“I’m just afraid I’m not doing enough as a mother—and maybe I’m not even doing it right at all.”
A young working mom, her eyes misty and tired from little sleep, quietly shared that with me. And I’ve had a version of this conversation with too many women recently. But I’ve been there, too.
To these tired and stressed mothers, and other caregivers, I have one message: Please, be kinder to yourself. Would you allow others to talk to you the way you talk to yourself?
Be it taking care of your children or an aging parent, you have taken on the responsibilities of essentially two jobs. Banish the mean girl sitting on your shoulder, whispering you should have done this or you should have done that. Yes, you could have, but something else was more important on that day, or that week.
There is no one right answer on how to do career and motherhood—on how to “have it all.” But you can do both, and you can do both well.
How you do it depends on unique factors: what you want, your situation, your home life and the kind of job you have. There are no universal fix-alls. With that caveat, here is what has worked for me and the things I wish I had known sooner.
1. Stop comparing yourself to other moms.
You can’t compare your schedule to the mom who volunteers at school three times a week. Don’t go there. Ask what matters most to your child and spend your energy there. Personally, I always go for the big hitters—class parties or events when my involvement was most impactful.
2. Ask your kids how they feel and let that be your compass.
Rather than define success by external standards, look at your family. How are they doing? If they are happy and well adjusted, don’t get caught up in what you are supposed to do. And, in case you forgot, stop comparing.
3. Treat important family events like client meetings.
I mark holiday parties and end-of year-programs on my calendar way in advance. I determine when my involvement matters most to my boys and fiercely protect the time—even if it’s just as the class guest reader. No apologies, no explanation at work and, most importantly, no guilt.
4. Let your kids in on your decisions.
There were weeks when I was involved in important projects—so I had to work a lot. I explained to my boys that I had made a commitment and I wanted to do my best, and that was going to take extra work. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t just “working”; at a deeper level, it was about honoring my word and delivering. Children learn that there are times when nothing can substitute for hard work.
5. Look beyond one day or one week.
Don’t be hard on yourself because of a really hectic 24 hours, or seven days. Look at schedules and time with family over the course of a much broader time horizon—months rather than days.
6. Find the right partner(s).
Careers and parenting take partnerships. Consider the mindset of your life partner upfront. As an example, before my oldest could drive, my husband, Jim, and I looked at our calendars and planned ahead for who would cover the boys’ activities and where we had gaps. We have a real partnership. Single parents can get that from friends and family, too.
7. Get out of a situation that doesn’t fit your definition of success.
Don’t set yourself up for failure. Recognize when your work situation will never line up with your goals. If you never want to travel and you treasure free nights and weekends, careers in real estate or management consulting could be problematic. Or find a workaround. Be realistic—because industry culture is unlikely to change.
8. Say no more often.
Make “no” your best friend and get a black belt in prioritizing. Time is your most important resource. And saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else—even though that decision is never technically vocalized.
9. Ask for what you need.
Set boundaries. Share your expectations. Share the role you want, the schedule you want, the career you want. No one can read your mind. And, if you need more time at home for a child struggling in school, then don’t tell co-workers to “call me anytime this weekend.” Don’t undermine yourself because of guilt or old habits.
10. Invite friends over even if your couch is old.
Stressed, busy moms often think, I can’t have friends over because my couch is old, my house is messy, and, and…. I know because I used to think that way. Ask people over anyway. Order pizza. Have a bottle of wine. Perfect conditions don’t exist—and they’ll never come. Friendships make life more fun, more meaningful and they give you healthy perspective.