Does motherhood mean giving up your professional goals? That depends. We talked to four career coaches for their insight on what is and isn't possible-plus, some time-saving tips for keeping both your bosses and your kids happy.
1. Set Your Own Priorities
There's one word you hear most when talking about how working mothers make it all happen: balance. But Mark Strong, certified career coach, says there's another "b" word that may not be getting enough credit: "Setting boundaries for work and play-and actually sticking to them-is the secret to balance."
"Say no when you need to," says certified career coach Hallie Crawford. But this may be a difficult skill to master if you're a people-pleaser, as are many working mothers, who essentially answer to both bosses and kids. That, however, is the best way to avoid taking on more than you can realistically handle, she says. "Many companies will try to get all the work out of you that they can, " adds certified career coach Sharon Good. "If you don't set limits, you'll end up burning yourself out and your family will pay the price." So, she says, if you need to leave at 5:30 to pick up your kids, say something along the lines of, "I'll finish the work that John needs to move ahead with his portion, then I'll jump back in tomorrow." In other words, if you don't set those boundaries, nobody will.
2. Keep Sight of Your Professional Goals
Working moms often worry they're not playing on a level field with employees without kids. But, for the most part, the same rules apply. For example, want a promotion? "Tell them you want the promotion," says Crawford. "Don't beat around the bush-let them know directly about your intentions." And, if your colleagues are able to work more flexible schedules than you are, that doesn't automatically make them more qualified: "Keep your skills sharp and look for new ways to contribute," says Good. "Find imaginative ways to get the job done." Your bosses know that, if they pass you over for the promotion, there's a chance you'll leave-and they won't want to risk losing an asset: " Why trade a valuable known for an unknown?"
And if you're planning to get pregnant? "Be fabulous before you get pregnant," suggests Judith Gerberg, certified career management practitioner. "Be essential to five rainmakers, document your contributions, and make your accomplishments visible."
3. Understand Your Environment
Companies that truly support working mothers consider the little things, like a comfortable lactation room, Gerberg says. And Crawford takes it even farther: "Your peers and boss [should be sympathetic] when you have to leave to pick up your children at school or take them to the doctor-and you shouldn't have to fear you're jeopardizing your job," she explains. Before joining a company in the first place, she says, "Meet everyone you'll be working with and ask them to describe the corporate culture." Hint: Any references to flex time, generous maternity leave policies, and mothers in leadership positions are good signs.
But what if you still get the sense that working mothers are less than welcome-or, at least, only welcome if the company always comes first? If you're planning to stay, you may need to adjust the way you present yourself. Strong says it may seem unfair, but keeping kid updates and pictures at a minimum could help your team see you less as a mommy, if that's what they need to take you more seriously. "It might help alleviate whatever mom inequity you might be feeling."
4. Maximize Your Time
Make the most of it when you are with your kids--"fully connecting" with them, computer and phone off!--and, odds are, you'll feel less "mom guilt" when you can't be with them, explains Crawford. She also suggests planning ahead: "Make meals in advance as much as possible so, when you get home, you can spend time with your kids, not slaving away in the kitchen."
Having a white board with the week's tasks is another idea, says Gerberg: "Divide them up between you and your partner, and agree who's going to do what and by when," she explains. She says this can improve your relationship with your spouse while you're at it: "[With the minutiae out of the way], you can keep your conversations more interesting."
Crawford also finds ways to catch up on work while at home in ways that don't negatively impact her son. For example, he goes out for a special dinner with his dad once a week, and she does work after he's asleep. She also sets up play dates: "He gets the needed social interaction, and I get some work time in without feeling I'm ignoring him."
But you need to find ways to get comfortable while you're at the office, as well. "Find a childcare situation within your budget that you love, " Gerberg suggests. "That way, you can rest assured that your children are safe and thriving while they're away from you." Good adds that there's a certain comfort in setting an example for your kids, as well: "If having a career is important to you, then you're living your life authentically--and that's being a good role model for your children, especially your daughters."
5. Count Your Blessings
You have a job, an income to support your family. For many working mothers, that's what we need to focus on--even if only because it has to be. But if not? Keep in mind that your current situation doesn't have to be permanent. You can ultimately use it to find a new job, ideally one that's more family-friendly.
And our experts say that's not all. If feeling pulled in too many directions, "embrace and celebrate that everyone wants more time with you," says Strong. And Gerberg agrees, referring to the target mindset as an "attitude of gratitude." While that sometimes feels much easier said than done, she says: "Remember to put on your own oxygen mask first because, if you take care of yourself, you can take better care of others."
"To be honest, I think 'have it all' was a catch phrase that originated with the women's movement in the 1960s, and I'm not sure it's possible," says Good. "Better to 'have most of it.'" She says there may be aspects of what you want to achieve in life that will have to wait until your kids are in school or have left for college. But maybe it's better that way: "You don't want to take on so much that you do it badly and don't enjoy it."