There’s a lot of talk about what’s “possible” for working moms in modern society.
For some reason I’ve been hearing a number of comments recently about a commencement speech that Shonda Rhimes gave in 2014 at Dartmouth University. She has a lot of wonderful advice in her speech, but there was one part I took issue with, which is what I want to discuss here.
Here’s an excerpt about balancing working parenthood from Ms. Rhimes’ speech:
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life…. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing.
I appreciate that this is Rhimes’ experience, and I also appreciate her vulnerability and honesty about her experience. I even appreciate the message she goes on to deliver, which is that being a powerful working woman is a wonderful gift to pass on to your children.
Most of her message I can resonate with. But this portion of her message deeply concerns me.
It concerns me because this isn’t my experience. It concerns me because I know a lot of powerful, professional women who don’t feel like something is always missing in their life. I simply don’t believe all working women are doomed to feel guilty and lost just because they are juggling a career as well as a family.
I wasn’t always so convinced that it was possible to have a healthy and integrated life. I spent my first year or so as a working mom struggling just to stay afloat. In those moments, those desperate moments when I didn’t know how I was going to survive working parenthood, I would have found this message oddly comforting.
I would have thought:
“Whew! Okay, so this is just how it’s going to be? It’s just going to be a struggle, huh? Well, I’m not exactly thrilled about that. But I’ve been having such a hard time, so at least I know I’m normal. At least I know I’m not doing anything wrong… this is just the way it is for working parents. I guess now that I know that I can make peace with it. It’s just not possible to have the life I really want. I’ll just do my best to get through the day and hope for the best.”
If I had stopped there though, if I had accepted Rhimes’ belief that this was just what successful working parenthood is, then I would have been selling myself short. I never would have taken the time to create a life that didn’t include feeling guilty, stressed out, and lost. I would have settled. And I would probably look back on these years of early parenthood with a whole boatload of regrets.
If I had accepted Rhimes’ beliefs about working motherhood, I never would have uncovered the real problem in my own life:
I was powering through my life… I wasn’t living my life.
There was zero strategy involved in my day. I was just trying to keep up with all of the demands coming my way. It wasn’t my fault. The transition into working parenthood is intense, and it completely transformed my life.
Becoming a mother added a depth and complexity to who I was that I wasn’t entirely prepared for.
Becoming a mother came with a whole new set of responsibilities and time constraints that I was only marginally prepared for. It took a while for me to figure out how to make my new reality really fit the new me.
Knowing what I know now, I’m so glad I didn’t accept the message Rhimes shares in her speech.
What concerns me even more than the message itself is that this message is catching on quickly. Working women all over the world are learning to accept and justify a false belief: they’ll have to get used to feeling like a failure in one area of their lives in order to be successful in another.
For many of us, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know. As a result, we get stuck in what’s familiar because reaching for the unfamiliar can be incredibly scary. And for a mom that’s already experiencing so much transition, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out how to create a better life. So you accept your current lifestyle (even if it’s killing you slowly) because at least it’s familiar. It’s a known entity. That certainty can be comforting, even if it’s hard.
As a mom who now balances a successful career, a happy marriage, quality time with my son, my friends, and myself, I believe there’s a different message that needs to be shared with working moms.
It’s time to stop underestimating our ability as successful professionals and loving moms to manage our lives effectively. It is possible to find meaning and purpose and peace as a powerful mom and professional.
It’s not only possible… it’s critical.
Creating a life you love as a working mother is a process. It’s a journey. It’s not something that happens overnight. But if you’re truly ready to kick burnout to the curb and create a life worth living, here are 8 things I started focusing on that made all the difference.
1) I Did a Thorough and Honest Time Audit
When I finally decided to reclaim my life, the first thing I did was analyze my schedule to identify where my time was really going. I was surprised to learn that I was wasting quite a bit of time on things that really weren’t that important to me. I began to get conscious about where my time was going, and I committed to making my time work for me. Once I knew the truth, I very quickly replaced the activities that simply numbed me out with activities that actually recharged me.
2) I Clarified My Current Values and Priorities
I also found that I needed to re-orient my priorities around my core personal values. Through this exercise, I began to see an inconsistency between what I identified as my values, and what my actions reflected. For example, I knew being healthy and being present for my family were two of my strongest core values. But my job was taking over my life, which was creating a lot of frustration and stress in my life. I started to make specific changes so my outside environment matched my internal values.
3) I Began to Critically Assess My Relationships
There’s a saying among successful people that “you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” So I began to let go of relationships that didn’t support my priorities or who drained my energy. I began to invest my energy on healthier relationships instead. I surrounded myself with people who reflected the type of life I wanted to live, and who brought out the best in me.
4) I Set Some Boundaries
I also became comfortable saying no to others. I reclaimed control of my life by choosing which things would receive my attention. I let go of the guilt associated with disappointing others, and learned how to set limits without jeopardizing my relationships. As John Acuff says, “your ‘yes’ should be expensive.”
5) I Developed a Vision for a Better Life
I began to allow myself to dream of more for myself and my family, where I didn’t feel like I was failing or missing out or struggling all the time. I clarified what elements I absolutely needed in my life to feel complete and at peace, and which elements of my life could be left behind. My vision itself has evolved over time, but the important part was that I began to open my mind to something more.
6) I Created a Plan
Once I knew what I wanted my life to look like instead, I mapped out a plan to take small but significant steps toward that ideal life. I considered what I actually wanted my life to look like, and I came up with specific action steps that would move me in the right direction. I considered the obstacles that might stand in my way, and I developed strategies to overcome them. I reached out for help when I needed it, and I made minor course corrections as I moved toward my ultimate vision.
7) I Learned the Practical Skills I Needed to Operate More Effectively
I learned the science behind habits so I could replace my bad habits with healthier ones. I became more efficient, both at work and at home. I learned to pass up every opportunity for the right opportunities. I practiced “just in time learning” so I didn’t experience information overload or analysis paralysis. I established routines and systems so I didn’t waste my energy on repeatable activities.
8) I Set Myself Up for a Successful Transition into a Life I Love
This piece is still in progress. Today I question my limiting beliefs, and challenge those ideas that aren’t working for me anymore. I let go of “working parent guilt” by making conscious choices, and staying as present in the moment as possible. I accept imperfection as a part of working parenthood. Some days are better than others, but I know not every day will be rainbows and sunshine and that’s okay. I surround myself with supportive and positive people, and I release those people who keep me stuck in a stressful life. I step outside of my comfort zone. I give myself the space and the time to be uncomfortable with change, while continuing to drive forward with faith. I trust my instincts, and allow myself to march to the beat of my own drummer. I choose a different path when the one I’m on isn’t working.
Daring to create a better life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I appreciate the experience Shonda Rhimes describes, especially since I know it’s something so many working parents can relate to these days. But we don’t have to continue to sell ourselves short on this one life we have to live.
If you’re buying into this myth that you can’t be successful in more than one area of your life at a time… please know this:
You are a powerful working woman. And you are a powerful mom.
It is possible to have a fulfilling and balanced life. You just need to believe it’s possible, and then take some small steps to get there.
*A version of this article was originally published at http://workingparentresource.com.