I had a tight grip on the steering wheel of my car, I was tailgating other drivers, and I was fighting a deep urge to scream obscenities at the traffic (and also at the world in general). The cause of my Monday afternoon road rage? Getting to my four-year-old son's soccer practice on time.
In this case, we were twenty-five minutes late to a thirty-minute practice. I had just hauled it across town after a meeting ran late, so I was already worked up before I even got to my son's daycare to pick him up.
As I apologized to him through the rearview mirror, feeling helpless and frustrated at my inability to get him to his singular weekday activity on time, something funny happened. He looked at me and said earnestly, "It's really okay, Mommy. You don't have to be sad. It's just a practice." And then he continued eating his snack as if he didn't have a care in the world. Because he didn't.
I realized he couldn't care less about being on time.
This scene sums up my overall fear of trying to balance it all. Both my husband and I work full time, and here I was having a mini meltdown over one thing. With one child. Now, we have another little boy, a nine-month-old.
How are we going to do it all?
The practices and games, the school plays, the special treats for teacher appreciation day. The haircuts and medical appointments. The playdates, the vacation planning, and oh yeah, working my job, somehow managing time to get some exercise, and do one thing for myself every now and then.
How is this possible, I wonder. After having both of my kids, I didn't have too much hesitation about returning to work. I like what I do, enjoy my colleagues, and let's be honest, sometimes look forward to the parenting break that comes with a 9-5 job and being able to drink my coffee hot on the first try.
On average, it's all fine. But, as with averages, they don't tell the story of the outer fringes. I have had some high highs being a working mother, and some really low lows – like sobbing in my car, trying to get my shit together before walking into my office after a bad daycare drop off.
My oldest son asks me now, "Mommy, why do you work?" or "Mommy, why do you leave me?" Those moments are gut-wrenching, but I know he's now old enough to sort of understand when I tell him that I get to tell stories to help people, and I like what I do. I explain that I love him so much and that I will always be there to get him at the end of the day. He seems to get it, but it wasn't always that way. You can't exactly explain your complicated life choices to a one-year-old, whose instinctual reaction when you walk away is to scream.
I struggle with this internal push and pull daily. Sometimes hourly. There are some days at work I don't think about my children at all, and that makes me feel guilty. There are other days when I think of them all the time and that makes me feel guilty. I feel like I've constantly got this nagging feeling that the floor is about to fall out from underneath my feet every day.
It's like I'm on this tightrope high above the ground balancing one of those Mary Poppins' bags on my head with a million things poking out. There's a net underneath me, like family in town who support us and a husband who happily splits up our responsibilities, but that net seems far away and not really like a viable option.
I still feel like I've got to stay on that rope, no matter what.
And now, despite still enjoying my work, I ask myself probably once a day, "Why am I doing this?" and daydream about a time when I could potentially work part-time or freelance so I could have more flexibility with our family.
The reality is, the schedule and the juggling is only going to get busier and more intense as our kids grow up. It's exciting to imagine our sons loving activities and investing themselves in something they enjoy. Lately when I find myself spiraling downward about the "how," – "how will I do this or manage that?" – I try reframing my mindset to focus on the "why."
Why do I feel so stressed out? Is it actually stressful, or am I putting a huge burden on myself for no reason? Most of the time, it's not as stressful as I think it is, and if I would just chill out, I could see that it really is just a soccer practice. If we're ten minutes late for this birthday party, it'll still be fun, and my son won't care at all.
We all make the choices that we think are right for our families, and luckily our kids don't age from 1 to 10 overnight.
So in this busy season of life, I'm choosing to take deep breaths and say "no." We just don't have to do everything or be everywhere at all times. There is no right balance but I think the right perspective can make all the difference.
This is the most common question I am asked by women in manufacturing. My response is simple: Work-Life Balance as it is depicted in Hollywood and many time management books is a MYTH. It has become a Holy Grail that you will kill yourself trying to obtain. I suggest to women who ask about this topic to instead focus on Work-Life Prioritization. Identify the Top 3 things that mean the most to you in your life and use that as your guiding compass to manage your time appropriately.
For me, my Top 3 are: 1) Faith, 2) Family, 3) Career. When I have been my most stressed about life (or career) or feeling as if I'm letting others down it has always been because I allowed this prioritization to get out of whack. It may seem counterintuitive to have Career in the #3 position but I have found that when numbers 1 and 2 are solid I am at my best with my highest energy for #3.
+ Faith: define what that means to you and stick to it
+ Family: be in the moment and define what being a "great Mom" means to you. I knew that I would never be a "Mother of the Year" candidate...I wouldn't be the Mom making cool Halloween costumes or providing awesome home-baked treats for parties or being home at every critical need moment. I had to redefine what being a "great Mom" meant to me or be prepared to feel woefully inadequate in my performance. My definition: Be in the Moment Always. Simply put, keep work at work and when I'm home be there for my family. No multi-tasking, no taking work home with me, no answering email/text while my family is trying to engage me. This calibrated expectations for them as well as me. Now that my girls are grown with my youngest a freshman Pre-Med major at the University of Arkansas, I asked both recently if they ever felt that I was not a great Mom...I asked for "straight talk" and they gave to me. They said that they never felt neglected, they never felt like they weren't a priority, they understood why I wasn't at every event but knew I made the effort to be at as many as I could. My oldest said, "Mom, you taught us how to be great Moms and great career women."
Same goes for your relationship with your spouse/significant other. Be clear about roles/responsibilities and expectations. When my oldest was young my husband volunteered to be a stay at home parent. This was hard financially but the best decision we ever made and one we made together.
+ Career: define what success means to you. Is it title? Is it power? Is it money? All 3? Whatever "success" means to you, define it. Understand that where you put Career in your prioritization may affect it. I have no regrets with where I am career-wise but make no mistake, I did forego certain roles that could have accelerated my promotions by putting family before career.
Having this Work-Life Prioritization clarifies your management of your time and clarifies expectations. It lifts the pressure of chasing the Holy Grail of work-life balance and puts life more in your control. Attainable goals (remember S.M.A.R.T) results in more satisfaction and happiness.
Chief Engineer Advanced Manufacturing
You cannot always choose your circumstances, but you can always choose your attitude!