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You can’t have it all — but what if you really, really want it?
The backstory: I’ve just returned from year-long maternity leave, and while I’m excited to spend time with adults again, I feel like I’m missing out on milestones while chasing the punch clock, so to speak.
I think it’ll only get worse with time as my child grows up and has after-school activities and needs support doing homework. At the same time, my confidence and self-definition are really intertwined with my career aspirations. How do I make sure I balance both?
Being a working mom isn’t easy, but it’s great that you have career aspirations. I think it’s important for women to maintain some independence and have their “own life.” Your perspective and priorities may have shifted after giving birth, but with the right support, you can thrive.
Parental leave may seem glamorous, but a common theme I have seen, especially with my friends whose kids are older, is how important it is, especially for mothers, to “have their own life” because the reality is one day, your kids are going to move out. I also see this as an issue for some moms who are very aware of this and afraid of losing their identity, so they take on way too much, which may result in burnout.
I don’t have kids, but I have insights from friends balancing successful careers and children. Common issues I noticed are how to perform optimally at work while dealing with childcare options, pick up and drop off logistics, getting enough sleep, and trusting others to look after your baby as a new mom. And then there are the emotional angles, such as the guilt for not being around for your baby and how they will feel and react without you.
How do we maintain balance?
A recent study discovered that women in the workplace spend as much time taking care of their children as stay-at-home moms in 1975.
Often I see mothers prioritizing their children and families before themselves, but that could lead to consequences in the future, including burnout and mood disorders. The commonly used airplane analogy goes: “you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help the people around you.”
Women often suffer alone and don’t speak up because society doesn’t understand postpartum symptoms that can make life challenging due to hormonal changes in a woman’s body. Society also prizes strong, independent people, which will cause shame and guilt if you voice your hardship. Still, thankfully that’s changing as we are transitioning out of the pandemic and talking about mental health is less stigmatized than before.
Going back to work doesn’t have to be scary as long as you prepare your mindset. Remember, life is all about outlook, so you will make it work if you want something,
The first step is to believe in yourself.
1) Understand your biological wiring
John Gray, the author of the notable Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, explains that men and women are biologically wired uniquely for our species to survive. Despite societal pressures, we must maintain a balance of what it means to be a male or a female. Men are wired to hunt and gather food, while women are programmed to raise the family and worry about the future.
Women are more emotional and prone to anxiety. We already have a billion things to worry about in our mental load, including that there are precisely 1.5 rolls of toilet paper left in the house.
Emma illustrates this burden held by only women in her comic, Mental Load.
If you and your partner are aware of your biological wiring, you are better equipped to come together as a team to tackle life together effectively.
2) Be present
Understand that life is always tough, but whatever you are doing, be completely present with that task, whether it is your work or spending time with your child. Don't do both. Don't multitask. You can cultivate this skill by practicing mundane tasks such as washing the dishes and drying your hair. The more you do it, the easier it will become as you rewire your brain to do things differently.
3) Be aware of your mental load
What causes burnout is when you are in cognitive overdrive. Amishi Jha tells us our minds are like whiteboards in the book Peak Mind. There is only so much information we can hold in our working memory. The brain is a war zone where attention is currency, but our attention is being pulled in all directions, so managing your attention is the secret to harnessing control of your life.
Over a decade ago, I read an article that heightened my interest in science and human behaviour. I am sure you’ve heard of tragic stories where parents leave a child in a hot car — this is because our brain is a sophisticated device which can easily be overburdened in today’s fast-paced world, causing a failure of the memory system. You can be the best parent, but that is irrelevant when your brain is faced with a chronic combination of stress, fatigue, emotions, and hormonal changes.
David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, says, “Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.” He explains, “what happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted— such as if the child cries or if the wife mentions the child in the back— it can entirely disappear.”
So how do we make sure to manage our attention to ensure our mental whiteboard has enough capacity to maintain a work-life balance?
Prioritize self-compassion and be mindful of your needs
You need to take care of yourself first before you can be there for your family. When you have less cognitive overload and are more relaxed, you will be a happier and better parent— and your kids will feel this.
Protect your energy to protect theirs
Do not try to do this alone — ASK FOR HELP and take advantage of all the help you can get.
Here are a few tips you may consider to maintain work-life balance as a new mom:
- Redefine your priorities.
- Ask your spouse to pitch in with logistics and around the house.
- Have conversations with your boss and HR.
- Ask your colleagues to help you catch up.
- Protect your time and energy. Don’t give in to peer pressure or shame– say no when you need to.
- When you are feeling overwhelmed, pause and take deep breaths.
- Keep track of our emotions by journaling or pausing to name an emotion you are feeling. When you name an emotion, it makes it ‘real,’ helping you deal with it better.
- Develop coping skills such as mindfulness, emotional regulation, self-compassion, adaptability and resilience because you never know what to expect from life.
- Have a therapist or friends to talk to where you can express yourself in a non-judgemental environment.
Human beings are social creatures. Compassion is hardwired into our nervous system. “Caring is right at the heart of human existence,” Susan Cain tells us in her new book, ‘Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.’ Our vagus nerve, which is connected to digestion, sex, and breathing, is also where the impulse to respond to other beings’ needs lies.
You would be surprised at how people, even strangers, would be glad to help because giving is one of the innate traits that keeps us happy and fulfilled.
Mobilize your awareness and your community to help you maintain a work-life balance. You are not alone.
Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.