I began buying into the myth of “doing it all” at an early age. In my 20s, I had my checklist life in mind: start a lucrative career right after college, meet someone and fall in love, get married by age 30, get my career to a successful enough point that I could take some time off without losing footing, and then, get pregnant and have my first child before 35. It seemed like a realistic timeline of expectations and, according to the tenets of feminism, not only could I do it all – it was my right and even my duty as a woman to do it all.
With age, wisdom, and each successive child (I now have 4), I learned that by trying to do it all, especially at the same time, I was not doing anything at a level of 100 percent effort or enjoyment. There was simply too much to accomplish to feel 100 percent about anything other than my stress level.
While there is no magic pill you can take to achieve “work-life balance,” there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me keep my sanity and actually enjoy the daily juggle of motherhood, marriage and career.
Whether your work is at home, in the office, or both, these 10 tips have helped me find a healthier work-life balance, and I hope they will help you too:
1. Find your own balance.
There IS no perfect balance when it comes to motherhood, career and marriage. It’s up to you to prioritize, make adjustments and decide what you are and are not prepared to do. Don’t tell yourself “I should be able to,” or “She/he can do it, so I ought to be able to.” Most importantly, don’t listen to anyone else telling you what you should or should not be able to do! Pay attention to your own needs and well-being. If you feel you’re out of balance day in, day out, then you are! It’s time to look at what’s going on and reevaluate. Be willing to re-negotiate your work duties, as well as your parenting duties. They WILL change over time.
2. Choose “good enough” over “perfect.”
All the pressure that women today put on themselves today to be the perfect mother, the perfect worker, and the perfect wife (with the perfect physique!), takes the joy out of motherhood and saps us of energy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just give ourselves – and others – a break? When something needs to be done, ask yourself: is it important that the job is just done, or done perfectly? Nine out of 10 times, the answer will be “just done.” For example, Ginnie has always done the family laundry, and she’s developed a system that works. However, now she’s working full-time, she just can’t handle that task in addition to everything else. She ignored her husband’s offers of help because she didn’t trust him to do it properly. Finally, after it had become a huge issue, she let it go. Her husband now shares the task with her. He doesn’t do it her way, and she can still get irritated by the way he flings mangled baby t-shirts with their sleeves still inside out on the radiators, but she is learning to turn a blind eye.
3. Don’t be a martyr.
“I’ve got so much to do.” “I’ve got to do everything round here.” Do these sentences ring a bell? Do you feel put upon and resentful while at the same time hogging all the work? If so, martyrdom could become an addiction for you, pushing you to take on more, draining you physically and emotionally and raising your stress levels. And here’s the interesting part – it’s your ego talking. The motivation for martyrdom, and the big payoff, is that it makes you feel important. You think it makes you look busy and important. It doesn’t. It’s annoying and infuriating for people around you and it makes you look like…a martyr! Solution? Ask for help and let other people take the weight off your shoulders. And learn to say NO firmly and often.
4. Draw a line between home and work.
This is easier said than done in today’s world, when we carry our work around with us on our Blackberries, iPhones and other portable devices. It’s hard to unplug and “turn off” your work duties you get home (or worse, if you work from home), just as it’s hard to “turn off” worries about kids and home life when you are at work. Try this trick. “Download” the things that are on your mind before you leave work (or home). Write your “To Do” list on a piece of paper, or type it into your computer or Blackberry, so you remember the things you need to do when you get back. Keep your mind focused on the fact that this is the end of that activity, workday or tasks at home. Then put away your “To Do” list and LEAVE IT until the next day.
5. Put on your oxygen mask first.
Moms, that means you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others – including your kids, your husband, your aging parents. Take time out for YOU. It’s not selfish; it’s necessary. Exercise, meditate, read, hang with friends. Schedule one night once a week that you do something that you enjoy. It doesn’t apply to things you think will be good for you or things that your children or partner would enjoy. This is for you. Whatever it is – having a meal with someone, reading a novel in the bath or lolling on the sofa with a glass of wine, watching TV – make it non-negotiable. Turn off your mobile, don’t check your emails, and screen incoming calls. Stick to it and don’t put it off.
6. Say NO to mommy guilt.
Take the “S” word – SHOULD – out of your vocabulary. When other people tell you that you SHOULD be making your own organic baby food, or that you SHOULDN’T be letting your kids watch TV – ever, or that you SHOULD breastfeed your baby for a full year, or that you SHOULD go back to work because you owe it to yourself and the Women’s Movement and it’s a safety net for the future, just let it go. Do what works for you. Don’t internalize all the SHOULDs that fill your life.
7. Remember, to compare is to despair.
You may think your neighbor has got it all, but take my word for it, she doesn’t! We all face our own struggles as mothers, wives and workers. It’s time to move past the Mommy Wars – when working moms look down on stay-at-home moms, and stay-at-home moms criticize the working moms. Better to spend your energy supporting other women, rather than judging them. It will benefit us all in the long run.
8. Just. Slow. Down.
A friend of mine told me that when her kids were little, she would repeat to herself the mantra: “the days are long, but the years are short.” Sometimes, it feels like you are tending to so many important tasks at the very same moment. If you can make that important phone call while driving your kids to school, you are using your time well. Yes, you may be getting that call out of the way, but if you are talking on the phone, and driving, and your kids are in the car, nothing that you are doing is getting 100% of your attention. You are cheating the person on the phone, your are cheating your kids, and you are not paying attention to the road ahead of you.
9. Redefine “success.”
Women today are admitting that the “do it all” mantra of the 70s and 80s is making them feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. We need to re-define what it means to be a success today – a definition that doesn’t include the words superwoman, supermom, or doing it all. For those moms who are working, pat yourself on the back for doing your best at juggling kids and career. It’s not easy. For moms who have taken time off to raise kids, know that you are doing the most important job in the world.
10. Find your passion…and follow it!
One of the keys to being happy – as a mother, worker and wife – is to find a vocation, job or hobby that will bring joy to your life. If you find a job that combines your passion with bringing in an income, all the better. If not, pursue this passion outside of your work – be it gardening, tennis, writing, or just enjoying time in the company of friends.
A version of this post ran originally — and was reposted with permission — on ModernMom.
Samantha Parent Walravens is a journalist, author and mother of four children (ages 5-15). She has written about motherhood and the work-life juggle for several publications, including the Huffington Post, Modern Mom, Healthy Women, Yahoo! News, Salon.com, Urban Baby and several “mommy blogs.” She has been a guest on the Today Show, Good Morning America and NPR News Radio. Her book, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, was chosen by the New York Times as the first pick for its Motherlode book club, and reached #1 on Amazon.com for books in the Motherhood category. Samantha is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University and has a Masters in Literature and Women’s Studies from the University of Virginia.