A frequent attendee of women’s conferences and other professional conferences, I’m always amazed at how often and quickly the work life balance question is asked. I’m convinced that the “solution” is the true Holy Grail professional moms seek—more than the meaning of life, secret to anti-aging and why bad things happen to good people (all great questions). Most working moms want the key to managing the never-ending juggling act of excelling at work; getting the kids into the best schools; making an organic, healthy, instant dinner; being there for school events; having an occasional date night with the spouse; getting the clothes folded; and making it to the gym (even inconsistently).
In my early 40s, my life took a sharp turn. At 35, I considered myself the black Carrie Bradshaw, but just a few short years later, someone (I guess me) had completely rewritten the script. Friday evenings hanging out with girlfriends after my flight arrived home from my client location were replaced by long days at home racing to respond to client emails in my bathrobe while the baby was napping and desperately listening for the sound of the garage opening to signal my husband coming home at the end of the day (relief!!). While I chose to be married with kids and to continue to run the corporate training business I’d started in 2003, I felt like someone had played a horribly cruel joke on me—not explaining that I’d signed up for the impossible. Once I had my second child at age 41, I became intrigued (for self-preservation, if nothing else) with figuring out how other moms were doing it.
So I sent out a simple survey, first just to friends and colleagues, to gather real feedback and advice from real moms trying to have it all and be their best in the process. Clearly, I’m not a well-funded institute or foundation, and I wasn’t really interested in conducting a “scientific study” with paid focus groups. Instead, I wanted authentic feedback about the fears and struggles, but more importantly real tips and advice to share with others. My goal was to get 100 responses, a stretch, but it seems like a decent response rate, right? Imagine my surprise a month later when I closed the survey with 524 responses from working moms around the country! Many moms told me the survey was somewhat cathartic for them—it always feels better to vent. Many were also interested in a compilation of the results (download the summary at professionalismmatters.com).
I’m so grateful to the hundreds of women willing to share their intimate and vulnerable thoughts and confessions about such an important part of their lives. I specifically focused on working moms (though I know working dads and stay-at-home moms/dads have their own difficulties and struggles, and not to minimize that), because I needed to talk to “my peeps,” those moms in the trenches trying to daily shift from carpool mom to CEO in the blink of an eye.
The results confirmed my suspicions that Superwoman does not exist! Although respondents shared varying opinions on certain topics, there was unanimous agreement that working full-time outside the home while being a mom is hard, really hard. Two-thirds of respondents indicated that work seems to win in the work life balance struggle. Similarly, when asked to characterize the amount of time spent at work, 43 percent selected “probably too much” or “definitely too much,” while 73 percent characterized their amount of time spent at home as “definitely not enough” or “probably not enough.” This data seems to succinctly summarize the internal strain, stress, and guilt many working moms seem to feel about where to put their energy vs. where they typically do.
The survey feedback also provided a tremendous sense of comfort just hearing other women echo words I’ve said to myself hundreds of times while wondering in the back of my mind, Why am I complaining about something women have done with ease for decades?
Finally, it was great to hear working moms share real tips and suggestions about what works best for them. As a corporate trainer, I have a bias towards practicality so I truly appreciate the hundreds of specific tips and words of wisdom. Here are just a few:
- Don’t open email first thing in the morning. Attack your to do list first.
- I assigned each of our five kids their own color plate and laundry hamper. After each meal they wash that plate and when their hamper is full they start their laundry, and there’s never a question about whose plate or clothes are left out.
- Outsource what you can, except for raising your children.
- Lock cell phone away in home office for two hours at night to allow dedicated family time and focus on my daughter.
- Have a weekly family meeting to go over schedule and give kids a chance to voice whatever is on their mind.
- Don’t clean your house.
One respondent suggested that the phrase “work life balance” should be replaced with “work life harmony” because balance is only an illusion—as fictional a concept as Superwoman. To me, harmony is the acknowledgement that there may never be 50/50 balance; instead the goal is to shift priorities as needed to fit the needs at that time. It reminds me of a circus performer balancing a spinning plate: The plate is never be perfectly horizontal but instead tilts continuously from one side to the other, and the performer deftly moves the stick left and right to continuously shift the plate to keep it in the air. Similarly, one respondent said when asked, “What do you wish someone had told you 10 years ago about managing work and home?”
“It’s impossible and you will always feel like a loser. Or, as someone more eloquently said, “In work life balance there will always be a winner and a loser. Just know which you are choosing at the moment.”
I actually think that we moms are “winning” much more than we might realize—we just need to change the rules of the game to reflect the true score.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA and can be reached at email@example.com.