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The Modern Balancing Act: can working mothers ever feel in balance?

For working moms, finding balance is hard -- but not impossible.

Erin* is almost forty years old, married, and the mother of two. She is also a successful professional. Like many women, after each child was born she was torn between her desire to be the best mom she could be for her children, and her wish to continue to progress in her professional life. She had to work to keep the family from drowning in the costs of bringing up first one, then two children; but she did not have to stay in the high pressure job she held before she went on maternity leave with her first baby.

"But," she said, "I have a very driven personality. I couldn't have stayed home all day as a full-time mom even if we could have afforded it. I would have driven my kids, my husband and myself crazy. I also knew that I couldn't realistically work from home, for pretty much the same reason. But with two little children whose lives I wanted to be part of, I couldn't see any way to continue on the same professional path I had been on when I was single and childless. I needed a job that would challenge me and keep me engaged mentally, but would also let me get to my kids' baseball games and school plays, and where I wouldn't be causing a crisis if I needed to stay home with a sick youngster."

Finding a job that met those requirements was not easy, to say the least. When her first maternity leave was over, Erin tried job sharing with another mother, but for various reasons, that did not work out. Although her qualifications were not in human resources, she was offered a temporary part-time position in that area because of her people management skills. She stayed in the position until her second child was born, but she did not want to go back to it. She wanted a job where she was engaged in the action, not helping other people figure out what they wanted to do.

Finally, feeling hopeless, she told her husband that she was going to bite the bullet and take a less responsible - and less interesting - position that her company had offered her when her second maternity leave was almost over. "I'll probably be bored to tears," she said, "but I'll be making money and I'll be able to be home with the kids when I need to."

He encouraged her to give it one more shot. "Your boss loves you," he said. "And he knows you really well - your strengths and your weaknesses. Go in and lay it all on the table. Ask him if he has any ideas for you."

Erin's boss did not have a magical solution. But he was actually surprisingly eager to help Erin try to find some kind of meaningful balance in her life. He told her that he had felt that as a father he needed to provide financially for his children, even if it meant not being able to spend time with them while they were growing up. He now believed that it had been the wrong decision. He thought that men and women needed to find ways to be with their families more; but he also believed that it was important to get fulfillment from their work. He also told her that she would always have to make compromises, and that she would have to make decisions about whether to compromise time with her children or her career. And that the decision would not be made once, but over and over again.

This idea, that we have to make decisions about what to do not once, but many times, is true for mothers who work and mothers who stay home full-time. It's true for fathers, as well. Actually, it's simply a fact of life for everyone, with or without children, working or not working. Finding balance is a daily activity.

Erin's boss gave her some other advice as well. "I might sound sexist for saying this," he said, "but I would discourage you from seeing working at home as a solution." He explained that most of the people - men and women - who he had known who turned to this solution ended up working more hours but getting less done. He thought it was far more effective to work concentrated time at the office; and then be free to be with her children when she actually was at home.

Erin was not sure that she wanted to follow that advice, nor even whether it was possible, since working from home one day a week seemed to be one of the best alternatives she had found. But she understood that finding balance while she was dealing with work and trying to attend to her children's needs was going to be difficult.

Like many women, she also tended to put her own needs - for exercise, companionship, relaxation, rest, and self-care - at the bottom of her list. But her boss's final advice helped her re-think even that. "Remember: you cannot do everything. No one can. The best managers I have ever known, from CEO's to office managers, are the ones who know how to delegate," he said. "Learn how to do that at home and at work, and you'll be a happy woman. The best bosses in the world know how to help their staff take over tasks that they are capable of doing or capable of learning how to do. A really good boss provides the support and encouragement that makes it possible for her staff to grow and develop skills - and ultimately to take over the work." Erin only had to think for a minute before realizing that was exactly what her boss had done for her. And now he was encouraging her to help her own support staff to develop those skills.

For Erin, the process of balancing actually got easier immediately after that conversation. She realized that she needed to put the same concept to work at home. She loved her children and wanted to spend time with them; but she did not have to be with them every minute of any day to be a good mother. I know this is controversial; but in my experience, even moms who are home full time do their children a favor when they have other people be part of their lives. In my un-scientific, general survey over a lifetime, it has always appeared to me that children who have been allowed to develop close relationships with people other than their mothers tend to have greater capacity to trust others and separate more successfully when the time comes than those whose mothers felt that it was never safe to leave them with anyone else.

Fortunately, other people have done actual research on this subject: check out my PT colleagues, Lissa Rankin and Wednesday Martin's posts on the subject;….

Erin began to give more responsibility to her babysitter and her husband. She forced herself to recognize that when they did something differently from the way she did, it was not wrong. She began to see that her children were actually benefiting from having more than one approach to rituals around thinks like bath-time, bedtime, and dressing. She was still worried about emergencies, and felt badly that, unlike some of her friends, she had no parents, in-laws or siblings who could be counted on if her babysitter couldn't come in or there was an emergency that she couldn't take care of. But one day as she and a friend were unsuccessfully trying to find a time to get together, they realized that their hours were exact mirrors of one another. When one was at work, the other was home with the kids. So they set up a system so that they were each available to the other in case of emergency.

With this support system in place, Erin accepted a job with slightly less responsibility - but not the one that she had feared would bore her to death. Within a short time, by focusing on her staff's strengths and abilities, she had built up a solid community in her office. Secure in the knowledge that they could handle the work that she delegated to them, knowing she was available for backup if needed, she began to work from home one day a week. It was not simple. But overall, Erin felt satisfied that she had found a good balance - at least for the moment.

Finding balance in our lives is never simple or easy. And, even harder to accept, no balance is permanent. Erin was lucky to have the support of her husband and her boss. Some of us struggle with less supportive home situations, including single parents with no partner to help out at all. Others of us have far less encouraging bosses. But the process of looking for balance is part of daily life. Even Erin's solution will have to be revisited - over and over again. In a healthy life, we look for balance, find it, lose it, look for and find it again, and lose it again. This, as I understand it, is the work of living.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy