5 Smart Solutions for the Mom-Career Tug of War

How can working mothers ease the pressures of job and family life?

Posted Oct 24, 2012

According to the International Association of Working Mothers, over 70 percent of women with young children work outside the home. With the dual role of mother and employee comes the struggle to be all things to too many people. Many working mothers feel guilt and persistent stress. I asked Michelle Cove, author of I Love Mondays…and Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms, for insight into what women can do to gain control of their lives and feel better about the juxtaposition of working and raising children.

Q: Michelle, your title, I Love Mondays, is intriguing. What prompted it?

There’s a strong cultural message that we’re supposed to be stressed out on Mondays because it’s time to go back to work after a weekend off. But for many of us working moms, we look forward to returning to work—not because we want to escape our families, but because we enjoy using our brains, problem solving with other adults, having something of our own, and finding satisfaction in our accomplishments.

It’s just starting to become socially acceptable for mothers to admit when we like our jobs and prefer not to stay home with our children all day long. It’s still hard to admit this because much of society believes that moms are supposed to be there for our kids 24/7, and it is selfish of us to enjoy going to work.

Q: The complaints and concerns voiced while doing research with working mothers had to be many. What did you hear most frequently? 

There is no question that working-mother guilt is the hardest part of the juggle. It comes in two forms: guilt over not being there enough for their children due to being at work, and guilt for not doing enough at work because they were caring for their kids. So basically, the guilt is constant and often overwhelming because it leaves us perpetually second-guessing ourselves.

Q: You warn against apologizing. How do you avoid apologizing for recitals you can’t attend and similarly, for office meetings you will miss?

For many of us, apologizing becomes a habit or basic default setting. When our child is upset that we need to be at work—or our boss/staff is upset that we need to leave work to get our child—we just blurt out “I’m sorry!” and hope it eases the stress of the situation. But many times we have nothing to apologize for; it’s an empty apology.  

When we apologize, we send the message to everyone that we’re doing something wrong. Sometimes we do owe our kids or co-workers an apology (like if we break a promise), but typically we’re doing all we can for others. So I think we have to become more conscious about how often we apologize, ask ourselves if circumstances really call for it, and what message we send to others when we accept unwarranted blame.

Q: Do you think “work-life” balance is ever possible?

No. I say in the book that I hate the phrase because it gives off the impression that there is an achievable state of being where we spend the exact right amount of focus on family and career; life runs smoothly; and all we need to do is maintain the perfect plan we’ve created, for as long as possible. It’s preposterous and we shouldn’t be striving for that. Instead, we should recognize that some days will go easier than other days, and our priorities will often change week-to-week, sometimes day-to-day. That’s normal, so let’s do the best we can and be much gentler on ourselves!

Q: InI Love Mondays you offer many, many suggestions for working mothers to be gentler on themselves: from how to deal with their critics to ways to stay connected to their friends in spite of crazy schedules. What are five of the most helpful ways working mothers can become happier and calmer in the work-family life tug of war?

  1. Open up to other working moms when you’re feeling frustrated about the tug-of-war between career and family instead of tamping down the feelings and ignoring them.
  2. When you occasionally miss one of your child’s milestones, don’t beat up on yourself; remember that you were there for his/her entire journey towards the achievement.
  3. Start each morning by taking several deep breaths and thinking “calm” as you exhale, or thinking about what you are grateful for; it will help you start the day more centered.
  4. Also take a few minutes every day to note any body aches/pains resulting from stress so you can attend to the warning signs early, and the symptoms don’t get worse.
  5. When you’re feeling overwhelmed with obligations, figure out which ones you can delegate (through payment or barter) rather than trying to plough through like we so often do. 

Note: Last year, Michelle Cove wrote the guest post, “The “S” Word: "Selfish" is a special brand of finger-pointing.