The Balancing Act of Motherhood
"We see a lot of attrition of working moms because we are living in a society that is predicated on a 1950s-style ‘one parent at home, and one parent at work’ lifestyle,” explains Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester. “But that’s not how most of us actually live.”
“I did a lot of research on moms . . . What I discovered was that the need for flexibility is actually universal,” she says.
Lauren moved to Austin, Texas, when she was a child, and found that becoming a Brownie helped her connect with her new friends at school. Today her work—including her book, lectures, and other speaking engagements—helps other women balance and connect their work lives and their home lives.
Read on for Lauren’s suggestions for how to navigate the complicated integration of work and motherhood.
1. Stop compartmentalizing work and home.
“Working parenthood is a whole huge series of compromises,” says Lauren, adding that there’s no need to hide that from, well, anyone.
“Bring your mom self to work. Put up pictures,” she says. “Don’t just tell your boss you need to be out from 3:00 to 5:00; call it a ‘family need.’ Help them see that you’re a parent—they can’t help with what they can’t see.”
2. Be a proud role model for the next generation.
In turn, let your family catch more than a glimpse of your work life.
“It is also okay to bring your work home,” says Lauren. “That might look like literally bringing your laptop home.”
But it should also go beyond that.
“When you are at home with your family, be a person who has a job. It is okay if you aren’t keeping those worlds separate. Today it’s not about work-life balance; it’s about work-life integration. I think it’s better for both of those environments,” says Lauren.
“If we teach our kids that work is this thing that steals us away from them, makes us miserable, and doesn’t empower us—what is their life going to look like in 15 years? You want them to feel like they [when they’re older] aren’t just supporting themselves, but that they are also doing something meaningful. And that takes effort. . . . It’s important for our kids to see that we can be satisfied even when we’re making compromises.”
3. Identify as a trailblazer.
If you decide to have children and, once you do, you find that the standards at your workplace no longer work, you’ll need to negotiate and advocate for yourself. By doing so, you’re laying an important foundation for your coworkers.
“You should feel emboldened when you ask for things for yourself and visualize that you are asking for them for your greater workplace,” says Lauren.
“If you ask for the flexibility, the reasonable accommodations you might need, you’re setting a new standard. Truly, when we solve these issues for new working moms we are solving a broader cultural problem,” she explains. “Whether you have kids or don’t have kids . . . you want a workplace standard that has flexibility. All the data shows that flexibility yields longevity and productivity for everyone.”
4. Squash the guilt.
In talking with women across many demographics, including women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels, Lauren hears one thing consistently.
“For my book, I surveyed more than 700 women and I did deep interviews with more than 100—single, married, and in every sort of career you can imagine. And everyone talked about feeling guilty,” says Lauren.
“But then when I looked at how [my interviewees] were defining guilt, [I saw] it . . . meant different things to each person,” she said, citing childcare issues and temporarily diminished ambition as common examples.
If everyone felt guilty, she determined, then perhaps the guilt is a result of the fallacy that other women balance work and life “perfectly.”
5. Redefine ambition for yourself.
“When I started doing my book, ambition was an ever-growing paycheck going from cubicle, to office, to windowed office, to corner office,” Lauren explains. “And in interviewing women of all ages, I’ve determined that ambition is more about agency and being able to define the kind of working-mom life that you want in a way that is satisfying.”
6. Don’t sell yourself short.
“If you negotiate for different hours or a different location but you are actually delivering the same amount of work, do not assume that you need to take a pay cut,” Lauren cautions.
She also recommends looking at whether your company has policies that short mothers on bonuses or vacation time during the year they take maternity leave.
“So often when it comes to our personal needs, we don’t express them. They feel private,” Lauren says. “But if you don’t get vacation time when you’re on maternity leave and your child gets sick when you return, then . . . you’re burned out and you want to leave the job.”
7. Leverage your resources, including your peers.
“We see this all the time—the people who have the problems end up with the [sole] responsibility to solve them. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is,” Lauren says. “If you have the agency to solve problems—whether that comes in the form of seniority or a good relationship with your boss—use those privileges.”
She also believes that coordinating with coworkers with similar needs can ease the burden of asking for change.
“Work with a group. Find other people—preferably not just other moms, but also dads and people with eldercare issues or illnesses—and together make a case for allowing people to accrue vacation time during leave,” Lauren suggests. “It’s not always possible, and you may get a ‘no,’ but the fact that you asked and tried will move the needle a little bit.”
“Show the numbers,” she adds. “And be empathetic to managing up. Your boss probably has a boss, any they probably want to do the right thing but they need to make the case to the person above them.”
8. Establish healthy patterns.
“A lot of moms are gatekeeping—we want things done our way. Our way or the highway.”
But having a partner who gets their hands’ dirty can make a big difference.
“Write down all the tasks that it takes to run your home—from remembering Grandma’s birthday to loading the dishwasher—and be deliberate about who does them,” says Lauren, who suggests listing the tasks and who’s responsible.
For one, this exercise, she says, can help clarify the things your partner is doing that you may be unaware of.
“It will help you see where there are inequities. I also advise parents to do a weekly Sunday sit-down to look at the week and figure out the schedule.”
If you’re a single parent, doing the exercise will help you think through who in your network of friends and family can provide help where you need it most, as well as help you identify times when it’s most crucial to secure childcare.
9. Redefine “me time”—on your terms.
“Once you have kids, don’t only think of ‘me time’ as getting a massage,” says Lauren. “It can be walking down the sidewalk with the baby [on your way to getting] diaper cream—getting out in the sun and enjoying it.”