It Turns Out Working Mothers Can’t Have It All

This popular ‘myth’ of motherhood is stretching women and families too thin at the cost of our health and happiness.

Shannon Hennig
The Startup
Published in
6 min readJun 12, 2019


A long time ago when I was little girl I was told a story. The story was that if I put my mind to it I could be anything I wanted. I could do, achieve and be whatever made my heart sing and mind buzz.

Growing up there were different versions of this story that were repeated over and over. They all left me firmly convinced that I could go after an advanced education, build a career, have a family, and live a life filled with adventure.

There had been so many advancements in women’s rights, and our ability to pursue all these things that my own mother, my teachers and female role models spoke of the opportunity with passion.

The opportunity to live life on my terms, free from the norms and expectations that weighed heavily, and had limited previous generations of women before me.

What they didn’t realize is that while this brave new world was still trying to make sense of the massive shift in gender equality, and what it meant for work and productivity, the push to perform and take advantage of these new freedoms would leave women depleted.

The pressure and guilt to make the most of these hard fought victories would see future generations running themselves into the ground, sacrificing their health and well being in pursuit of ‘having it all’.

There Are Only So Many Hours In A Day

Working mothers are trying to do it all, do more of it and maintain a veneer of having it all together. With these expectations it’s not a surprise that so many of us are riddled with anxiety, worry and the constant self-doubt of not being enough.

No matter what we do to try and plan or schedule our days to maximize what we can get done, there are only so many hours in a day.

Having children complicates our ability to perform in the same way as childless colleagues and it shows.

Trying to make it out the door in the morning with a grumpy, uncooperative toddler, and then getting slowed down by a lengthy daycare drop off mean that we’re showing up 30 minutes late to the office.

When we are at work, our brains are racing a million different directions as we try to do the job we’re being paid for, juggle the list of chores and activities at home that must get done, and worry about how our child is making out at day care.

This leaves us feeling scrambled and unable to fully do our best work. We then race out of the office to try and make it to daycare pick up. Then we try to run a few errands, head home to put something together for dinner, and wrangle our little ones into bed.

At this point complete exhaustion sets in as we sink into the couch and try to sort through the mail, personal emails and get caught up on social media.

Any plans to do laundry or try and tidy the house are abandoned as we start a new episode of This Is Us and fight the sleep that we so desperately need.

We stay up way later than we should, struggle to fall asleep and then find ourselves awake at 2am with a crying toddler. After they’re settled, we try to find some more rest, but the alarm goes at 6am so we can get up and do it all over again.

The Art Of Half-Assing Everything

Maybe I’m being too quick to suggest that we can’t have it all — we can but we have to be comfortable with mediocrity and exhaustion as a by-product.

What this means is that work, family and any attempts at a personal life are each given a bit of attention. Not enough to actually be engaged and present, but just enough that we can say we showed up.

Things start to look and feel totally half-assed, and for overachievers and perfectionists this is leads to a downward spiral of guilt, shame and eventually depression.

Our performance at work suffers, and tasks that we once excelled at are more and more difficult because of the constant mental distraction that is inherent with motherhood.

Other women in the office tend to be our harshest critics and hold us to standards much higher than male colleagues or childless women. We’re expected to make up for lost time spent trying to breast pump in the bathroom, or emergency trips in the afternoon to pick up a sick child.

At home we’ve given up on trying to keep things clean or stay on top of the laundry. A load that was washed last night for the third time and didn’t make it into the dryer finds itself being rewashed yet again, with the hope that it find its way there later today.

Dinner is a combination of crackers and cheese, scrambled eggs, and maybe some baby carrots and hummus.

We’d love to get in a workout or even go for a walk outside each day, but that means rearranging our schedule with the hope of not being interrupted by our child and partner, or missing out on an impromptu team lunch at the office.

Hobbies are something that we forgot about long ago — a luxury for those who aren’t trying to have a career, raise a family and keep the home fires burning.

Health And Happiness Are An Illusion

Just like the rest of the myth of working mothers being able to ‘have it all’, the idea that we can keep the balls in the air, and do it while staying healthy and happy is an illusion.

Carrying the constant mental load of motherhood along with trying to build a career, fighting with long commutes, and unrealistic expectations of our time and performance leaves us completely exhausted.

A low-grade buzz of anxiety keeps us in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, ready to spring into action at a moments notice. But instead of this being a helpful natural response to threat of danger, it only means our nerves are frayed.

We become unhappy, stressed, and have a hairpin trigger that sees us lose our minds over our child’s request for a different flavor of yogurt than the one just put down in front of them.

There hasn’t been time in our schedules to make appointments for annual physicals, dental check ups or eye exams.

We know that we need to prioritize our own self-care in order to be fully present and available for our families, but between the daily grind and endless interruptions, our needs take a backseat.

The picture I’ve painted is bleak, but it speaks directly to the reality of what many working mothers are trying to manage day in and day out. We’ve collectively agreed that having women in the workforce is important, but we’ve failed to provide the necessary supports for mothers in particular to succeed and thrive.

The narrative that working mothers can have it all keeps us hustling, trying to fulfill the promise that previous generations spoke about with so much hope and optimism. A failure to meet these expectations just adds to the mental load that so many of us carry.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not possible to have it all — at least not all at once. In order to succeed in one area, we have to be intentional in what other areas of our lives we put down or limit our focus on.

It could be that a professional career takes a backseat while our children are little. Maybe we pursue additional education once they hit junior high, and we choose to be present and available throughout the elementary years.

Some of us explore other options for self-employment, pursuing an entrepreneurial dream that means a lot of hard work, but the flexibility to there for our children when they need it most. We’re free from the expectations of managers that don’t understand what it’s like to be a working mother, and still able to live our lives with intention and purpose.

Whatever choice we make, the result is the same.

We acknowledge that we can’t have it all, not all at once, and that we’re giving up on trying to live someone else’s dream, and instead we’re intentionally choosing to follow our own.

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Shannon Hennig
The Startup

Communication strategist and writer. Mindfulness, health, wellness and being a busy working mom.