Balancing a toddler and a bottle in one arm and the coffee you’ve barely had a chance to sip in the other, with a diaper bag and briefcase slung over your shoulder, you twist your body to maneuver out the front door. And those are only the first few minutes of what working mothers face every day.
Ask Carol Evans, the CEO and president of Working Mother magazine, and you’ll hear that working motherhood is often misunderstood and unfairly bashed. Her anger over the negativity she’s encountered resulted in her recent book This is How We Do It: The Working Mothers’ Manifesto. The book includes accounts from Evans and other women as well as the results of Evans’ “What Moms Want” survey of 500 working mothers nationwide, which reveals that nearly 80 percent of working mothers say they feel fulfilled.
“Twenty-six million mothers in the United States today work full- or part-time,” says Evans. “We raise strong and happy kids, fuel the economy, earn money to keep our families safe and secure, and accomplish numerous important tasks in a day at work. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of challenges and stress—there are—but moms are not giving up their personal joys, professional ambitions, or emotional well-being in the pursuit of work/life balance.”
So what’s the secret? “We do it with old-fashioned elbow grease, with humor, with sleepless nights,” Evans writes. “We do it with the help of family and friends who pitch in, with great babysitters and caregivers, with husbands who learn how to support us (or not!).” She adds that working women cram more into the day than “should be humanly possible.” “We do it by finding confidence in our own choices. And, increasingly, we do it with the support of our workplaces,” she writes.
Like the majority of women in the “What Moms Want” survey, the women interviewed for this article report that in addition to working outside the home for financial reasons, they receive great satisfaction from their careers, which ultimately plays a role in helping them achieve the balance they seek in all facets of their lives.
1. A Will to Work
“I’m happier working than if I wasn’t working. I’m actually a better mom and a better wife, and probably a better employee,” says Mary Stewart Lewis of Chattanooga, Tennessee, from her cell phone as she and her three-year-old son drive home from a baseball game outing with clients. This Bell South corporate saleswoman says work nourishes her self-esteem.
Baltimore, Maryland, environmental planner and landscape architect Allysha Lorber grew up with a mother and grandmother who worked. “Just the fact that they had that extra something they could teach their kids about and that I can teach my daughter about, it makes me feel good,” says Lorber, who was promoted to senior management just before her now seven-month-old’s birth.
Samantha Cabot, who lives in Los Angeles, California, is a senior marketing manager for the staffing firm Robert Half International. She takes pride in her work and in raising her two young daughters. “I really enjoy working, and I think I have a lot to teach my children about how the world works through working,” she says.
Lorber recalls someone once saying it’s not fair to your children to be a working mom. She counters, “I don’t think it’s fair to [you] to sell yourself short if it is something you want to do, because it’s not that hard once you get a system down.”
2. Seek Balance
“Some people think you have to be the complete extreme and be the supermom and be able to do everything,” says Cabot, who believes she and her husband have found balance. “I think as long as you’re happy, your children are happy, your family is happy, and you’re doing the best you can—I think that’s balance.”
“You don’t really find balance,” says Evans. “You have to continually seek it. It’s in the seeking that you actually have some balance in your life. It’s like a butterfly. It never really lands on your shoulder, but you can appreciate it as it’s flying around.”
3. Set Priorities
Cabot, Lewis, and Lorber focus on setting priorities—especially when it comes to time with family. Home life revolves around high-quality family time.
Lewis, who refuses to take work-related frustration home, says, “Just because a customer is mad at you, that should not make or break your day. My son is the highlight of my day.”
For Lorber, prioritizing also means letting a little dust gather in her home. “So part of the juggling act is letting some less important responsibilities go,” she explains. She also tries not to stay late at work in order to preserve family time.
4. Allow for Fusion
Evans suggests sometimes trying to fuse the worlds of work and family. Attending a daytime school play, telecommuting, working flextime, or asking your employer to offer family-friendly environments such as pumping rooms are good ways to combine work and family. Evans says for many moms, this fusion helps create balance.
If Lewis’s son is sick or she plans to attend a field trip with him, she arms herself with her BlackBerry and puts in her work time after he goes to bed.
Lorber asked for and received a nontraditional work schedule. She spends four weekdays at the office and Fridays with her daughter. On work days, if she has a meeting near her daughter’s daycare center, she’ll take a break with her.
5. A Team Approach
Finding caregivers you trust and committing to a team approach with your partner is key. “If I didn’t have him, I probably would fall apart,” reports Cabot of her husband. “He cooks, he picks up, he’ll get [the kids] from school. I think that it’s really wrong especially in this day and age … that fathers aren’t applauded more.” She also admires any single mother doing it alone.
Lorber’s husband usually makes dinner, and she handles bath and story time. Lewis, too, feels fortunate to be in a true partnership. She offers this key bit of advice: “Sit down and communicate with your partner and find out what’s important to him and what’s important to you.”
6. Me Time
The “What Moms Want” survey found 31 percent of moms exercise at least three times a week and 98 percent have a hobby. “The people that I think are the most harried are the ones that never take time for themselves,” says Lewis, who just returned from a weekend out with girlfriends.
Cabot recalls someone who once said she gets her “me time” during her commute. She encourages moms to take the time to re-energize. She suggests making time for walks alone or with friends, pampering yourself with a bath, shopping for something just for you (not groceries or items for other family members), taking a nap, and setting up dates with friends.
7. For Future Working Moms
Evans advises pregnant women who plan to continue working to maximize maternity leave, gradually phase back, and ask for adjustments if needed. According to her survey, 69 percent of working women asked for a change and 74 percent received it. Evans also encourages fathers to take a paternity leave.
Will we still talk about this balancing act in 20 years? Evans believes we will. When she purchased Working Mother magazine in 2001, it had already been around for 22 years. She was floored to be invited to participate in a debate over whether mothers should work. “In the scope of time, this is still a very new phenomenon,” she says. “It will take several generations before it becomes a natural thing.”