Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Happiest Working Moms

I'm honored and delighted to host today's stop on Meagan Francis' virtual book tour. I've known Meagan since the early days of the Chicago Moms Blog (R.I.P.), and in the years since, she's added a fifth child (her first girl) to her beautiful family, moved from the big city to a much smaller town in southwest Michigan, and shifted her writing career into overdrive. 

The Happiest Mom is not unlike Good Enough is the New Perfect--also just released--in that its focus is on not sweating the small stuff, something increasingly hard to do in this age of hyper-parenting. But while Good Enough is a fairly weighty read of interviews and research into the lives of happy (and unhappy) moms with demanding professional lives, The Happiest Mom is a light, cheerful book full of quizzes, tips and adorable illustrations. It's not unlike an issue of Parenting magazine (who partnered with Meagan to publish it) in that you can open it to any page and find immediate inspiration in the form of a helpful hint. 

In The Happiest Mom and on her blog of the same name, Meagan speaks to a broad audience of SAHMs, WAHMs, part-time working moms and full-time working moms, regardless of their academic or professional ambition. So I challenged Meagan to come up with her top tips for happiness for moms like me--those of us who are as dedicated to our career selves as we are to our children and have upended traditional roles to become the primary breadwinners for our families.

Even though I'm a working mom, in our household my husband and I have still stuck to fairly traditional gender roles...at least, on the surface. But like many families, we're slowly working toward a more equitable division of labor: both the kind that happens in the home and the kind that pads the bank account. 

And we're just one face of the changing modern family. Maybe in your partnership the roles have been completely reversed: you're working outside the home while he's caring for the kids and getting dinner on the table. Or maybe you're a single working mom, or both you and your partner work full-time outside the home. These days, there are almost as many different variations of work-life arrangements as there are individual families.

No matter how you and your partner juggle life, work, and kids, my "secrets" of happier motherhood can apply to you. Here are three I think are particularly relevant to working moms:

1) You don't have anything to prove. As a busy working-out-of-the-home mom, my sister Kathreen used to feel obligated to chaperone every possible school field trip and head up the PTA, just to prove she was really caring and involved. After many years of giving all her personal time to the school, she realized she was volunteering more out of guilt than because she felt really strongly about accompanying her child to the zoo...and as for the PTA, well, it was time to pass the baton. Lucky me--by the time I got to have school-aged kids, I was able to follow my sister's example and limit my volunteering without guilt. 

Sure, maybe some moms shake their heads behind my back because I don't appear to be as involved as they are, but who cares? I don't have anything to prove to anyone besides myself and my own family...and there are many ways to contribute that don't include a lot of classroom face-time.

2) Do what you're best at or enjoy most, and delegate the rest. I actually love to clean...a few very specific areas of my house. As for the rest? Between deadlines and a toddler hanging off my leg, there's no way I'd regularly get around to cleaning my own baseboards or dusting the ceiling fan blades. My solution is delegating. 

My kids and my husband pick up a lot of the slack, but because my husband also works and my kids are still pretty young, there's just no way we can do it all. So we have a cleaning person, Lynda, come in twice a month to do the real dirty work. Worried about affording her services, I did the math, and realized her pay is about the same as the cost of a premium cable package.

I ditched the cable and never missed it. On the other hand, I'd miss Lynda something terrible.

Cleaning is just an example, of course. From grocery shopping to cooking, from schedule-keeping to managing your finances, chances are good you'll do a better job of juggling if you delegate the stuff that brings you down or just doesn't seem to fit. 

If you can't afford to hire something out and it doesn't seem all that important, another option is just ignoring it. After all, will anyone really notice if your baseboards aren't clean? 

3) Deconstruct guilt.
"Don't feel guilty" is easier said than done. And I'm not totally anti-guilt: I think real guilt (the kind you feel when you freak out on your kid for no reason, for example) is a useful tool that can let us know when we are on the wrong path. But nothing gets in the way of making confident decisions and enjoying life like free-floating, non-specific guilt. Whenever I'm feeling vaguely guilty but can't quite pinpoint a cause, I ask myself questions like these:

  • Why do I feel guilty? Specifically, what did I do or not do?
  • Is somebody else's opinion causing this guilty feeling?
  • If so, does that person's opinion matter?
  • Have I actually harmed anyone?
  • Will my child (or spouse) remember this in a month? How about a year?
  • Is there anything I can do to make this situation better?
  • Are there positive sides that I'm not looking at?
And so on. Usually I find that the more I start to deconstruct what I'm feeling in relation to what's actually happened, the less and less guilty I feel. Sometimes I realize I'm feeling guilt over something silly, and that even though I, say, forgot to turn in the Scholastic book order (AGAIN), it isn't actually doing my child harm. Other times I realize that even though my child might be sad or disappointed (say, because I'm going away for the weekend for work) that there are positive sides (a fun weekend with Dad or Grandma!) and that I can ease his sadness with some special together time on my return.

Is Meagan's advice amazing, or what? I want her to move back to Chicago and next door to me so I can hear this kind of stuff every day, in person, over a glass of Pinot Noir. The only piece of wisdom I have to add is that just because you're working full-time doesn't mean you have to devote 100% of your nonworking time to your family. Meagan touches on the importance of pursuing your own interests in The Happiest Mom, but I find too many working women feel guilty about spending one more hour away from their children and avoid joining a book club, volunteering, or joining a roller derby team. I'm hear to tell you that you can do all of the above. Just not if you care to watch television ever again.

Do you want to win a copy of The Happiest Mom? Leave a comment here or on Facebook with your key to happiness, be it something you do...or something you don't. I'll select a winner in a week or so.