Today for Working Women Wednesday, I’m going to share the secret to having it all as a working mom. The secret is…you can’t. Sorry. But I do have seven tips to help you stay sane.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 14 years of being a working professional in IT at Fortune 500 companies, while also being pregnant and being a mom, is that you can’t expect to have it all. In American working mom culture, “having it all” usually means having a picture perfect life, career, and family. You’re super successful at work-all pulled together, landing the deal, effortlessly completing the project, or developing a successful new marketing campaign. You jet-set around the world, a director/vice president/CEO/other successful title. Or perhaps you run your own successful business. While doing that, you’re still able to create Pinterest-worthy meals for your kids, never missing a game/play/event, eat dinner together every night, and you make sure they get to their ten different activities on time while hand-sewing their costumes for Halloween. Of course you still have plenty of time left over to keep a spotlessly clean house, cook all food from scratch, exercise and stay healthy, manage your finances, side hustle, floss your teeth…the list goes on.
“Having it all” is a myth. It’s not possible. Life is a series of choices. As Paula Pant from Afford Anything always says – “You can afford anything, but not everything. And that’s true of your money, your time, or any other limited resources.” The important thing here is instead of letting life happen to you, you instead need to work to make conscious choices around what’s important to you and ruthlessly cut out the things that may be important to others, but aren’t a priority to you. You need to embrace the reality that you can’t “have it all” as society or the media defines it, and create the life that you want and that works best for your family. Now don’t think this means you can’t work full time and be a great mom – you most certainly can be successful both at work and at home. But it does mean that you can’t do everything all the time. There will be times when you can’t give your all at work because of what’s going on at home, and times when your focus will be on work and you may need to miss something for your kids. Embrace your choices and ruthlessly cut out low priority items to make time for the things that matter to you.
So then how can you have it all at work and at home? Give these seven tips a try and take a step toward a saner life. Let me know what other tips you have for other working moms in the comments.
1. Treat your life like a laboratory experiment. The problem with a lot of general advice is that it sounds good (pay someone to clean your house! Meal plan for a week!) but it doesn’t work for you and your specific situation. So just give something a try and if it doesn’t work out – don’t get frustrated – just try something else! Don’t give up, you’re smart and you can figure it out. Also, just because something doesn’t work at one point in your life doesn’t mean it won’t work in another part. Life changes, sometimes slowly and sometimes dramatically, and what works in one stage might not in another. Or who knows? Maybe something you tried years ago that didn’t work out would be just the thing you need now. Life when your kids are infants vs. toddlers vs. elementary school vs. middle school vs. high school vs. college vs. adults will be very different. Having a teenager and a one year old right now, I can vouch for this reality.
2. Change your standards. Now I’m not advocating eating fast food every day or living in an episode of Hoarders. Or doing a poor job and slacking off at work because you’re a mom – that breads resentment from your coworkers and would make you unhappy. But you need to set realistic standards for yourself and your life or you’ll drive yourself crazy going for “perfection” in everything. Is it really important that the bathrooms be completely spotless every week? Or would a quick wipe-down work and a deeper clean every two weeks? Hate the way your husband does the laundry? Well – is it clean and put away? Then its fine, even if he does it differently than you would. Does your kid put peanut butter on their bagel so slowly that you think the bagel is going to grow mold before he’s done-and so thickly that you think they’re having bagel with their peanut butter rather than the other way around? Don’t worry, as long as they eat it you’re good. I know plenty of women who fall into the trap of doing things themselves because others just won’t do it “right”, or doing things because they think they “should” be doing those things, even if it’s unimportant to them. If you find yourself doing something because someone else in the house isn’t doing it “right”, ask yourself if you’re being too picky. If no one will die or catch on fire, you’re usually good to go.
3. Hack your chores. Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Errands. All of these need to be done, usually every week. Darn those kids and them wanting to eat three times a day! Of course you can outsource these to others if you make it a priority in your budget, but what if you can’t afford it – or you have other things you want to use that money for? Now it’s time to develop hacks – shortcuts – to save you time.
Cooking – Repeat after me. Crockpots, pressure cookers, and weekends are your friend. I love the miracle of crockpots – I have this one myself but in a snazzy stripped pattern. What else can you chuck a bunch of raw and frozen food into and have it come out wonderful at the end of the workday? And with a pressure cooker (or an instant pot – those are popular but I don’t have one) you can have food done 26 times faster. Does your family like rice? Get a rice cooker if you make it several times a week. Love French press coffee like I do? Get an electric kettle to boil water quickly -I love this thing! Bonus – it boils water quickly for anything you might need, like cooking vegetables, heating bottles of pumped milk, or creating steam in the oven for bread. What about weekends? This is when I like to cook up a storm, freezing and refrigerating items for later in the week. What’s better than frozen homemade waffles you can just pop in the toaster? Or muffins in the fridge ready to grab with a piece of fruit for breakfast?
Yes, I like to bake. These are homemade blueberry scones, waffles, and cookies. Check out my Instagram for more delicious weekend bakes
Cleaning – Get the best vacuum you can afford, it will save you time. I originally had some kind of cheap vacuum and it took forever to do the floors. Then I got a Dyson and I was amazed at first – how much it picked up that my other vacuum had missed and second – just how much faster it was to vacuum. Pick up a Swiffer sweeper and mop (watch for sales and coupons!) for quick cleans. I have three kids, a dog, and two cats – I could vacuum every day and I’d still find a random hairball tumbleweed somewhere. Plus I don’t have time to vacuum every day. So instead we can do a quick sweep of the wood and tile floors every few days. It takes only 10 minutes and bonus – it can be done by the kids! For years I resisted getting one of these because of the cost and the waste, but it makes dealing with the tumbleweeds of hair so much easier. My mother also has a cleaning caddy to take the supplies all over the house. I tried that and didn’t like it, because whenever I would notice the bathroom needed a cleaning the caddy was inevitably far away at the moment. So instead I get big packs of supplies from warehouse clubs and keep supplies in each bathroom and in the kitchen. Try both ideas!
Laundry – the first part of this involves getting the family to put all their laundry in the basket. It can be difficult, I know. My nine-year-old seems to forget where the laundry basket is, even though it’s literally been in the same place since he was born! Pick up some days of the week laundry hangers for each kid – this is the one I have – so they can get themselves dressed starting in preschool. Create “how to do the laundry” instructions and tape it to the washing machine, and do the same thing with the dryer. Teach your kids (and husband, if you have to) how to use the machines. Put everything away in the days of the week hanger and your kids can just grab their clothes out of the day. My kids are so well trained to do this that they’ll come downstairs dressed in whatever was in the day – and then complain that it’s too hot/cold (especially in the spring and fall when the weather changes quickly). When you ask why they didn’t just grab a pair of jeans/shorts they’ll whine “Well, this was in my days of the week!” Explaining that we live in New England and the weather changes frequently gets a blank stare. Teaching your kids how to do the laundry not only helps you, but it helps them when they grow up and move out. You don’t want to be doing their laundry as adults. Ugh.
Errands. Those million little things we need to do. Run to the post office, go to the bank, go grocery shopping, head to the DMV, grab stickers for a school project, pick up a new faucet for the bathroom. This is where efficiency will be your friend. Make lists of everything you need to do. Save things for Saturday morning and head out the door early. If there’s something that will be particularly difficult (like the DMV!) make it your first stop to get it over with. Plan your route so you’re not driving all over the place, and check things off your list. Need to make sure you’ve brought a form or document? Put it on the list too so you don’t forget. For a list, sometimes I’ll use paper or the back of an envelope, but I also use notes on my phone and calendar reminders. I personally love using my phone for this because if I think of something I can just pop it in before I forget. This strategy saves sanity – and gas.
4. Don’t let life run your work – and don’t let work run your life. The first part of this concept is all about giving your best at work. If your kids are in child care, make sure you have a backup – and a backup to that backup – in case they get sick. Need to travel for business occasionally? Have a plan in place for care for who will care for the kids while you’re gone. Get set up to work from home if that’s an option for your job, so you don’t have to take time off for the plumber/cable repair person/sick nine-year-old. If something big is going on in your life evaluate what you need to still give your all when you’re at work. Parent sick, husband in the hospital, a big surgery? Take time off if you really can’t work, or organize a temporary flexible schedule. I can tell you that when my husband almost died of septic shock and was in a coma in the ICU, I was not working. But I was very clear with my bosses and co-workers that this was a real family emergency, and I had built up an excellent reputation for being reliable ahead of this event. I also did certain things like arrange for emergency back-up coverage, decline/reschedule all meetings very quickly, set my out of office with a TBD end date, and checked my e-mail once in the early mornings to forward on anything I had received that needed someone to work on it.
Working from home so you can pop out for an appointment or a kid’s event? Be sure to be clear with everyone and with your out of office message when you’ll be unavailable and when you’ll be back. Make sure people know where you’re going to be, and if you need to miss a meeting be sure to let the organizer know. Check out my article about being clear when working from home for more on that topic. Also I’ve made an effort to find dentists, doctors, and hairdressers that accommodate weekend and off-hours appointments. If I’m not taking a day off to go to appointments I always make them for before or after work. When I’m at work, I want to really be at work – and eliminate distractions from home as best I can.This lets me focus and be more efficient while working, so I can do more work in a shorter amount of time.
Now the same is true in reverse – don’t let work run your life. Remember there will always be more work. There will not always be more life. I’ve known people that work 24 x 7, early mornings and late evenings all the time, and work while on vacations (and they’re proud of it!) – uh, no thank you, not for me. Not only is this not good for your family, but it’s also not good for you. In order to be your best while at work, you need to give your best to the rest of your life, which means taking the time to do the things that bring you joy. When I come home I will check e-mail after the kids have gone to bed only if absolutely necessary-otherwise it can wait until the morning. I don’t work on weekends on a regular basis, instead focusing on being extremely effective during the week and preparing for the next week on Fridays. Now I’m in IT, so occasional weekend work is part of the job – like releases over Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day weekends. So if you have to work on your days off, I’ve been there too, but I very deliberately don’t make a habit of it. And yet people comment to me “You’re always working”, and “you must work all the time!” “God, you must work 60-70 hour weeks!”. The reality is they have that perception because I’m very effective and I get more done than some people who “work” 60 or 70 hour weeks – including long hours on nights and weekends – but really could work 20 effective hours to get the same things done. Remember that old saying, “work expands to fill the time available.” Don’t make all your time available for work.
5. Teach your kids responsibility. Part of our job as parents is not just parenting children, but teaching them to become adults. It can be difficult to remember this in the day-to-day rush of life, but by the time they go off to college you’ll want them to have the basic skills of adulthood. How to cook for themselves. How to do the laundry. How to clean the house. When I first met my husband he essentially didn’t know how to do any of this because his mom did everything for him (he was the baby of the family). I believe he could boil spaghetti and that’s about it. His room was a disaster and I think his mother still did his laundry even though he was living on his own. Teaching your kids responsibility not only frees you up but prepares them for life as an adult. My 13-year-old is responsible for making the family Friday pizza every week from scratch. My 9-year-old feeds and waters the dog. They’ve been “helping” me cook since they were toddlers, and really helping me since they were about 5. And when it comes to cleaning, they’re responsible for their own rooms, the playroom, messes they made around the house, and the oldest cleans bathrooms occasionally. The older ones both need to put their own laundry in the hamper and away, and every few weeks the oldest one does the laundry from start to finish. They both help out in the garden with weeding and pruning, and my 13 year old occasionally mows the lawn (with supervision). As they get older they get more responsibility. Do they complain? Yes, of course, they’d much rather be watching TV/playing video games/doing art projects. Would it be easier to do it myself? Yes, in the short run. However, it pays off in the long run. Not only does it free you up from some chores, but also teaches them important life skills. When we go grocery shopping I’m teaching them how to look for the best price, the difference with generics vs. name brand, shopping from a list, and hunting for deals/bargains. Before they goes off to college I’m going to have the kids do the shopping for the family, complete with searching for coupons and working with a budget.
6. Take time off to help your life run more smoothly. Do you have a ton of errands backlogged? Just can’t find the time to go to the dentist, the doctor for you and the kids, get a haircut, deep clean the house, and hold a tag sale? Book everything for a day or two and take time off, or plan to do it over a long weekend. For example, on Labor Day weekend instead of going to BBQ’s or the beach, we had a cleaning weekend. And I don’t mean dusting/mopping – I mean one of those cleanings where you go through every drawer, every closet, every cabinet, and get rid of stuff. We made a “donate” and a “garbage” pile, and I had everyone get rid of everything that we didn’t need or didn’t use. At the end we had bags of garbage and clothes/toys to donate. I’ve found that doing a deep cleaning twice a year helps keep the junk from piling up and becoming overwhelming. And with three kids, it seems like their stuff multiplies like rabbits when you’re not looking! I use this same concept to accomplish a big project around the house, rather than trying to squeeze things into the morning/evening/weekends. I find it easier to just get everything done in a long weekend, or in a day off, rather than trying to run around doing things in the evenings or weekends
7. Cut ruthlessly. Feel like life is just too crazy? Don’t be afraid to cut out things. You can outsource to others where you can – either to your husband, kids, or you can pay someone to do things for you. Getting pressure from the school to do this, that, and the other thing? Just ignore it. They’ll live without you getting involved. Kids have too many activities? Figure out the ones they really love, and stop the rest. Don’t do things just because you think you “should” – do things because you want to and they really add value to your life. Embrace the “no thanks” or “no can do this time, sorry” and take back your life
What’s your favorite hack or tip? Where have you cut things out of your life, or lowered your standards? Let me know in the comments.