I am a full-time working mother of two―one of my children is 5 years old, and the other is 2 years old. The "full-time" has a lot to do with paying for their care―as much as it does with paying for food on the table. It is that dreadful "chicken-or-the-egg" conundrum, and I feel like I am always running around like a chicken with my head cut off, as I try to find a better way.
I was taken by surprise when a fellow parent of one of my child's classmates mentioned, in some context that I'm sure made sense at the time (but has since been lost to the blur of an average pick-up session) that I "always seem like I have it all together". I thanked him, and I remain eternally grateful for the little mid-week boost he provided to my harried mind, desperate for the eye-of-the-storm. Needless to say, there was a part of me inside that was rolling with the kind of uproarious, belly-laughter that I hadn't been inspired to engage in since college.
I truly am the very last working mother that should ever be perceived as "having it all together". I had little idea going into working motherhood, that it would be so darn hard. My own mother stayed at home, but I had friends whose mothers worked (although in retrospect, I believe most of them worked in varying shades of part-to-full time). The challenges intrinsic to working motherhood were never conveyed, so I figured it must not be that big of a deal.
I was wrong.
In my experience, having two very young children who need more than just "decent" sleep at regular times, and whose minds and hearts are veritable sponges of the world which they are being newly presented with, is a square peg in the round hole of the work-a-day, professional construct as we know it―leading to parental burn-out on both ends of the gender spectrum as we all try to do everything for everybody, and be everybody to everyone. To me, the father being in awe of my working parent prowess hinted of his being caught up in his own whirlwind of working and fulfilling his equally important role of being an engaged parent.
This being said, it caused me to wonder what it is that I've been doing that has been effective enough to at least portray a calm, cool, collected and―most importantly―a connected parent, when I truly have all balls up in the air at once 75% of the time, and if I could pick out my current lifestyle's design theme from the nursery section of a Pottery Barn catalogue, it would be "Utter Chaos"―all while I try to give my children the love that they need in all of its many forms, and try to provide their food, clothing, and shelter (which, yes, are 3 of the many faces of love). I've compiled a list of strategies, knacks and coping mechanisms that I use, because I don't think I am alone in this boat of working parenthood that seems to sink most days.
1) Surround yourself with other working mothers and limit the influence of the women that don't or aren't one
I've somehow backed myself into a corner where I work with, and am friends with, a lot of women who work but don't have kids; and I'm friends with and I know of a lot of women who have kids but don't professionally work outside of the home. Neither segment offers much sanctuary when stuff hits the fan, or when I simply need to be understood without having to write the person an essay about how it is, and why it is. One of my many childless co-workers once skeptically questioned my leaving an office social hour to pick up my kids from daycare, when my husband was in a position to do so that day. My answer to her would have been a combination of saying that what with pick-ups sometimes being elaborate, tricky affairs which require remembering to collect all of your child's things from the 5 different places that they are kept within the classroom, and if you don't―their lunch dishes may go uncleaned, or their hands may be without mittens for the commute over The Pass (I live in the mountains of Colorado); and because I am the one that does it almost every time, I have it pretty well dialed-in and so we stand a chance of eating dinner before the next day breaks...as long as I stick to the routine. Secondly―I enjoy spending time with my children! This co-worker was childless by choice. I did not feel like explaining to her that though lacking in quality, I consider the time spent retrieving my children from their classrooms and gathering their things to be time with them nonetheless, while I ask about their days and let them show me what it is that they'd just been doing. Our time together is so limited, that I try to squeeze every drop of it from the day that I can.
Bless their hearts, and it's probably wrong of me to say so―but stay-at-home mothers can sometimes drive me nuts with their postings and blogs about their level of overwhelm. I have no doubt about the amount of work that goes into household management, but mostly because I'm fitting most of ours into the weekend, and the weekdays that I have been able to stay home with my kids, home management is definitely its own circus. But when my husband and I are at work, there is no one we've hired to be at home to do those same things for us that are causing the SAHM such strife―they just get crammed into the little amount of time that we're supposed to be also enjoying our kids.
As far as we think we've come, women are still expected to do most of the household chores, job or no job (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-08/asa-sag081616.php), and we usually do. I do it because out of all of my jobs, I enjoy maintaining my home, together with caring for my children, the most and I'm not willing to miss out on it. This doesn't mean that I'm not bloody tired when doing so, but I don't have the respite of sending the kids off to school while I catch up on chores or sleep―because I am using that time to work for someone else, which doesn't give me even a chance at whittling away on laundry or cooking, no matter how many "tips and tricks for getting it all done when you're feeling overwhelmed" blog pages written by stay-at-home mothers I read.
Put these rants together with seeing posts of field trip selfies and viewing photos of the perfectly executed costumes they make for their children, and hearing about the plethora of music or art instruction classes, or scouting groups or sporting activities which they are able to run around doing with their kids, and my friendships with stay-at-home mothers can sometimes feel unbearable.
To cultivate my relatively positive, it-is-what-it-is outlook and therefore my ability to smile at other people like the father at pick-up (thus, giving the illusion of one who "has it all together"; see what I did there?), I've made a point to send the actions and words of those who have a hard time understanding and sometimes supporting me, and likewise those whom I have a hard time cheering on sometimes (even if it's out of sheer envy) to my mental back burner. I seek out and focus on the stories and support of my fellow working mothers―who know how it is, and whom I don't have to spend my little remaining energy on to make them get "it", or to get me. It might be a little like digging for hermit crabs, because other working mothers are just as exhausted and wanting to focus their time on their own families when they have it, just like me. But the occasional late-night chat or passing tired smile in the hallway can sometimes be everything: providing just the right nudge to get through the next day and to make you believe for a little while that maybe you do have it all together. It helps me feel more grounded in my present reality, and to feel less like an isolated, tiny island drowning in the rising waters of global warming, that is―drowning in the sharpening economic climate that's making it necessary for mothers to either make a lot of money or none at all.
2) Seek information that supports the progress and evolution of working motherhood
There are centuries of anecdotal and scientific evidence which supports children having a parent at home, for myriad and widely varying reasons. That doesn't mean that we aren't beginning to build a library of benefits children reap from growing up in a household in which both parents work outside of the home. As the economy ebbs and flows—so, too, does the number of households that survive and thrive because both parents take the initiative to work. It is important to find the information that supports your choice to work―not only because it's not as readily available or as "common sense", leading to a sense of despair if you have to work to make ends meet, but because it is important for your choices to be based upon as many factors as possible (financial stability being only one), making for an active choice that you can stand up for and be proud of―above and beyond a simple, "we need the money". This makes you an informed parent instead of a despairing sheep―whether your choice is to work or to not work. One of my favorites is this one: http://www.hbs.edu/news/releases/Pages/having-working-mother.aspx
But, I feel it leaves some gaps in the feel-good information it supplies to working mothers, so I've gone on to find this one:
And this one:
You get the idea. The point is―know all the reasons why you do what you do, and you will come to more fully embody what it means to "have it all together". Further validation of a life choice is never a bad idea if it helps you hold your chin up a little higher, especially when the original reason you made it doesn't satisfy your conscience.
3) Remember to emphasize the positive
Having been raised by a stay-at-home mother, I feel like I would do a pretty good job of it, if given the chance. I am also acutely aware of the benefits and opportunities such an arrangement provides to a young child. However, I am also aware that my children are developing in some positive ways that I didn’t until much later. I routinely and consciously remind myself of the positives that come out of a formal early childhood education like my children are receiving:
-their social circle is likely wider, and their social skills more developed than they would be, if home with me (and maybe more than mine ever became-ha!)
-my children’s early childhood school provides free screenings and evaluations for the usual vision and hearing, but also speech and social/emotional development. Both of my children have been tagged as having potential minor speech issues, for which we are having them more thoroughly evaluated. I’m not sure I would have identified an issue, depending solely upon their doctor visits and play groups if I were a stay-at-home mother. You may say that their issues would be identified once they began regular school, but treatment is more effective the younger a child is at time of diagnosis.
-my children have a much wider array of materials available to them at any given time, than I would be able to give them at home. I feel as though they are freer to express themselves and explore their interests than they would be, if restricted to what I have on-hand or what I feel like putting out or cleaning up, any given day
-the school my children attend makes a concerted effort to get its children involved in the community, and to ensure that they are “out and about” doing things and experiencing things on an almost daily basis. They have seen an orchestra, performance art, our local and world-renowned exhibit of freshly-made snow sculptures, and they are always going on hikes and adventures to maintain a connection to their natural world. I am impressed with the teachers’ ambition, stamina, and organization in making these opportunities possible, especially considering how young their students (my children) are. I am not sure my patience or my sights would be set as high some days, if it were just me trying to make the same opportunities happen as regularly as they do
4) Enjoy the conveniences working parenthood affords you
I am fortunate to work a job that allows for a consistent lunch break, and my children’s school closes a little later than others do, locally. I take advantage of this time to grab some groceries, or to pick up a birthday gift for the weekend’s party, and I do so in about half of the time it would take if I had my children with me, thus buying us more time together later that isn’t necessarily tied up with running errands. Recognize these little pockets of time, and enjoy them!
At Christmastime, I am thankful for the extra opportunities for covert gift buying. I’m not quite sure how stay-at-home mothers of very young children pull off the whole Christmas thing, but I’m sure the internet comes into play a smidge (as it does for me, as well). I try to revel in the freedom to run around town, for even the briefest amount of time, carrying serendipitously discovered presents for my children (which I will then stash in the trunk in time to pick them up from school, natch).
5) Keep to the smallest routines
I think part of my “secret” to appearing as though I “have it all together” is that I make a point to stick to our routines and patterns, which is as much for my benefit as it is for my children’s. I winnow down our chaos by knowing roughly what I’ll be doing and when I’ll be doing it, which helps me prepare, achieve mini-goals, and ensure smooth transitions on an hourly, daily, and weekly basis. For example: I always help my children get dressed before we eat breakfast. The times I let my oldest talk me into eating breakfast first, getting him dressed was a huge struggle and we were late getting out of the door, which cast a negative tone on the beginning of our day and threw off the subsequent markers of an otherwise smooth morning. I always make a point to read my children one book of their choosing at bedtime. I use this as my own transitional tool―helping me manifest a sense of calm and to mentally regroup for what is usually the final stage of the day which includes packing lunches and preparing bags, queueing the kitchen up for breakfast, etc. I feel that having several consistent things I do at about the same time, every day, helps me to focus and to check things off in my head as I go, leaving less chance of forgetting things that I should be preparing or packing for the following day.
6) Be always reaching for your personal professional goals and passions so your time apart from your children is not in vain
I feel like some of my joy and spark comes from seeing my job as a means to an end, and not the end to all meaning. I think it is important to always have one toe in what you’d really like to do with your life professionally (if your current job isn’t it), so that the time you spend working solely to provide for your family is not in vain. I work on my interests and passions when I have the energy and after the kids have gone to bed, or during my lunch break―however seldom that may be, so that my children are able to identify a sense of hope and love for life, and so they don’t wonder why we had to be apart so much for something I hated doing. My job, in addition to providing basic necessities, allows me the time and resources to work on writing and art, with the intent of achieving some of my creative goals or to travel again in the future. It is important that our children see this passion alive in us, because otherwise I fear that they will think of time spent working as time spent wasted if we achieve nothing for ourselves that feeds our souls or that we can be proud of, above and beyond putting in the time for a paycheck.
7) It's less about "budgeting" your time and more about rationing your time
“Budgeting” my time has never resonated with me. Maybe that is because I’m hardly able to budget our finances, what with basically hemorrhaging money until the kids are in public school and/or stop believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny. I like to think of it as more rationing my time―setting and achieving the smallest goals throughout the day, so that I’m able to reserve energy and motivation to achieve additional goals the next day. I’m currently working on completing my son’s entire baby book project by choosing and retrieving one photo from my digital files per night. I set myself up to write this piece by making a goal to jot out just the bullet points as its skeleton one night, and to flesh it out the next day when my energy reserves were refreshed. If I tried to get the lion’s share of big projects done after work and after I’d taken care of my family simply because “I have so much to do!”, not only would I end up with shoddy results but I may get discouraged and never finish what I set out to do because I’d depleted myself to the point of not having enough energy to finish, or to even continue the project the next day. As counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes I'm able to get more done for myself and for my family in, say, a month by doing less per day, as long as I'm doing just a little bit every day.
What are some things you can do, right now, to feel more like you “have it all together”? Maybe:
1) Write down two small goals that don't have to do with work or your usual family-related obligations that you can accomplish tonight. Go on—right there, at your desk, or at your workstation, or your kiosk. I won’t look; I won’t tell your boss.
This is not about packing lunches; think long-term projects that you've been wanting to tackle, but that seem insurmountable on an average weeknight. Need to organize your family bookkeeping file cabinet? Clean one drawer tonight. Write these teeny-tiny goals down on a piece of paper (my fav is a post-it). Throw it away when you've done them. Feel the sense of accomplishment wash over you, and the momentum to do it again tomorrow take hold. You DO have it all together, Working Mom or Dad!
2) Identify 2-3 instances throughout your average week when you could stand to "winnow down the chaos". Devise ways to simplify them, focus on them, and remain in control of them.
Maybe your morning routine is too flexible, allowing your child to free-wheel their way through what they want to do and when they want to do it, although you do end up getting everything done…eventually. Try organizing all of their same tasks into a set pattern and see if it doesn't help you feel more like it's "all together" by the time you arrive at their school or daycare.
Maybe you need one regular focal point, or climax to your nights―something that you do every evening, no matter what, that you and your child can look forward to, and that establishes a clean close to the day, leaving you mentally available for accomplishing your personal goals afterwards.
3) Muse on what your interests are, and research ways to monetize them. Set up an appointment with a small business development consultant to discuss how to begin replacing some of your "day job" with an income stream rooted in something you're happy about doing. A happy parent helps make a happy family, and leads to a more full-time sense of "having it all together"!
Carisa Peterson is a published writer and produced playwright by night; she is a full-time mother and full-time worker bee by day. She is a lover of all things chartreuse and can be found doodling topiary trees in her spare time. Carisa is available for commercial copy and content writing. Please visit http://www.carisapeterson.com.