First things first. Repeat after us: “I am a total badass who wrangles kids, deadlines, career and social responsibilities, flows through a yoga class and — sometimes — manages to bathe.” If that’s not #winning, we don’t know what is. That said, it’s also true that the struggle with the ever-elusive “work-life balance” thing is real.
But don’t send yourself on a guilt trip late at night when your little one has finally gone to bed and you’ve exhaled. As many moms agree, the idea of true, 100 percent harmony between your family and your job is less a goal and more an illusion. Dare we say it? (Especially in front of the toddler who repeats everything.) The truth is, for most parents, work-life balance is total bullshit.
Consider this your permission to release unrealistic expectations about your daily juggling performance (and to release your painted-on and stressed-AF smile). Here, working moms give alternative definitions of parenting and professional success we can all agree on.
Instead of striving for work-life balance, let’s strive for…
President of myWHY Agency Emerald-Jane Hunter says that attempting to “have it all” as a worker and parent is a fruitless journey. In fact, she compares building and growing a business to the same headaches and struggles of birthing and raising her triplets.
To give herself a break, she’s shifted her mindset toward self-preservation as a way of preventing herself from swinging too far in either direction — charging too hard up the corporate ladder or too deep into (yet another) heap of laundry. For Hunter, it’s about “building habits that give us the ability to see and feel that signal that says, ‘You’re doing too much. Slow down. Think about what you have in front of you, and take it one step at a time.’ We need to be in search of those habits,” she says.
Though every parent handles the juggling act differently, Hunter creates rules and boundaries to maintain her sanity. “Before I had children, I would attend every evening event just to network. Now, the network comes to me. I make a note of all who I need to meet and work on one-on-one coffee or tea ‘dates,’ which prove to be far more effective and productive than those evenings in a crowded room with loud music,” she shares.
More good days than bad days in a week
Founder of the communications consultancy company Kickstand Communications Cindy Hamilton says work-life balance is ridiculous. Why? Because it connotes an even weight on both sides of the seesaw, when in reality, sometimes there’s a “sumo wrestler sitting on the ‘work’ end of that damn seesaw,” she says. (Can we get an amen?)
That’s why Hamilton has transformed her focus to look at the previous week instead of the past 24 hours — you know, the hours in which endless blowouts (of the client or diaper variety) might have transpired. In other words: If there are more good days than bad days out of seven, Hamilton considers the week a win.
And if she doesn’t approach it that way, she feels frazzled. “Your brain just doesn’t shut off with all the to-dos needed for the management of the children — from child care to doctors’ appointments to homework. It’s never-ending, much like our professional requirements,” Hamilton explains. The requirements from each facet in her life are more manageable when she doesn’t try to digest or analyze them at once and rather takes it a week at a time.
Being able to drop a ball without the world ending
Michelle Kennedy, cofounder and CEO of the start-up Peanut, says every time she’s asked about how she “does it all,” she wants to laugh. Not only does she think work-life balance is a myth, but she knows that being a mother, an employee, a partner, a friend — you name it — is a lifelong juggling act. Though sometimes she’s a thoughtful mom who remembers to put a funny note in her son’s lunchbox, other times she’s struggling to keep up with business growth and forgets her best friend’s birthday.
What makes her accept these minor defeats when they happen? The fact that they (usually) never happen at the same time. “What I’ve realized is that it’s OK to drop a ball here and there; the key for me is knowing that I don’t need to juggle everything perfectly in order to be happy,” she says.
Senior vice president of Sandy Hillman Communications, Liz Elman Feldman, describes work-life balance as akin to the mystical creatures her children love — like the Loch Ness Monster or a unicorn. Truth be told, she’s been chasing this fairy-tale concept since she started working full-time nearly 30 years ago in 1989. But Feldman has realized over time that the task of giving her full, undivided attention and energy to her gig and her fam is impossible; one or both of those things will always have to give a little. “I can manage being a good mom and a good employee and even a good wife, usually at the same time,” Feldman says. “But to be great at any of those things? One or the other has to suffer.”
That’s why she’s renamed the concept “work-life compromise” rather than “balance,” which implies an even score. This is part of her effort to make active decisions instead of setting passive expectations — and it makes her happier.
“I’ve had to make choices about where I work to limit commuting time,” Feldman shares, “and that has determined how much I can achieve professionally. While I still love my job and do it well, my focus is on parenting and family, and I’m OK with that. When work is manageable, I’m pretty on top of mom stuff. But when work gets more demanding, I’m the one shamefully answering the door to my neighbor, who has walked my kids home from the bus stop because I got caught on a conference call and forgot what time it was. It’s just the way it goes. And that’s OK too.”
Quality, not quantity
As a female entrepreneur and mom, CeCe Todd never feels like there are enough hours in the day. With ripe competition in her industry (as in any), she often feels the pressure to eat, live and breathe her business — but she also feels the pull toward her family. To help relieve the guilt and remove the pressure of performing her best on both sides of the to-do list, Todd decides to focus on quality, not quantity.
She doesn’t count how many hours she puts toward her daughter or toward her company; instead, she challenges herself to be fully present in each. “When I am playing with my daughter, I am fully in the moment with her. I turn off the work side of my brain, put the phone down and close the laptop to reduce the distractions,” she says.
By balancing quality work with quality family time, Todd hopes to inspire a new generation of glass-breakers, her kid included. Her first step? Calm down. “Stop beating yourselves up,” Todd urges parents. “Be fierce and fearless in your pursuit of success, and be diligent — to show your kids that you can do anything you set your mind to.”