I want to introduce you to my friend and colleague Maggie Tomas. Maggie is an outstanding career center director and skilled advisor. I asked her to begin contributing to this site because I think she has a distinctive voice when it comes to working mothers and their careers. I hope you appreciate her voice. And her posts are almost as long as mine, so there’s that…
“They will be happy if mom is happy.”
Should I go back to work? The question ended up turning on my own understanding of fulfillment. But let’s back up and start at the beginning and see if there’s anything to take from my own experience…
I am a working mom, managing a department of 11, a family, and my own fragile equilibrium as I try to prioritize all of it. I have 2 little girls ages 4 and 6 and they are my world. In the past, I have wrestled with how big a role work should play in my life, if any, and for many years I felt crazy guilt at any time spent away from my daughters. Years of messaging what defined a “good” mother blurred my definitions and muddled my own opinions. Then one day I had my most memorable experience in a pretty unexpected spot that helped me be okay with focusing on my happiness.
Rewind to 4.5 years ago. Sitting in the pediatrician’s office, staring at wall-papered walls with hot-air balloons and circus animals, I felt like I carried the weight of the world. You know when you have a decision weighing on you and the pressure of it inside you feels like you might explode?
Well that was me. I needed to make a decision quickly about going back to work full time and was wrestling with a family history of second guessing versus just trusting my gut. I blurted out to my pediatrician “I don’t know what to do. I have this job offer and its good and I think I would like it. But my girls. I mean are they better off when mom’s stay home and will they feel neglected and what about kindergarten in 3 years? Will they be those kids that grow up too fast because I am not on the PTA board?”
To be clear, he was there for my daughter’s well-baby check-up. You know, to make sure my 1-year old was healthy and could go on to the next food phase like eating eggs or strawberries or whatever. I’m pretty sure my career and mental health wasn’t on his list of items to check off. I am confident his little clipboard did not have a box for help mother of 1 year old process years of motherhood issues and anxiety as she decides whether to go back to work full time or not. Check.
Anyway, this doctor continues to be my hero for two simple sentences. The first, was a question. “What do you want?” Huh? My confused expression looked blankly at him as if he spoke Turkish. He knew I needed more explanation. “Listen,” he said. “These two girls of yours-these two healthy, spirited girls (Oh good at least the baby passed the 1 year checklist), they will be happy if mom is happy.” Whoa. I am allowed to be happy (even if that means I will focus on interests completely outside of my family, including work) and I sort of have an obligation as a mother to ensure I am happy? Simple, I know, but for me, this has been my mantra.
To date, these have been the most freeing, yet heavy words to live up to. This whole martyrdom thing, the “I am so much busier than you, husband of mine”, or “I miss adult conversation because I am so knee deep in child-rearing”, or” I have no hobbies as a working mom”, or “work makes me miss all of the fun afternoon playdates with my girls”, or “I cannot possibly workout”, yeah, all of that. It doesn’t make for awesome mother-ness.
With permission to fit in time for yourself (be it work, friends, sports etc.) comes the hardest question of how to fit it all in. It’s a lot for me to accomplish each day, this balance of things I love to do for me/things I love to do for and with my daughters/things I need to do to meet my family’s needs. My pediatrician’s words haunt and inspire me. These days, these are some of the strategies I try to follow so I can give my girls a mom who is mostly pretty content with life.
#1: Ease up on Expectations: As working mothers we are trying to do it all. My peers and I talk about the fact that we actually try to be better than stay at home mom’s at home-making tasks just to cure our guilt about working outside the home. Most of the time, I put a valiant effort toward appreciating my work so I come home engaged, energized, and thoughtful AND I work even harder to also always have the best damn Pinterest-worthy cupcakes at the bake-sale. You know the story. All that produces is a bone-tired, cranky version of my former self. I am a baking fanatic. I love to bake, am sort of a snob about it, really. Last month at COSTCO, I bought the gazillion pack of Ghirardelli brownie mix. Recently these boxed brownies are what gets created. When I am feeling really super-mom-ish, I add frosting. And you know what? It’s totally fine and I haven’t skipped a beat. I know that when I have time, I can make some pretty amazing cupcakes.
#2: Say no: Working moms need to say no to many of the requests thrown our way or else we will drown in our career and our home life. This is hard and I have to laugh at the fact that I am giving advice on how to say no because I am so terrible at uttering the word. Honestly, sometimes I have felt myself saying yes to things knowing full well that I have just added a to-do item to my list. The action item being make up excuse for backing out of the thing you are agreeing to do at this very moment. I am working on it though. Last fall I was asked to be on 2 boards and I was so flattered. I mean these were boards for organizations I was part of; I wasn’t trying to get on them and it felt nice to be thought of. Because I was flattered I nearly blurted out “yes, yes, yes,” to both of these requests which in hindsight would have been inane. Neither invitation was in line with my goals for the year. Both would have made me more stressed than ever and as my husband kindly put it “what in the world would you want to add that to your plate for?” His bluntness honestly saves me, sometimes.
The satisfying thing is, when I emailed a decline to both invitations, I felt so free, so proud of myself, no remorse, and with a new focus on my current work and family obligations. If I had said yes, the mental energy required would have been silly and taken its toll on me and my family. Say no. Often. When you say “yes” make sure you are genuinely excited for it.
#3: Go for what you want and let your kids watch it.: Take advantage of professional opportunities and bring your kids along for the ride. Go for things you want. Really go for it. Accepting you gave a goal your mightiest effort and didn’t succeed is so much easier to swallow that accepting regret. Be vulnerable. Be strong. Let your children watch you succeed and let them watch you fail. When I recently went through a promotion process, I talked about it with my kids in a way that I never had before (I am giving myself a lot of credit here, because the “before” I am talking about would have been when my kids were 1 and 2 and could have cared less). However, the act of including my kids in my vulnerability as I went for something I wanted but was scared of was really good for me. It forced me to be strong and honest with them and it forced me to stop being self-deprecating all the time (they need to see me believe in myself after all). Knowing they knew that I was going for this new role made me want to succeed even more. It made me want to be better for them.
Ladies, many of us wear martyrdom like a crown, like somehow only thinking of everyone else makes us better mothers, colleagues etc. All it really does is make us resentful and inauthentic. Remember, “they (kids) will be happy if mom is happy.” Focus on yourself, let your children see the real you, and you will all be happier in the process.
Maggie Tomas (@) is the Director of the Graduate Business Career Center at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and the mother of 2 spirited girls.