So this post is NOT about judgement. What it is about is practical strategies you can use to help advance your career and stay sane. If it works for you, great. If not, no worries! It’s tough being a working mom, trying to advance in a complicated world that keeps getting crammed full of random things we’re supposed to take care of. See if any of this helps:)
Let me first establish my street cred. I consider myself to be a wickedly productive person. In the past 2 years I have:
- Had two children
- Completed coursework for my dissertation, defended my proposal, and started my research
- Wrote and produced 2 plays
- Received two internal promotions, and then got my dream job
- Moved halfway across the country for said dream job, sold a house, bought a foreclosure and renovated it (including chalk painting my kitchen cabinets, which I highly recommend)
- Published articles (both peer-reviewed and industry blogs)
- Had a ton of fun, happiness, straight up joy and straight up sorrow
In other words, I’m a very busy working mom. Most of you probably have your own lists of accomplishments, and a long list of dreams that you want to accomplish. Hopefully these tips will help you get there!
It’s a Game. Win It by Playing It (Emphasis on Play)
Let’s face it – most of you reading this probably have first world problems. Thinking about, talking about, even considering Leaning In means that you have an extraordinary opportunity that a huge percentage of women in this world will never have in their lifetimes. Think on that for a minute – these other women and girls growing up will never have the opportunity to choose their dreams and go after them. So when it get’s tough – it has and it will – remember that you are not in that position. To whom much is given, much is expected. Keep it in perspective.
So if you’re going to jump in the game, jump in it. Do it joyfully, this is fun! You get to decide what you’re good at, what you want to do more of and less of, and the type of future you want for your family. That’s the coolest thing ever – embrace it, acknowledge it, and make smart decisions knowing what you’re doing.
What is your goal? If you don’t know, you likely won’t achieve it.
**Write down your top 5 list of things you want to accomplish it, and rewrite it every day. In longhand. Actually rewrite it. Keep your eye on the ball. Over time your goals will change as you accomplish them, that’s great.
**Create your own 5-year strategic plan based on those goals. When will you accomplish them? How will you know you’ve accomplished them? Make it no longer than a page, and reference it frequently. I’ve had to update mine several times, but I always get to check something off every year.
This is a Guilt-Free Zone
I decline guilt. For quite some time I felt the edges of guilt, but now I’ve just let it go. I’m a bit of a slacker mom naturally, so it was a good fit, but it’s actually the best thing to do for yourself and your family; here’s why.
I would be a terrible stay at home mom. Terrible. I don’t have the personality for it or the patience for it. It’s best for me to be working, and it’s best for my kids for me to be working. Yay! Done with that. If you’re struggling with this one, write down why you’re not a stay at home mom. That matters. And if you discover you want to be a stay at home mom, figure out how to make that happen and how to win at that. Leave the guilt behind and make it a mental practice to squash it every time it comes up. It’s wasted energy. It diverts you from your joy and your purpose.
**Write down why you’re growing your career. How will it benefit your happiness? Your family’s happiness and health? How will it get you closer to achieving your dreams or changing the world? Why are you even doing this? You’ve already made the decision that it’s important. Now make sure you remember that every day.
You Can Only Prioritize if You De-Prioritize
Seriously. You can’t do everything. Decide – explicitly – what’s important and do less of the other things. This really matters particularly as women statistically do 50 more minutes of domestic chores every day. Many of us also manage other things – dentist appointments, immunizations, birthday party invites, bills, house repairs, etc. So let’s decide what NOT to do so that you can focus time on what you WANT to do (and need to do to advance in your career.)
As an example, I gave up cooking when I went back to get my PhD. We eat a lot of organic frozen vegetables, quick oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs and pre-cooked bacon. We have rotisserie chicken at least one night a week, and Fridays are pizza night. If I get bored, we order something in or pick up something prepped already at the grocery store. And I am utterly unapologetic about that. Frozen veggies are fine, and no one ever died from eating frozen chicken tenders twice a week. It will be ok.
Other things I don’t do – I don’t worry about my choices of energy providers, I haven’t changed my cell phone provider in years, and I haven’t cost-compared cable plans. It takes time to do these things. I’m probably paying more than I need to for my electricity, I could likely have more 4G LTE on my cell plan for less cost, and my husband did the cable comparison, and all of that is a-ok. Because it’s a trade off of time, but also of attention.
Decide what you’re going to worry about and what you’re going to let go of. And then really, really let it go. Give it a little kiss, write it on a leaf, and watch it blow away in the wind. It gives you space to focus on what matters. This includes choices about what you’re going to harass your spouse about. Decide what takes longer to follow-up on than to just do yourself, and agree as a couple on what each of you can handle (as much as that’s ever truly possible.) It is a decision to let “that which does not matter truly slide.”
**Write down what you’re going to stop doing. Seriously. “I will immediately throw away any offers for cheaper cell phone providers, better credit card offers with more points, etc.” Acknowledge that you will lose some money or benefits on these things. You’re not losing money in the long term, because your time is money. Invest it where it will grow – in your career.
Embrace Your Inner Slacker Mom
Just go there. Trust me, it really feels good. My husband is a bit older than I am and has frequently remarked on how families revolve around their children now, and how that’s out of whack. I totally agree. We dove into this. The children fit into the family and not the other way around. Not to say I don’t support my kids – my daughter has taken dance, and music and theater lessons (over time.) We’ve chosen good schools for her – yay school choice! But she is in not in multiple activities. She comes home from school and does her homework and plays. She clears her own place setting and cleans up her own toys, as does my three-year old son.
Not only am I 100% ok with not spending every weekend carting the kids to various activities, I really think it’s best for them. First of all, the statistical likelihood that your child is going to become a professional football player, champion chess player, national spelling bee winner, award-winning child actor, or prima ballerina is pretty slim to begin with. I’d rather have a kid who chooses one or two things that they’re passionate about and focuses their attention on that along with learning how to be a self-directed, good human being. Which means that kids should be forced to confront their own boredom and solve it on their own.
I used to rotate my kids’ toys. It’s ridiculous that they have so many toys that I would rotate them. Now I just leave them where they are. And you know what happened? We have books being used as books, and as architectural structures to support tents, and houses for the Barbie horses because the Barbies didn’t end up making it into that last rotation. Constraints force creativity. Thankfully there are now studies that reinforce this – that having actual free time supports the creativity and healthy development of kids. That doing chores is good for self-discipline. So assign those chores! Stop buying more toys! Just do it. You’re the mom. You get to decide. If they’re desperate for a new video game they can do what I did when I was a kid – babysit for my own money to buy my own toys myself. (Not when they’re 5 or something. Age appropriate.)
Here’s the hard part – you will get flack for this. People have a tendency towards being judgey. We all do – slacker moms included. So say after me “It’s great that your kids do polo and gymnastics and are on the show Iron Chef Junior. It’s awesome that your son played Carnegie Hall. Super cool that your daughter won the national science fair! Me? … Oh I’m a slacker mom. My kids play and do chores.” Own it! Remember that your kids will be better off long term to run around in the yard, cook their own mac and cheese, and fold their own clothes. They won’t need to be on your health insurance at age 27 and they likely will have a job. Once they find something they’re passionate about, they’ll go after that and you can support that because you’ll have bandwidth – it won’t be sucked up by a million tiny things.
I let my daughter earn quarters to do harder chores. And then she can make choices if buying toys is worth her money and effort. Suddenly the stuffed unicorn that she could not live without becomes less important when it costs her time and effort and takes away the heaviness from her piggy bank. I consider that a #MomWin. I’m also teaching her fiscal responsibility and avoiding cluttering up the house and wasting money at the same time.
**Decide what activities you can stop doing with your kids. Narrow it down. What do you actually have to support? What do your kids love? Support that one thing or two things at the level at which is appropriate. If you have a kid interested in dance that has no natural talent or rhythm, feel free to do that once a week. If you have a kid with natural turnout, great rhythm and incredible drive, find a way to get them to pre-professional dance lessons five times a week. Outsource if necessary.
**Teach your kids to clean up after themselves. Seriously, why don’t we do this? I tell my kids to only pick up the toys they want to keep. You really only have to throw away toys once or twice to get this to work fairly permanently. The key here is not flinching (unless it’s that one dolly that your daughter has had since birth – that would just be mean.) If you say it, do it. When kids start cleaning up their own place settings, setting the table and helping with dinner, it will be an initial time suck. They will be bad at it. You will need to do more cleanup temporarily but they will get better and they will be able to do it by themselves. (In a related note, if you have smaller ones, don’t use plastic. Use ceramic mugs for drinks. Kids push over plastic really easily, but ceramic mugs with wide bases don’t fall over so easy and break into big pieces when they break, unlike glass.)
**Stop participating in random school things that don’t matter anyways. My second-grader will not be scarred if I don’t show up at her Halloween Parade at school during the middle of the day. It probably will be impactful to her when I cross the stage at the graduation for my PhD. Help your kids contextualize that so that they, too, can prioritize. If they complain about those things, explain them. “It’s super cool that Jenny’s mom can volunteer for school stuff, honey. That’s not what Mommy does. Mommy runs a department, which means that we can live in a nice place and travel and can still help out people in need and contribute to a better world. That’s how we roll. We also celebrate Jenny’s mom – she’s super good at what she does. Mommy’s not good at that. Mommy’s good at other stuff.”
Celebrate Your Wins with Righteous Happiness
When you win at something, take the time to pause and celebrate it – really celebrate it. Do something fun. Have an extra date night or girl’s night out! We need those wins to recharge. We deserve those wins when they come. Take the time to groove out on them.
But here’s the key – you can’t do something that you normally do, or it’s not special. Just like going out to a nice restaurant loses its meaning and specialness if you eat out at nice places all the time, doing something that you otherwise would be doing isn’t a celebration – it’s relabeling a normal activity.
**Decide ahead of time what you’ll do when you achieve a goal, and then actually do it. Make it special and make it worth it.
**In order to make room and preserve money for that celebration, stop shopping. I did this a few years ago to virtually no negative effects except for a happier bank account. When you think about it, there are a few things that you actually need that you should get and care for and use. 30 pairs of heels does not qualify. Then, when you get that promotion, buying two super-special pairs will really matter and won’t just be another Saturday.
This is maybe one of my favorite recommendations for working moms. I recommend taking on some extra side work that pertains to your field – teaching in it, consulting in it, conducting workshops, etc. You can put those types of things on your resume. Then, turn around and spend that money to hire someone to clean your house, or send your clothes out to the dry cleaners, or get dinner delivered in 3x a week. You’ll end up revenue-neutral, but you’ll be building your resume. That matters more long term.
Why is outsourcing so important? Most professional women have the extra burden of having to present a polished professional image. This, much like the additional 50 minutes of chores a day, requires actual time that cannot be spent answering emails, writing articles, or reviewing industry briefs. I figure it takes me probably about 30 more minutes per day to get ready for work than my husband – considering shaving legs, makeup, hair, struggling into Spanx, etc. So I need all the time on task that I can get to advance in my career. It is just reality that women have these natural disadvantages by virtue of societal expectations. Surprise – they’re not going away. So strategize ways to outsource, or at the very least to simplify your routine.
**Find something field-related that will make you a little money that will build your resume, then turn around and spend that money outsourcing something you can’t put on your resume, like “laundry-folding” or “bathroom scrubbing.”
**Simplify everyday decisions. Buy 5 suits and 10 shirts and rotate them. Seriously. Don’t spend even 10 minutes a day making fashion decisions. Remember that men aren’t spending time typically doing that sort of thing. It diverts you from your purpose.
Your Drone Or Your Vacation: Prioritize
So. Economic reality. Truth is that it’s hardest when you’re a mid-level manager to get that next position where it would be easier – financially – to outsource stuff. Truth is two-income families are the reality for most people. It’s easier to #LeanIn if you have lots of support, which usually comes in the form of domestic help, better schools and childcare. Money makes things easier. If you don’t have that ability, it’s time to decide what to sacrifice to get it.
My advice is – preserve vacations, sacrifice stuff, and get the help you need around the house. This actually works really well with some of the other tips, because you won’t have time for shopping anyways – LOL! Just stop buying stuff. You don’t need most of it. You don’t need a drone. Really. You don’t. You don’t need a fancy car. You don’t. You don’t need a high-end purse, or even a mid-end purse. This a career, not a fashion show, so use an attache case. You really, really don’t need more than 10 pairs of heels. Really. You don’t. You do need to get away and unwind. Experiences have been shown to increase happiness, whereas stuff does not. Stuff, you have to take care of. “The things you own, end up owning you.”
**Write down what you’re not going to buy any more. I searched for years for a really great, gray, single-strap purse that could fit my tablet. I never found this white whale of a purse, but along the way I must have bought 10 bags that could have been “the one.” I gave up buying purses. It turns out – you don’t need a ton of purses! You need like 3 – maybe 4, and a decent attache case. Unless you work in fashion, when’s the last time you heard someone say “Wow, is she using her black bag again? Why doesn’t she go shopping more instead of focusing on that wonderful strategic and tactical plan for process improvement?” And if you work at a place where people say that, you really, really need to find a new place to work.
Leave the Baggage, Take the Gifts
Just like when you were growing up, when you had to take the best lessons your parents taught you and leave the baggage of their parenting behind, do the same thing with these tips. Try them. Take what works for you and leave the rest behind.
My best, best advice for working moms is to be what you are. Don’t try to be something you don’t really want to be anyways. Make it a habit to not guilt yourself. Prioritize appropriately. And back it up. Win at your own game – the game you decide you want to play.
Being a working mom trying to #LeanIn is hard stuff. But you got this. Get your confidence game on. You’re going to fall down. You’re going to fail at this. But like any good gamer, you’re going to get back up, soldier on and level up. #WinatMomming and #WinatLeaningIn.
And here’s a STRANGE thing. You may get blowback for being happy and successful. People may smacktalk your strategies or your priorities. And in the words of the immortal Ani Difranco “A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy while you are just flying past.” And that’s ok. Nolite bastardes carborundorum. In the words of Margaret Atwood – don’t let the bastards get you down.
You go and you be the very best working mom you can be. Have fun. Win.
And know that even on your worst day, you’re probably not trapped in an under-developed country without plumbing deciding if you need to go into prostitution to feed your seven children now that your husband has passed away of an entirely preventable disease that he got due to utter lack of access to health care. Perspective. We got #FirstWorldProblems
Got a tip of your own? Leave it below. But I reserve the right to delete posts related to advocacy for 31 or more pairs of shoes. That’s where I draw the line. Seriously.