A frequent attendee of women's conferences and other professional conferences, I'm always amazed at how frequently and quickly the work/life balance question is asked (when there's at least one woman on the panel). I'm convinced that the work life balance "solution" is the true holy grail, the chupacabra that every professional mom seeks the answer to - moreso than the meaning of life, secret to anti aging, and why bad things happen to good people (all great questions), but most real working moms really want the key to balancing the never ending juggling act of excelling at work, getting your kids into the best schools, making an organic, healthy, instant dinner, being there for school events, having an occasional date night with the spouse, getting the clothes folded and making it to the gym (even inconsistently).
In my early 40s, my life took a sharp right turn. At 35 I considered myself the black Carrie Bradshaw (actually, I considered her the white Dana Brownlee, but I have a bit of ego admittedly) and just a few short years later, someone (I guess me) had completely rewritten the script. Friday evenings hanging out with girlfriends after my flight arrived in from my client location were replaced by LONGGGG days at home racing to respond to client emails in my bathrobe while the baby was napping (finally!!) and desperately listening for the sound of the garage opening to signal my husband coming home at the end of the day (relief!!!). Of course, I chose to be married with kids and to continue to run the corporate training business I'd started in 2003, BUT I felt like someone had played a horribly cruel joke on me - not explaining that I'd signed up for the impossible - successfully balancing work and family. Once I had a second child in tow at age 41, I became intrigued (for self preservation if nothing else) with figuring out how other moms were doing it. As an entrepreneur, I worked part time and had significant schedule autonomy so even though I had the dream situation in many ways, I felt like I just BARELY had my head above water most days (and was slipping under quickly on others), so how in the world did other moms (who worked full time) do it????
I'd recently read a book about different types of working moms, and while it was an interesting read in many ways, the theory/focus of the 200+ pg. book was one I could have summarized in a paragraph...and then moved on to the other 8 things on my to do list for that day. I couldn't help but think to myself that I would have so much more appreciated reading a page or two of academic theory and 50+ pages of specific tips and advice from real women in the trenches making it work day in and day out! So I couldn't help but ask myself - why not reach out to working moms myself and ask the questions I'd really like answers to? This sparked my desire to send out a simple survey - first just to friends and colleagues - to gather real feedback and advice from real moms trying to have it all and be their best in the process. Clearly, I'm not a well funded institute or foundation, and I wasn't really interested in conducting a "scientific study" with paid focus groups - instead, I wanted authentic feedback from real moms on their fears and struggles but most importantly their real tips and advice to share with others. I like to think of it as a "virtual group therapy session" of sorts.
My initial concern was getting responses. I'm not a celebrity, nor do I have a talk show, popular blog or other "platform". I'm not even particularly active on social media in my personal life (I often refer to myself as the Betty White of Facebook), so how many responses would I get...if any? My goal was to get 100 responses --- that would be a stretch, but it seems like a decent response rate, right? Imagine my surprise at the beginning of May 2015 when I closed the survey (after a few weeks) with 524 responses from working moms around the country! Many moms told me that the survey was somewhat cathartic for them - it always feels better to vent. Many were also interested in a compilation of the results (summary available for download at www.professionalismmatters.com
). I'm so grateful to the hundreds of women who were willing to share some of their most intimate and vulnerable thoughts and confessions about such an important part of their lives. I specifically focused on working moms not to exclude working dads or stay at home moms/dads who I'm sure have their own difficulties and struggles (not to be minimized), but selfishly I needed to talk to "my peeps" - those moms out there in the trenches trying to shift from carpool mom to CEO in the blink of an eye (daily).
The results confirmed a lot of my suspicions about how hard the juggling act is and that Superwoman does not exist! Although respondents definitely shared varying opinions on certain topics, there was virtual unanimous agreement that working full time outside the home while being a mom is HARD, not just a little hard, but REALLY hard. 2/3 of respondents indicated that work seems to win in the work life balance struggle. Similarly, when asked to characterize the amount of time spent at work, 43% of respondents selected "probably too much" or "definitely too much" and conversely 73% characterized their amount of time spent at home as "definitely not enough" or "probably not enough". This data seems to succinctly summarize the internal strain, stress, and guilt many working moms seem to feel about where they want to put their energy vs. where they typically do.
The survey feedback also provided a tremendous sense of comfort (somewhat unexpectedly) just hearing other women echo words I've said to myself hundreds of times while wondering in the back of my mind why I'm complaining about something women have done with ease for decades, right?
Finally, it was also great to hear working moms share their real tips and suggestions about what works best for them. As a corporate trainer, I have a bias towards practicality so I truly appreciated the hundreds of specific tips and words of wisdom. Here are just a few:
"Don't open email first thing in the morning. Attack your to do list first."
"I assigned each of our 5 kids their own color plate and laundry hamper. After each meal they wash that plate and when their hamper is full they start their laundry, there is never a question about whose plate or clothes are left out."
"Outsource what you can, except for raising your children."
"Lock cell phone away in home office for a period of 2 hours at night to allow dedicated family time and focus on my daughter"
"Have a weekly family meeting to go over schedule and give kids a chance to voice whatever is on their mind"
"Don't clean your house"
One respondent suggested that the phrase "work-life balance" should be replaced with "work-life harmony" because balance is only an illusion - as fictional a concept as Superwoman herself. In my mind harmony is the acknowledgement that there may never be 50/50 balance; instead the goal is to shift priorities as needed to fit the needs at that time. It reminds me of a circus performer balancing a spinning plate. The plate will probably never be perfectly horizontal; instead it tilts continuously from one side then to the other and the performer deftly moves the stick left and right to continuously shift the plate to keep it in the air. Similarly, one respondent said when asked "What do you wish someone had told you 10 years ago about managing work and home?"
"It's impossible and you will always feel like a loser. Or as someone more eloquent said "in work/life balance there will always be a winner and a loser. Just know which you are choosing at the moment."
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.