Early Career

Five Balance Strategies to Help Working Moms

stock_businesswoman6My preschool parking lot, local coffee shop and home office have something in common these days: a blazing focus on work-life balance issues among working moms and working moms-to-be. As both a career counselor and a mom, I spend much of my day listening to professional women’s whispered confessions of guilt, intense debates and about their work-life choices.

Recent media coverage of these issues is stirring our emotions, leading many of the more than 24 million working moms in the U.S. to confront publicly what we have always known privately. From watching our mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues and from experiencing it ourselves, we know that it’s difficult — often impossible — to lead both full professional and personal lives while being a working mom.

After my first child was born, I discovered that I could deeply love her and still feel passionate about my work. But I was overwhelmed by how to fulfill both potentially all-consuming roles. By the time my son was born nearly two and one-half years later, I had already modified my work life twice — by downsizing my private practice and focusing on a new book.

Every year on my children’s birthdays, I reflect on how to transform my work-life balance in ways that will benefit my entire family. The possibilities change as our needs and interests evolve. This year, for example, I shifted my work hours from two hour segments spaced throughout the day to a cluster of hours; moved my home office from a corner of the family room to a small room that contains my kids’ art table and “gallery” wall; and outsourced some of my existing work so I can pursue new spin-off ventures. When, where and how I work have varied greatly over the years and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.

My balance concerns, though, remain the same: pursuing meaningful work while creating a nurturing family environment; meeting realistic expectations at work and at home; scheduling our days so that we feel relaxed as well as stimulated; and embracing spontaneous happenings — talking with my husband at odd hours in the hammock, dancing barefoot in the grass at dusk with my children, and making blueberry pancakes at midnight during a writing break.

Throughout my chaotic journey of self-discovery as a working mom, what has really helped is to discover that I’m not alone. The working moms I know share at least some of my challenges and pressures. We tell trial-and-error stories about managing our work and family lives. And we all wonder — at least once a day — if there’s a better way for us to design our lives. Does it get any easier as the years go by? No — and yes. No, because a working mom’s life is messy, both practically and emotionally. As each challenge passes, a new one replaces it. Yes, because being a working mom has given me the perspective and courage to risk reinventing my life repeatedly. I’m grateful for this adventure; its unexpected happenings have invited me to develop abilities that really matter to me, like prioritizing, connecting, envisioning, intuiting and catalyzing.

These skills and the five strategies that follow have enhanced my life as a working mom:

Remain flexible

There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution to the work-life balance problem. But there are lots of creative, piecemeal ones. Try making a wish list of family-friendly policies and programs, such as flexible work hours, telecommuting, job sharing and on-site or back-up childcare. Then research employers who meet your top criteria. Consider becoming your own boss. Imagine a multi-faceted career that would include different fields (such as counseling, teaching and writing) and different arrangements (such as long-term/short-term, full-time/part-time, paid/unpaid). Reinvent your career to complement your lifestyle.

Define “success”

Describe what success means to you as specifically as possible. Focus on what’s most important to you professionally and personally. Surround yourself with tangible reminders, such as inspirational photographs, quotes, keepsakes and music. You need to know what you want and how to recognize when you get it. Then you can map out how to become successful and celebrate when you meet your goal.

Minimize guilt

Face the guilt that you’re not giving enough to your family, your work or yourself. Don’t try to compensate by apologizing excessively or taking on more than your fair share of the next big work or home project. Prioritize your commitments to prevent overextending yourself and offer to help others when they need coverage. Nurture yourself by developing your gifts through reading about them, befriending others with similar interests, and devoting regular time to enjoying them.

Intuit solutions

Use your intuition and your intellect to work through your feelings and ideas about how to balance your life. Try posing options to yourself like: “One way to look at my situation is…, but another way to see it would be….” Or “It sounds like what I want is…, and at the same time I hear myself saying….” Once you’ve made a decision, don’t second-guess and over-analyze your choice.

Form alliances

Develop and maintain strong relationships with allies. Select only upbeat, trustworthy people who keep the challenges in perspective and are there when you need them. Show regular appreciation for members of your inner circle by thanking and supporting them when they need it.

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