A few years ago, I overheard you talking to a friend about work-life balance. You marveled that even as your mother worked a corporate job, she had been to every one of your volleyball games.
That was not really accurate. Your high school years coincided with a demanding time in my career and I would never have been able to juggle that. I had made a conscious effort to get to many of your games, both local and away. That somehow solidified into your thinking I was there all the time.
I didn’t correct you back then. But it’s time to now, as you are about to become a mother. You need to know that no one can give all her time.
This is the kind of wake-up call that I think all of us moms need to give ourselves. I say this to both “working” mothers and working mothers – because motherhood does not distinguish by paycheck. We all work.
This has become increasingly true as we spend more time parenting. Even with steeper financial pressures and more commitment at home from partners, a Pew Research Center study found that mothers, on average, put in more time than a male partner and/or their own parents did. And another study from the National Institutes of Heath found that mothers in same-sex partnerships also spend more time parenting.
These demands will not cease on their own. They can’t be tamed by being more efficient. I’ve tried plenty of work-life balance hacks. They have sometimes worked, yes, but they haven’t addressed the underlying problem that fuels the need to be so efficient in the first place.
The more we give, it seems, the more we are expected to give and the more we expect from ourselves.
As you prepare for this new phase of life, I’m especially concerned about the unrealistic expectations you’ll face — both from the outside world and within yourself.
So, I’ve given some thought on how to face them down.
Here’s my conclusion: We need to get better at saying “no.”
Just because there are so many reasons to be present – at home, at work, in the community – it doesn’t mean every reason is equal. I have found as a working mother and, now, poised to be a working (and very involved) grandmother, one of the best uses of my time is to prioritize where to put that time and where not to put it.
That means making choices and deciding what is essential and what isn’t. Which games are make-or-break; which meetings should be in-person, which commitments can be shed. Sometimes personal life comes first and sometimes it doesn’t.
There is risk involved. Saying “no” might mean missing out on an opportunity or making a memory. But let’s remember that not exercising our “no” muscle comes with even greater risk. Exhaustion and burnout are two that come to mind.
Of course, it is crucial to work in a supportive atmosphere where these decisions will be respected. I have been lucky to have spent my career in such environments. I’ve also seen the business world change for the better in this way. But we are, by far, not there yet universally.
If we can, we must push to change this dynamic. Sometimes, we have a supportive atmosphere in theory, but we find it easier in the moment to take on a new responsibility than to reject the request.
Other times, we may turn the idea of flexibility into being constantly on call.
This Mother’s Day, let’s gift ourselves. Beyond the single holiday when the demands may momentarily cease, we can become more conscious of how we spend our time and why, and then look for obligations to turn down. I know from experience that doing so will be a gift that will keep giving.