I closed my office door, sat at my computer, and started sobbing. My husband had sent me a video of my sixth-month-old baby starting to crawl. I thought about the night before, rushing through my son's bedtime routine so that I could grade papers, prepare class notes, and work on a book chapter.
As a new mom, I struggled with the guilt of leaving my new baby at home every day to go to work. I reflected on major moments I might miss: his first steps, his first words, standing for the first time, and so much more. Every morning I would take a mental picture of my baby because I knew when I got home he would have grown in a new and wonderful way. As a mother, I felt like I was missing out on those special moments.
I also felt guilty for missing work while on maternity leave. I felt like I neglected my creativity and critical thinking, and I missed the engagement and discussing interesting topics. I felt I missed out on interesting things my colleagues were doing. When I returned, I felt guilty that instead of staying late to finish a project, I was rushing home to get there in time for dinner, bath, and bed.
As I write, I am well past my scheduled time to leave to get home for these important events. And yet, I couldn't walk away from getting my ideas on paper and feeling as though I had contributed.
As a leader, scholar, and mother, I feel the magnetism of two things I love equally pulling on me for attention. For the first real-time in my life, I feel guilty because I love what I do: the innovation, creativity, and intellectualism that I get to pursue, but also being a mom and spending that time with my kiddo. This guilt dynamic has been all too common.
It's not just my new life. It's the lives of working mothers, particularly mothers who are executive-level leaders.
The guilt I face is not uncommon among working moms, particularly "power moms." According to Joann S. Lublin, power moms are "experienced female business executives with successful careers and children."
Power moms emerged when women born between 1946 and1964—the Boomer Generation—began navigating dual roles as caregivers and business leaders. These first-wave power moms juggled work life and personal life conflicts with few role models and minimal social and family support.
As second-wave power moms, typically born between 1974 and 1985, and third-wave millennial women joined the ranks, they benefited from the progress of first-wave power moms. A study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, founded by Sheryl Sandberg, determined that power moms occupied 21 percent of US and Canadian Fortune 500 c-suites in 2020 (up from 17 percent in 2015 and 10 percent in 1996). Today, a significant portion of major US corporations are led by women with children.
Several decades into the power mom era, societal resistance to women who work full-time while also managing family life has lessened. Even so, power moms continue to struggle to strike the work-life balance, to handle the twin commitments of raising a family and having a career. Power moms are responsible not just for balancing the work-life leadership of corporations and organizations but also for the "office work of home life" as well.
Compounding the challenge, power moms typically handle the bulk of domestic duties alongside advancing their careers, putting in long hours to make their way up in the corporate world while still making it home for family dinners. Even with the progress made by first and second-wave power moms, women still receive the brunt of the social expectations of child-rearing. A study of U.S. adults published in December 2018 concluded that working moms are still responsible for the majority of the family duties, including nutrition and food consumption, caring for sick kids, coordinating social and extracurricular activities and schedules, and maintaining a household. This creates an excessive burden on women in leadership.
"The social costs for not meeting these ideals are more severe for mothers than for fathers," the study's researchers observed. Women's mental burden requires them "to be not just parents and caretakers but also unofficial keepers of where the entire family needs to be and when and perpetual guardians against anything falling through the cracks," according to a Bright Horizons report. This invisible, unpaid work is essentially an additional mother load.
The COVID pandemic further disrupted the reality of power moms, as the majority of those forced to leave the workforce were working mothers who had to choose between their children and careers. Power moms still struggle with benefits like paid family leave, universal childcare, sick kid health care, and flexible working schedules.
While sentiments about working moms have improved since the rise of first-wave power moms, working-mother guilt persists, largely because gender role expectations are still evolving. Research shows that working fathers don't suffer an increased level of guilt for missing family obligations and events as working mothers do. The same guilt that tormented me has troubled power moms across generations.
"Mothers' stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, may be affecting their kids poorly," Bowling Green State University sociologist Kei Nomaguchi told the Washington Post. Somewhat like catching an emotional cold, an emotional contagion is a psychological phenomenon where people "catch" feelings from one another. If a parent is continually exhausted or frustrated, that emotional state can transfer to the children. Ditching the guilt can improve both a woman's work life and her life as a mom.
So, what are some ways that you as a power mom can ditch that guilt?
Unlike first-wave power moms, second-wave power moms enjoy more social acceptance and a larger network of support (both at home and office) as more women encounter similar scenarios. This development facilitates discussion of childcare issues and family expectations at work. Start with a conversation with both sides—family and work—and lay the groundwork for time and attention.
Rather than work-life balance, aspire to work-life sway. Work-life sway is about moving through both work and life simultaneously. It's important to have a conversation about expectations: what your coworkers and subordinates can expect from you as a working mother and what your family can expect from you as a mother working.
Power moms are also exploring flex opportunities with their companies. That is what Steph Weber, of the WeberCo, established when she launched her business. "Some weeks and days are busier than others. If there is a launch that takes two long weeks to prepare for and I'm working late, well then, the next week I will end early because I put a lot of time in the two weeks before."
Some power moms have also negotiated flex time during down time to flex their hours instead of taking a vacation. Some moms have hired external help in the form of an au pair or nanny or family member. Having someone they trust to take care of their family as an extension of them helps assure mothers that their children are cared for.
Stressed over the quantity of time you spend with your child? Research shows that quality time is vitally important.
Start by determining your non-negotiables. This can be something as simple as "on Wednesdays, I'll leave to be home for dinner" or "I'll leave to be home for a bath, book, and bedtime" or "I will make all the important sporting events and musicals." Recent research cited by Brigid Schulte at the Washington Post indicates that the number of hours that moms spend with kids between ages three and 11 does little to predict the child's behavior, well-being, or achievement.
In fact, according Harvard Business School research, children growing up with mothers who work outside the home reap significant benefits. The study found that daughters of working mothers went to school longer, were more likely to have a job in a supervisory role, and earned more money—23 percent more compared to their peers who were raised by stay-at-home mothers. The study also highlighted that the sons of working mothers tended to pitch in more on household chores and childcare, and they spent seven-and-a-half more hours a week on childcare and 25 more minutes on housework. Those are results that can assuage anyone's guilt.
Being mentally present when you're physically present is critical. This means either turning off devices or setting them aside during playtime, dinner, and bedtime. "Technology not only lets you multitask, it demands that you do those things," suggests Shelley J. Correll, a gender researcher. "You're supposed to be always on for work—and always there for your kids. That's where the guilt comes from," she continues.
Role modeling is a way of signaling what's appropriate in terms of behavior and the activities you engage in. Pause before you pick up the phone or hop on the computer and ask yourself :do I need to respond to this now, or can it wait until …(the kids are in bed, tomorrow morning, Monday, etc…)?
If there is an opportunity to engage your kids in your work, do so. I remember company picnics with my mom and going into the office with her to pick up paperwork or finish a quick project. These experiences not only increase time together but reinforce the notion that mothers can also be accomplished professionals.
When there are opportunities to bring my son to campus and introduce him to students, I do. Not only does it help him see my work is important, but it also helps my coworkers and students understand my other obligations so they know why I don't always get to something immediately.
One power mom I spoke with works in Division I athletics and travels frequently for work. Depending on the trip, her family might accompany her or meet her there. If not, she includes her young children in some of the trip planning and gives them an idea of where she will be. "We also have the benefits of FaceTime that my mom's generation didn't that keeps us connected," she once told me. "I may not always be able to physically be there for bedtime but I can try to call for a bedtime story."
As an executive, you've been trained to lead, but as a mom, you're getting on-the-job training. The ability to overcome setbacks and crises helps both at home and at work. Find people who will support you and provide honest support and advice. It could be a fellow power mom, family member, friend, or therapist. Regardless, having someone to talk with puts situations in perspective.
Stay away from the need to compare through social media. Remember that what you see on social media is someone else's curated life. Don't compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else's highlight reel. When you receive those opinions outside your inner circle, or even from your inner circle, they likely have no idea what happens in day-to-day life.
Culture has attached so much worth to what we do and the titles we hold vs. who we are and the uniqueness we provide. At the end of the day, work-life sway involves showing up for both roles the best we can.
Some days we are focused on being a mom and some days we're focused on being an executive. "When we are better at home, we are better at work," concurs Malena Higuera, the L'Oréal executive. She never misses an event that her two sons will remember she missed "and I won't remember why." At work, she assigns her highest priority to actions that are "changing lives and thus creating a market share."
The critical lesson here is: give yourself some grace and patience. No one is a perfect parent, and no one is a perfect leader. Remember that when you're a power mom, you've got everything you need to succeed inside you. You just have to access it.
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