The Working Mom Balancing Act
11 steps to finding work-family balance in your crazy-busy world.
By Madonna Behen
Mention "work-family balance" to a roomful of working women who have children, and the response you'll probably get is semi-hysterical laughter...followed by tired sighs. It's no small feat to carve out a life that balances all of your many needs and responsibilities yet doesn't make you feel like you've turned into a mouse endlessly running on a wheel. Here, 11 strategies that can help you get there.
1. Schedule Daily Me-Time
It's familiar advice, to be sure. But setting aside time on a daily basis that's just for you—even if it's only half an hour—is one of the best things you can do to feel more balance and fulfilled as well as less resentful of all the sacrifices you have to make. "You really have to make it a set part of your schedule and let everyone in the family know that it's important," says Eve Tahmincioglu, a Philadelphia-based career columnist and blogger (Careerdiva.net) and author of From the Sandbox to the Corner Office. If 30 minutes still seems impossible, break up your time into mini-breaks. Even closing your office door and taking 10 minutes to meditate or taking a quick walk around the block will do wonders.
2. Don't Be List-Less
When it comes to keeping on top of things, lists are essential, many Motherboard Moms told us. "I write down all of the things that need to get done over the next few days," says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and mother of three in St. Petersburg, Florida. "It's usually a combination of kids things (strawberries for preschool snack on Tuesday), personal (call dentist for appointment), and business (e-mail Susie to schedule a meeting)."
Alice Garbarini Hurley, a freelance writer in Montclair, New Jersey, uses a notepad divided into three sections: Home, Work, Play. "I work better when I can have a list that balances fun and work and socializing," she says.
But don't make your to-do list so detailed and unreasonable that it's not doable, says Motherboard spokesmom Maureen Petrosky. "I find lots of moms are sunk before they even get started for the day by placing too many demands on themselves," she says. "Stay focused and prioritize. I always say at the end of the day, if we got nothing else done besides keeping everyone alive, it was a great day!"
3. Share the Chores
Chores are not just women's work—they're everyone's work! Putting your kids on a schedule of daily chores won't just lighten your load, it will also teach them a valuable lesson about the importance of everyone doing their part. "My kids are 11 and 8 and they know they're responsible for tasks such as making their beds in the morning, and watering the plants," says Tahmincioglu.
Another Motherboard Mom, Jennifer Toth, puts her whole family to work on schedule, including her 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter: "We have four major jobs that we rotate among the four of us (husband included) each week," Toth says. "Emptying all trash cans throughout the house (the kitchen garbage gets emptied more often); vacuuming and Swiffering all floors; cleaning the bathrooms; and folding laundry. All jobs must be done by Saturday night and then we change the person in charge on Monday. No one complains because we all share the responsibility equally." The end result: The work gets done and Toth has a few more minutes to carve out for herself.
4. Reconnect with Your Spouse
"We" time is just as important as "me" time. Weekly "date nights" are a great idea, but if you can't find the time—and the babysitters—to regularly make that happen, there are other ways, says Tahmincioglu. "After the kids go to sleep is a good time to spend some quality time together," she says. It doesn't really matter what you do but that you do it together in a focused way so that you're really paying attention to each other.
5. Make Technology Work for You
"We hear so much these days about how technology is hurting our kids, but if you're a working parent, technology can be so helpful," says Tahmincioglu. "For instance, it enables you to be at your kid's basketball game and still be able to check for important e-mails from your boss on your iPhone." Although you'd probably prefer to live in the moment and just do one thing at a time, if high-tech multitasking means you don't have to miss an event and disappoint a child, it's all good.
6. Form a Support Network
Connect with other parents in your neighborhood or children's school so you can help each other out. "If a friend offers to pick up one of the kids and it's one less trip I have to make, then yippee!" says Kim Lytle, a massage therapist and mother of three in Saratoga Springs, New York. "And I'll feel good about reciprocating and giving that family a break." Not only is the help great, but knowing that you're not alone in your crazy-busy life can be a real mood-booster, experts say.
7. Do Less
Simplify family life by consciously scaling back on outside activities and commitments. If your child gets invited to two birthday parties in the same weekend, pick one to attend instead of both. Two extracurricular activities are more than enough for most kids. And don't overschedule yourself either. For instance, you don't have to volunteer for every single classroom thing that comes along, says career expert Tahmincioglu: "At the beginning of the school year, find out what school field trips are being planned and then choose maybe two that you'll chaperone," she says. Keep a family calendar to figure out how really over-committed you are, then scale back.
8. Get Physical
"Daily exercise makes me tick. If I don't walk, run, skate, or swim, I am a mess and I am cranky," says registered dietitian Sarah Krieger. Krysta Davis, a mother of a 6-year-old who lives in Stillwater, New York, goes to the gym on her lunch hour. "Once I started working out regularly, I felt better, I lost some of the baby weight, and it really helped me handle everyday stress," says Davis, who works at a paper company.
9. Rethink Your Budget
Smart moms have figured out that if they spend money where it really counts—on things that make their lives simpler—it's a good investment. Sometimes taking a hard look at your budget will reveal some interesting possibilities. For example, if you haven't watched a cable movie in a month, maybe that money would be better allocated elsewhere. Like on a cleaning service, says Tahmincioglu: "It's a working mommy's best friend," she says.
10. Lower Your Expectations
Clinging to the notion that you can do it all perfectly is a trap that many women fall into. Truth is, some things don't have to be done perfectly! "I know my stress level and I have had to cut back on my standard of a clean house," says Krieger. "Instead, I try to clean a little bit every day, and I do laundry when I feel it needs to be done rather than on scheduled days." Cut yourself some slack in any area you can: A veggie pizza is a good meal, a gift card is a thoughtful gift, and purchased muffins for the bake sale are just fine.
11. Create the Job You Want
If you can figure out a way to do your job on a more flexible, family-friendly schedule, present the idea to your boss, says Tahmincioglu. "If working mothers want to reshape the workplace, then we're going to have to stand up and ask for changes," she says. "Just be sure that you go in with a clear and specific plan that includes a timetable. Bosses hate open-ended scenarios."
Look for someone at your place of work whom you admire professionally but who also has a similar family situation and seems to have achieved a good balance between the two. "It can be very helpful to find someone higher up than you to support you and help you navigate your career," says Tahmincioglu.
If you come to realize that your current position is just not compatible with motherhood, start searching for jobs at more family-friendly companies. In this economy where jobs are hard to come by, you don't want to end your current employment until you have something else lined up. So simply set aside a little time to go on a fact-finding mission about other companies in your area. "You may find a smaller, women-owned company that's more understanding and more open to how you want to structure your life," Tahmincioglu says.
Be honest with prospective employers about your mom job, too, says Maureen Petrosky. "Anyone I work with knows that I am a mom. I don't try to hide it and pretend to be focused only on my work. This way I'm not trying to hush a child in the background who is home from school sick, or feel the pressure to come up with a reason I need to leave work on time," she says. "By being honest, my employer knows ahead of time that I am a mom and I will deliver great work— but it will need to be balanced with home."