Have you shown up to work with spit-up smeared on your blouse? Hastily washed your pump parts in the office kitchen between meetings? Woken up at the crack of dawn to prep for a big presentation before your alarm clock (aka toddler) clamors for attention?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then congratulations, you’re a working mom.
We kid — sort of.
The truth is every parent works hard, no matter if you stay at home with the kids, run a side hustle or hold down a full-time gig. But there’s a special brand of chaos that occurs when you’re trying to balance a job with all the demands that children require. And, in some cases, that can be amplified if you're a woman.
That early shift you have this morning? You’d feel a lot better if you hadn’t been up all night breastfeeding a sick kiddo. Need to find a time to pump? Sounds like the perfect day for back-to-back meetings.
“To be perfectly candid, you never quite feel like you have balance,” says Catherine Albright, M.D., a maternal fetal medicine specialist at University of Washington Medical Center, who is expecting her second child this summer. “Either your home life or your work life will always need more attention at any given time, and the hardest thing is trying to prioritize who needs what when.”
Despite it all, being a working mom can be rewarding. Not only do you get adult interaction and personal fulfillment, but your kids have a fantastic role model.
In fact, one study analyzing data from 29 different countries shows that daughters of working mothers are more likely to have successful careers, while sons of employed moms spend more time caring for family members. Talk about a win-win for gender equality.
“Personally, it’s important to me to serve as an example to my children, and working gives me that balance so I can also be more present when I’m with my kids,” notes Kimberly Ma, M.D., a maternal fetal medicine specialist at University of Washington Medical Center and mother of two young children.
So, for all the working mothers out there, Albright and Ma draw from their personal experiences to share their practical tips about how they find balance in their lives — and how you can, too.
Lean on your tribe
There will be times when you just can’t leave work to pick up your sick kid from daycare. And days when you need someone else to figure out what’s for dinner while you’re running late.
You’re human, and it would be impossible for anyone to do it all every single second of every single day.
“We’re our harshest critics, so it’s hard to ask for help,” Ma says. “Having a supportive community of friends, parents and in-laws and not hesitating to ask for help if you truly need it is key.”
If you’re fortunate enough to have a partner who shoulders equal childcare and household responsibilities, then you already have that built-in support. But if you’re a single mom or have a partner who doesn’t share the load, your tribe can help you fill in the gaps.
Trade soccer practice drop-offs with another parent, ask a neighbor to watch your kids after school or see if your bestie can stop by with dinner on a particularly frazzled night. Sometimes just turning to another working mom for advice can be comforting.
“It’s been helpful to find someone who is a little bit ahead of you in the whole parenting track and to really pick their brains and ask them what they did,” Albright says. “I ask them how they figured this out — how did they make it work?”
Embrace the chaos
As counterintuitive as this sounds, one of the best ways to find “balance” in your life is to shift your mindset away from perfection. Accept that things will often be messy, unscheduled and hectic.
“I tell a lot of my patients that it’s day-by-day survival,” Ma explains. “It’s OK to be imperfect. At the end of the day, as long as my kids are taken care of and my patients are taken care of, that’s my end goal.”
Some days your job has to take precedence. Other times, your family does. Your attention will constantly teeter totter between the two, and embracing that fact can help you feel less stressed about it all.
“I think it helps to realize work and life just come in waves,” Albright notes. “Just because this week or this month feels very work heavy doesn’t mean that next month has to continue that way.”
Know the expectations at work
Every workplace is different, and it’s helpful to know how yours handles various parenting concerns.
Are you able to swap shifts with a coworker so you can take your kid to the dentist? Is your boss OK with you leaving in the middle of the workday for a daycare emergency? Is there a place and time for you to pump and store breastmilk at work?
Once you know what’s available to you and what flexibility you have (or don’t have), you can better prepare for when those unexpected situations arise.
On the flipside, if your job doesn’t allow for much flexibility, knowing that from the get-go means that you can figure out a back-up plan in advance.
“It’s all very boss dependent and job dependent,” Albright says. “It’s helpful to talk to colleagues or coworkers who are in the same boat and ask them how they did it.”
Put your oxygen mask on first
Every airplane safety briefing advises passengers to put their oxygen mask on first before helping others. And as wrong as it feels to most moms, this “you first” protocol very much applies to life, too.
You can’t do well at work when you’re operating on no sleep, and you certainly can’t enjoy the time with your children if you’re completely stressed out.
“Doing some form of self-care without your child is important because you’re still your own person,” Albright says.
It can mean taking a nap while your neighbor takes the kids to the park, going for a run after dinner or even booking a babysitter so you can finally complete those errands without distraction.
Let go of the guilt
On that note, don’t forget to be kind to yourself.
Being a working mom is tough enough as it is, so don’t take on the heaps of guilt that you may feel every time you miss bedtime or can’t make a school event.
“We all struggle with parental guilt — it comes with the territory — but I try to remember how being a working parent has its positives,” Ma says. “Personally, I think I fulfill my role as a mom and as a physician better because I carry both roles.”
The upsides of working may range from providing for your children to furthering a career that you’ve devoted yourself to for years. Whatever your silver lining is, focusing on why you’re working can help ease your mom guilt.
Even if it doesn’t, just remember that guilt won’t last forever. For every bad day you have, there will be plenty more family dinners, tickle fights, graduations and cherished memories.
“I wouldn’t go back and not have my child, and I wouldn’t go back and not have my job,” Albright says. “Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s easier, but I know that I wouldn’t change anything.”