Working moms can’t have it all – but they can have this instead
I was having a coffee with the mother of a childhood friend. Christina has known me since I was born, she’s my mother’s best friend, so one of those people who by proxy I feel like I can be open and honest with. As we sat, sipping tea, our conversation bounced around. We talked about her daughter, one of my good friends who is a lawyer, trying to balance her busy career, her spouse and 2 young kids. We talked about my own work, the highs and lows of being a new entrepreneur. Then she shared reflections of her own career. She’s now retired, but for decades she was a lawyer - a full-time partner at a law firm, with an equally successful husband and two kids.
She talked about how the rhetoric while she was in law school was that for the first time ever women could “have it all”. But, that her and the other women she knew learned the hard truth - you cannot really “have it all”. Working moms have to make sacrifices, they have to make choices, you have to prioritize and let go of some things. The illusion of “having it all” is just that, an illusion.
After she left, I began thinking. I was both extremely grateful for her and her entire generation to pave the way so that my generation has it a little easier. We have not closed the gap, but what the female baby boomers did change the game. It made being a career working mom not only acceptable, but admirable. They faced bias, prejudice, and harassment in even more significant ways than we experience today. They learned ways that women can climb corporate ladders.
They were also the first generation to have this idea that women could “have it all” – an expectation that essentially set them up for failure. Because no one can “have it all”.
I left feeling so grateful for those strong amazing women who carved a path for us, and simultaneously wondering where does that leave working moms today? Why is it still so hard for us to have work-life balance? Why have we not released the idea of “having it all”?
So I did what I always do when I don’t know the answer – I went into research mode. Here are the 8 key reasons that came up multiple times about why it is so hard for working moms to have work-life balance, followed by 6 things you can do to improve your work-life balance – despite the challenges, work-life balance is not a lost cause!
1. Working moms still believe that they can “have it all”, that they can “do it all”
Even though the generation before us learned that you cannot “have it all”, we have still not released this idea. In fact, the idea of “doing it all” and “having it all” is so pervasive that it sets us up for failure over and over again. You will see that many of the elements on this list are related to the false belief that we can have it all. We need to transform our thinking to prioritize what we value most and let go of the idea of having it all, which is what will actually leave you feeling more happy and fulfilled.
2. The pay gap from working moms and working moms of color places an unnecessary financial burden on working moms
Despite significant progress over the past several decades, women are still paid less than men, women still rise the ranks slower than men and not as high as men. In the 2018 Women in the Workplace Report from Lean In and McKenzie Consulting, they found that despite the fact that at entry level, white men represent 36% of the workforce and white women represent 31%, by the time you get to senior leadership (people in the C-suite), 68% are white men and 19% or white women.
The story for women of color is dramatically worse – they represent 17% of entry-level work and only 4% of senior leadership.
In addition, women continue to be paid less than men for the exact same job. As someone who learned I was significantly underpaid, I can attest to the fact that many of us conceptually know this is true, but don’t believe it will happen to us. I never thought that I would learn my colleague was paid 47% more money than me. But it is this false bias that we have – believing that bad things will happen mostly to other people – that makes us not even question our own pay and promotions. Plus, according to the Gender Bias Learning Project, 79 percent of mothers are less likely to be hired, are 100% less likely to be promoted and are offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position.”
3. The Maternal Wall: a catch 22 for working moms, preventing them from career success and work life balance.
In their book, From Sabotage to Support: A New Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace, Joy Wiggins and Kami Anderson look at how the dynamics of privilege and power have played out in the history of the feminist movement. Additionally, they identify and break down socialized behaviors and ideologies that trigger implicit bias and micro-aggressions.
Wiggins and Anderson share that “sometimes talking about their children or the experience of motherhood places working women in a Catch-22. If you have children, you may be passed over for opportunities that your colleagues or boss think would interfere with your family life — even though that should be up to you to decide; while it may seem supportive for a boss to spare you from extra work, you should be the one to make that call. On the other hand, if you’re obligated to attend late-night functions or work overtime, it can negatively affect your parenting time.” This feeling is so pervasive in the lives of the women I know – for example, they often need to leave work at a certain time to pick up kids, but feel as though others look down on them and see them as less committed. And juggling work and sick kids can take this struggle to a whole new level.
Furthermore, Wiggins and Anderson shared that “when comparing non-mothers to mothers, when the non-mothers are not at work, it can be perceived that they are out on business, but when mothers are not at work, they may be perceived as out taking care of family obligations. These are all part of what a Harvard Business Review article termed “the maternal wall,” in which women are sidelined and seen as not taking the job seriously enough when they get pregnant or not viable for promotion because they are not as dedicated to the job as non-mothers or other coworkers.”
4. Working moms and micro-aggressions in the workplace
The Women in Workplace Report also found that every day discrimination in the workplace is a reality for women. They found that 64% of women experience micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are verbal, behavioral or environmental interactions that send denigrating messages to people because of a group that they are part of (e.g., gender, race, age, parental status, sexual orientation).
For women, these micro-aggressions include things like needing to prove their abilities, or people assuming someone is in a position more junior than they actually are. Women of color and lesbian women deal with even more micro-aggressions then straight white women. At first these micro-aggressions may seem small, but over time they can add up and have a major impact on women’s self-confidence, how other people perceive women, and ultimately a woman’s career trajectory.
5. Working moms are still responsible for the majority of housework and home care responsibilities.
Even though many women have shifted their roles from staying at home to raise children, to splitting their time between work and family, they continue to take on the majority of the burden at home. In fact a recent study by Dr. Joanna Pepin and colleagues even found that married women spend more time doing housework compared to unmarried women. The hypothesis is that there is an expectation on married women about what their home and home life should look like, that is difficult to shake. While men have taken on more responsibilities, they are not taking on equal responsibility, even when women and men work equal hours outside of the home.
6. Working moms are expected to be intensive parents
While I was growing up, people talked about helicopter parents, I babysat kids whose parents definitely seemed like helicopter parents. I remember vowing that I would never be like that, I would allow my children to have more freedom, I would let them try, I would let them fail, I would watch and observe them, and step and only when necessary. I would read to my kids daily, engage in interesting activities with them, speak to them as adults from a young age, create a strong supportive environment to let them flourish.
Clearly, I was not the only one to think about my own parenting this way, because we have moved into a new generation of parenting style - intensive parenting.
Dr. Patrick Ishizuka describes that the idea behind intensive parenting is that parents “facilitate their child’s participation in extracurricular activities, play with them at home, ask them about their thoughts and feelings, and respond to mis-behavior with discussion and exclamations”. This has become the dominant parenting approach, and the approach that people consider the most beneficial for their children.
As I read the description of intensive parenting, I immediately knew that I subscribed to that parenting ideology. But the research also shows that this is a time-intensive, labor-intensive, emotionally-exhausting, and expensive form of parenting. Our assumption is that if we can nurture our children in this way, it will help them succeed. The research isn’t even clear if that will happen, and the financial and emotional cost to working mothers is taking a toll. As Dr. Patrick Ishizuka told me, “at the same time that growing numbers of mothers have entered the labor force, the standards for what constitutes "good" parenting have intensified. Parenting today is significantly more time-intensive than in previous generations. Yet workplaces have changed little to accommodate working parents.”
How to address the intensive parenting issues is interesting for me. As someone with a PhD in psychology, I can conceptually see the benefits of doing this for my children, but I also know that I need to put my oxygen mask on first before I put it on for my kids. That tension leaves me feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused about my best course of action. I’m confident I will have many more reflections on intensive parenting over the years to come, particularly as my young children enter grade school – so stay tuned as a dig in deeper.
7. Working moms try to “have it all” at the expense of sleep.
So what do we do in order to advance our careers (despite the barriers we face), spend high-quality time with our kids, and get all our housework done? We give up sleep. This is very unfortunate, since high-quality sleep is a predictor of so many positive outcomes. It can seem, at least in the short term, that giving up sleep will give us more time to get it all done, but long-term we are harming ourselves and consequently our families. There is not a clear solution to this – I definitely give up sleep for my family, for my work, and most often just to have a few minutes to myself.
8. Mom guilt is very real – deflating women’s confidence, making us less good at work, less good at home, and deteriorating our work-life balance
I have never met a working mom who does not experience mom guilt. This feeling is so pervasive among working moms, but how and when it manifests is different for each woman, but we feel that guilt.
Mom guilt is so deeply related to our expectation of being able to “do it all” and “have it all”, that when we don’t succeed in “doing it all”, mom guilt creeps in.
Mom guilt is not helping us. It is not the answer, it is not the solution. Mom guilt makes us feel bad about all of our successes and accomplishments. It prevents us from seeing everything we are doing well and focusing on the one or two things that we aren’t doing. It is often deeply tied to the ways in which we compare ourselves to others.
Mom guilt is not rational. It’s emotional. And it can be driven by societal discussions which tend to emphasize the benefits of having a stay-at-home mom. While it is true that mothers and children benefit if the mother wants to stay at home, there are also huge benefits for children, particularly when mothers want to be working. It is when there is a mismatch between women’s wants and their reality that children and their mothers are less happy and successful.
Based on research from Harvard, daughters of working mothers earn more in their careers than the daughters of stay at home moms. Sons of working mothers spent 7.5 more hours a week on childcare and 25 extra minutes on housework compared to sons of stay at home moms.
As a woman who loves her job and a mother of two young boys, I want my sons to spend at least 7.5 more hours on childcare and ideally I’d like them to spend more than an extra 25 minutes on housework (hopefully that will improve even more in the next generation). My mom friends who have daughters aspire for them to have the doors open for the careers and appropriate pay that they want and deserve. Just as the previous generation helped pave the way for us, if we can be working mothers who redefine work-life balance, we can pave the way for the next generation.
How can you take what we know about the challenges for working moms to “do it all” and redefine what work-life balance means for you?
Sometimes when I think about why it is so hard for working moms to have work-life balance, it gets me feeling down, feeling powerless, as if there are these larger societal structures and expectations that I have no control over that are preventing me and other working moms from having better work-life balance.
Luckily my training and my life focus is on taking really big challenging ideas and understanding what I and other individual people can do to improve our own lives. So I want to end this article with 6 concrete things that you can do to improve your own work-life balance.
1. Understand what work-life balance really means for you by deeply understanding your values and priorities and finding ways to maximize the amount of time you spend on those
2. Recognize that the mental load is real, but there are ways you can reduce your mental load and feel less stressed out
3. When you start getting overwhelmed, learn how to shift from overwhelm overdrive – this shift can be transformative
4. Recognize that sometimes you’re no longer just overwhelmed, but have reached burnout. When you reach burnout stop and take care of yourself.
5. Celebrate your successes. Working moms are particularly bad at celebrating what they do well and what they’ve accomplished, instead focusing on the things that are missing or not yet there. Pause and celebrate your accomplishments.
6. Empower the amazing women and working moms around you. Women have spent far too long trying to bring each other down, this is our time to bring each other up, to support, inspire, and celebrate each other.
If you have any other amazing work-life balance tips, we would love to hear them – comment below.
Good luck and don’t lose hope!