (as a working mother), not isolation (as a worker and a mother). Also, remember that this race is a marathon, not a sprint. We all have bad periods, but there’s plenty of time to make up for them.

Set clear priorities and set boundaries.

I always knew that I needed daily one-on-one time with my kids. I did make sacrifices in my career because of that. There were job offers that I didn’t take because they would require relocation or more travel or would have less flexibility.

There are trade-offs, but know where to hold firm when it comes to working hours. Smartphones have now enabled us to work from anywhere. But don’t! When you’re with the kids, be with the kids. Don’t let them wonder where your attention lies.

If you can, try to find a job with flexibility. It can be much more important than salary or title.

When your kids are babies, you have this impression that work/life balance will be much easier when they get older. I’m sorry to say that it actually gets much harder. Starting with school field trips and performances, continuing with after school activities and concluding with high school sports, there is always something on the calendar during work hours. And these things are important to your children.

Never compare yourself to anyone else.

Just as it serves no purpose to compare your marriage to other marriages, it does nothing positive to compare your parenting experience to another’s. No one ever knows what’s really going on inside another family.

When I went back for my 20 year college reunion, I realized that I was the only one of my friends who had kids and who was still working. These were 15 or so of the smartest women I knew, all of whom had graduate degrees and had been in the midst of impressive careers. My immediate reaction was to be jealous. They were able to stop working and still have fabulous lifestyles. That kind of comparison isn’t helpful. Everyone’s job, kids, financials and partner are different. Different inputs require a different equation.

Make friends with the non-working moms of your kids’ friends.

This way you’re never out of the mom gossip loop. You’ll always know what’s going on behind the scenes at school and what your kid isn’t telling you. That’s more important than you might think and you need those powerful allies.

Also, if you have any time at all, try to get involved at your kids’ school. There are plenty of volunteer jobs that can be done over weekends.

Believe it or not, your kids will notice the effort.

Ask your kids what they think.

I went through a whole period when I was beating myself up over working. I felt like I was letting my kids down, so I sat them down and talked to them. I told them I was thinking about quitting to be a stay at home mom. They were shocked (and not necessarily supportive of the idea). They immediately put together the fact that if I quit, their lives would change. They might not be able to stay at their same school. They loved their school, they loved their friends and they loved the lives that they had. They weren’t pining for some other experience. That conversation really helped assuage my guilt and helped me be more effective (and less distracted) at work.

Take care of your marriage.

Don’t neglect your partner in favor of the kids. You have to find time for both. Ideally, he (or she) will be around long after the kids have flown the nest. It’s much easier to keep a relationship strong than to try and rekindle one that has weakened.

I see many women who inadvertently shut their partners out of many of the parenting roles because “he doesn’t do it as well.” Don’t do that. That may mean relaxing your standards for a little girl’s ponytails or sending her to school in clothes that are a bit wrinkly. But in the end your partnership is much more important than what the laundry looks like.

Don’t be afraid to delegate some of the traditional “mom” role.

Put together a team at home the same way you craft one for the office. Figure out what part of the job description really has to be done by you and outsource what you can. Between your partner, your kids, your extended family and hired resources, assign everyone a role and be the team leader.

You don’t have to always be the one dropping the kids off at gymnastics. Or cleaning the toilets. Or baking for the school Valentine’s day party.It’s much better if you’re the one there to help with homework or go to the park on Saturday or read bedtime stories. Make sure you have time for more than just a transactional relationship with your kids.

Follow your heart and your intuition and your family will thrive. Just don’t forget to take care of yourself. You’ve heard it before, but it’s vitally important that you are healthy and happy. If your tank is empty, you can’t power the rest of the family.

Julie Wood