A working mom seeks balance

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on October 7, 2008, but it gives timeless tips to working mothers struggling to feel balanced.

Guest post by Annie, PhD in Parenting

working-3-546230-mMommy guilt.

Just about every mother suffers from it, but there is no cure.  It seems no matter how much we give, how hard we try, in our own minds it isn’t enough.

Some days I feel like a do a pretty good job of balancing my career, my family and myself. But other days, it feels like I’m falling desperately behind and failing on all three counts.

As a society, I often get the impression that we are slipping behind. That families have less and less time to spend together. It used to be that Sundays were sacred family time, and now some people work Sundays while others use it to get chores done. It used to be that mom was waiting at home with freshly baked cookies when the kids hopped off the school bus, and now kids are in after-school care programs while waiting for Mommy or Daddy to finish the work day and hurry off to collect the kids. But according to an article in the Washington Post, maybe we’re not doing as badly as we think:

In 1965, mothers spent 10.2 hours a week tending primarily to their children — feeding them, reading with them or playing games, for example — according to the study’s analysis of detailed time diaries kept by thousands of Americans. That number dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, rose in the 1990s and now is higher than ever, at nearly 14.1 hours a week.

So if we are spending more time than ever with our kids, why do we still feel so unbalanced? Why do we all feel like we’re not doing enough with our kids — or at work, or for ourselves?

I think part of it is that society tells us we need to achieve balance. We need to spend quality time with our kids. We need to get recognized and promoted at work. We need to be perfect wives. And we need to carve out time for ourselves. If we fail on any of those fronts, the guilt starts again.

I haven’t found a perfect solution, but I’ve learned a few things along the way that make it easier, that make me feel like I’m progressing in finding that balance and in particular in being more present for my kids, which is the most important element of the balance for me:

  • Finding a new job — When my son was born, I decided that I couldn’t let someone else set my priorities any more. So I started my own business, where I get to decide how to balance my family and my clients, I decide how much work to take on and I decide when enough is enough.
  • Taking advantage of the time we do have — There are things that are part of our daily routine where I could shut my kids out, but where possible, I try to bring them in. My son likes to help me bake and cook, so I try to get him involved in meal preparation. It helps him learn how to get around a kitchen and also gives us some extra special time together. I drive my son to school each day and pick him up, a total of about an hour in the car together each day. We have developed a repertoire of games and conversations that we have, and I really cherish this time. Instead of leaving my daughter at home with my husband while I do the grocery shopping, I take her with me and talk to her as we go through the aisles. Sometimes it makes these tasks take a little longer and makes it more hectic, but I think it is worth it in the end.
  • Cosleeping — I have heard so many working parents complain about how little time they have with their kids during the week. Some parents arrive home from work at 6 p.m. and have their little ones in bed by 7 p.m. We do manage to sneak in more than an hour of time together in the evenings. Usually I end up having close to three hours with my kids at home before bedtime. But being together doesn’t end there. I share a bed with one or the other of my kids every night. I find this time to be an essential way of staying close, even when we can’t spend as much waking time together as we would like. As I sit here and type, my daughter is sleeping on a boppy pillow on my lap.
  • Planning dates with my kids — I try to set aside some special dates with my kids. Sometimes my husband brings my daughter in to meet me for lunch. Every once in a while my son and I go out for an early dinner after school before going home. On weekends, I try to carve off half days to go out and do special activities like a walk or a visit to a museum with one or both of the kids. In the summer, I take Mondays off and often spend the day out and about with one kid or the other, going to the park, stopping at a cafe for a snack, visiting the bookstore, having an ice cream, etc. When we just stay home and hang out, we do get some time together but that is often combined with doing the laundry, checking e-mail, cooking meals, cleaning up and all the other things that get in the way of focusing on each other, and we definitely have no time for this and want to do other activities like going out, we better get the Cleaning Services Edmonton to help us with chores and have more time for other activities.
  • Reading, reading and reading some more — Reading is a way of sharing stories and ideas. Reading promotes literacy. Reading lets parents and children bond and gives them a stepping off point to discuss feelings and topics of importance, to develop hobbies, to laugh together. We read to our kids every day and even when everything else is falling apart, I try to keep this as a constant. We have books everywhere in the house. We have books in the car. We have books in the diaper bag. Anywhere we go, we have books.
  • Accepting less than perfect in other areas of life — I’m lucky to have a husband that helps out a lot around the house. He is a stay-at-home dad and he has also taken on a lot of the household chores. But among the chores that we share or that I do, I’ve accepted that I don’t need to be perfect all of the time. Sometimes I get my daughter and I dressed all week out of an unfolded and unsorted hamper of clean clothes. Often I pay the bills once per month, rather than paying them as they arrive or paying them at the “best” time as per due dates and interest rates. I started out making my own baby food, but then gave up and went for store-bought instead. My hair looks better when blow dried, but except on the coldest winter days or the most special events, I leave the house with wet hair.
  • Striving for balance over time, not every day — I work really hard at some times of the year, often working several hours at night after the kids are in bed, but I also take almost two months of vacation each year that I spend exclusively with my kids. Sometimes I take a night to go out with friends, but at other times if my kids need me, I may have to put social activities on hold. Some weekends I need to work, and sometimes I take a long weekend so that I can focus on family. If I try to achieve perfect balance each day, I will fail. But if I let things work themselves out over time, I may have a fighting chance.

All that to say that I don’t have the cure for mommy guilt. Not even close. But I’ve discovered a few tricks that help me give my kids more presence within the constraints of our ever busy lives. What tricks have you discovered to spend more quality time with your kids while maintaining your career?

Listening

On the way to Playschool the other morning, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw tears sliding down my 21-month-old’s cheeks.

“Ruby, what’s wrong, honey?” I asked, concerned and surprised – she’d been talking excitedly all morning about visiting her friends at school, where she spends two mornings a week.

“Oww, mama,” she said, tapping her nose with her forefinger, her eyes welling up even more. She’d just gotten over a nasty cold that had kept her out of school for a full week.

We pulled into the drop-off at school, and my daughter’s favorite teacher was waiting to take her inside. Ruby started really crying as I unbuckled her. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” her teacher smiled at me. “We can handle it!”

“I’m sure you can,” I smiled back, “but let me have a minute with her.”

I held Ruby tight and looked in her eyes.

“Ruby, do you really not feel good?”

“No, mama.” (sniff, sniff)

“Do you want to go to school today?”

“No.” (sniff)

“Do you just need to come home with mama?”

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” (nod sniff nod sniff)

In a split second, I mentally ticked through all my work plans for the morning – and then brushed them away. When it comes right down to it, there’s just not a thing more important than doing what my daughter needs. So home we went, much to the consternation of Ruby’s teachers. I think they thought I was “giving in” to her, or “spoiling” her. But I like to think I just chose to listen to my child. My daughter, who, just like all of us, has her very own needs and emotions, her good days and bad days. I know her well enough to know when she is truly upset and uncomfortable, and when she needs a break. Whatever the reason, she very clearly did not want to be at school that day.

When I was growing up, my parents occasionally let me take what they called “mental health days” when I got too stressed out about school. That time away was invaluable to me, an over-achiever who worried too much from a very young age. I remember those days so clearly, how they’d help me calm down, re-focus, and feel more connected to whichever parent I spent that day with.

I want my daughter to be able to have those kinds of days. I want her to trust that I will listen to her and take her seriously. That when she has an emotional need, I’ll do everything I can to meet it. I think part of my job as a parent is knowing her well enough to see those cues, to know when “My nose hurts” actually means “I need some time with you.” So that morning, instead of working as I’d planned, I cuddled with my daughter. We read books, ate snacks, and danced to her “silly music.” And truly? That time together was more valuable than anything else I could have been doing.

Has there been a time when truly listening to your child changed your plans or your approach to a certain situation?

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