The life of a mom isn’t what it used to be. Today, nearly half of all U.S. women are the primary breadwinner or are on par financially with their significant other, according to a 2014 “Marketing to Moms” survey conducted by global PR agency Ketchum and media network BlogHer.
On the surface, this is welcome news. However, the challenge is that many of the same women who are enjoying expanded leadership roles in today’s technology-driven, always-on work world are also juggling a second and equally taxing job as CEO of home and family.
Dana Brownlee, corporate trainer, nationally recognized speaker, and mother of two young children, set out to explore this pressure-filled balancing act in the Working Moms Work-Life Balance Report she launched in April 2015. Brownlee was eager to collect authentic perspectives from working mothers on their fears and struggles, as well as tips and advice for having it all and being their best selves. She aptly described the exercise as a “virtual group therapy session.”
Brownlee collected responses from 524 women over an approximate one-month timeframe. Nearly 79% of respondents were married moms, and approximately 83% were employed and working full-time. The ages of their children ran the gamut, with more than 40% reporting children 12 and under in their households. Approximately 27% had 13- to 18-year old children, and just over 14% were parents to children over18.
Survey questions inquired about the moms’ best time management tip for work or home; advice they wish they had received 10 years ago to effectively manage work and home; the changes they would make to their work situation, if they could; their spouse’s/partner’s understanding of their day-to-day struggles; the one wish they want granted if a genie materialized to make their work-life balance struggle easier; and the things and experiences that make them happiest.
For two-thirds of the moms who responded to Brownlee’s survey, work appeared to win in the work-life balance struggle. Forty-three percent felt they spent “probably too much” or “definitely too much” time at work and, conversely, 73% characterized the amount of time spent at home as “definitely not enough” or “probably not enough.”
Moms who were more intentional about how they chose to spend their time and those who were more willing to sacrifice and say no to lower-priority requests appeared to maintain greater sanity in the face of the work-life balancing act.
“The reality is that there is almost never a 50/50 balance,” Brownlee said. “One women I know uses the term ‘work-life harmony,’ which I think is more reflective of reality. And harmony looks different for different people. It’s about consciously choosing where you want to focus and how you want to prioritize, communicating the boundaries you have set, and being OK with the choices you have made.”
Dr. Mary Ahn, UMass Memorial Health Care psychiatrist, therapist, career development coach, and mother of two, sees this type of thoughtful approach to time management as critical to helping moms avoid burnout.
“It’s about more than just the time that moms are spending,” she noted. “It’s about ensuring that moms are investing their available time in activities that are meaningful to them and that align with their personal missions and values.”
Brownlee and Ahn offer myriad valuable tips and perspective for moms navigating the work-life balance struggle:
Streamline, streamline, streamline — less really can be more. Brownlee experienced her own time management metamorphosis, shifting her brain from trying to figure out how to run faster on the treadmill to picking the five activities or responsibilities that are most realistic and high-priority, and declining, delegating, or streamlining other requests. Doing less is freeing and rewarding to Brownlee, and she has even instilled this approach in her children. They currently focus on one extracurricular activity at one time — a true rarity in this age of overscheduled children.
Get family input — remove the guesswork and make everyone happier. One mother Brownlee polled schedules a biannual family meeting to prioritize where time will be spent. Her children are asked to share the top three activities they definitely want Mom to attend in the coming six months, and Mom commits to these activities by reserving the dates with a permanent marker in her personal calendar. Letting her children own these decisions helps this mom feel OK about missing certain events because she knows she is taking care of the highest-priority activities. Conversations of this nature can occur even more frequently to ensure an even greater understanding of how the family will operate.
Create clear boundaries in the workplace — and always “walk your talk.” If arriving home for family dinner each evening is of utmost importance, co-workers should know that you will leave at a certain time each day to manage family obligations (and perhaps log in hours later). Being vocal about the boundaries you’ve set and religious about abiding by them will increase the likelihood that colleagues will also respect them.
Request feedback — who doesn’t enjoy positive reinforcement? Ahn sees great value in women gathering frequent input on their performance from their professional managers to debunk the myths that many moms carry about underperformance in the workplace due to competing family pressures. In most cases, moms will learn they are doing more than a good job and are even outperforming peers. Similar input can also be requested at home (and hopefully partners and children will share equal praise).
Admit when you need help —moms are masters at hiding their struggles. Findings from Brownlee’s study call for greater communication between working moms and their spouses/partners, most notably about moms’ weighty to-do list. Brownlee witnessed the greatest frustration from women when asking a question about the support and understanding they receive from spouses/partners. Most noted a complete lack of awareness of the various puzzle pieces they manage each day and the exhaustion that accompanies it. Reinforcing this need for greater connection, women in the survey also listed their spouse as the person with whom they would like to spend more time (above “kids” and “self”), if given a choice.
The Lonely American by Drs. Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz suggests that today’s frenetic lifestyle has made it difficult to create the village of support for families that was common in past generations. But doing so isn’t impossible, as long as extended family, friends, and even local community members understand your needs and how best to support them.
Cut yourself slack — moms don’t have to be everything to everybody. Today’s moms and dads tend to want more significant interaction with their children, according to Ahn, perhaps to overcompensate for the latchkey parenting on which many in their generation were raised. She suggests “you need ‘just enough time’ with them, which differs based on your child’s needs. Being a perfect or almost-perfect parent (i.e., “helicopter parent”) isn’t healthy for kids — nor is mindless parenting, where parents are in the same room, but aren’t mindfully present with their children. It’s not about always cohabitating in the same space as your child, it’s about your child feeling like you will be there if they need help, support or reassurance.”
Remember that work-life balance struggles will ebb and flow — this, too, shall pass. Life challenges will shift as moms advance in their careers and as children move through various developmental stages. There is always a light flickering at the end of the current tunnel that moms are navigating, and that’s good news.
Equally good news is that 79% of the women Brownlee polled rated themselves as “somewhat successful” or “quite successful” at achieving some type of work/life balance (as they define it). Additionally, 83% of respondents characterized themselves as “fairly happy” or “ecstatic.” While they acknowledge the daily struggles of life as a working mom, the vast majority are pleased with the life path they have taken and truly enjoy their professional and home lives. Brownlee believes moms recognize that true work-life balance is a myth and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.
For access to Brownlee’s complete Working Moms Work-Life Balance Report and the candid perspectives of the moms she interviewed, visit professionalismmatters.com/work-life-balance-report.
Which Mom Are You?
Brownlee believes that moms assume one of four “flawed” time management approaches in their quest for work/life balance. Which one speaks to you?
The “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” Approach — This mom refuses to make trade-offs and seeks attention as a superhuman.
The “Rose Colored Glasses” Approach — This mom takes on too much and is often the most stressed and disappointed because she is shocked at her inability to complete her lengthy to-do list.
The “Yoga Master” Approach — This mom prioritizes obsessively, yet is at peace with all she is sacrificing.
The “White Flag” Approach — This mom oversimplifies, often giving up on areas of interest and frequently feeling that she is missing out.