Life at the Hanna-Baum household typically runs like clockwork. Schedules are paramount and routine is the lifeblood. But on a recent Wednesday evening, Erin Hanna-Baum reached her breaking point.
Her husband was at school, leaving her alone with three kids, including a 1-month-old and a 5-year-old in the nonstop-question-asking phase. The usual nighttime program — bath, pajamas, and bed by 8:30 p.m. — felt completely overwhelming.
"There was a moment there," she says, "where I was like, 'OK, this is way too much.' I just had to take a breather."
And that's what she did. She sat down and took a few deep breaths. Then she turned on some music and jumped back into the mix.
This is life as moms know it. There is no downtime, no such thing as off duty. But it can be especially difficult for working moms, who juggle child care with career responsibilities and loads of laundry with piles of mommy guilt.
If that sounds like you, you're not alone: Approximately 71 percent of moms with kids under the age of 18 are an active part of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even moms of little ones are suiting up and punching a clock; about 64 percent of moms with a child under 6 work at least part time.
Whether it's the need for a second paycheck, the quest for a fulfilling career or just a little relief from the frenzy of home life, moms have sound reasons for heading back to work. But once you're at work, how do you make it all work?
Successful working moms, say the experts, have to be students of everything, even if they're masters of very little. Perfection is not the goal, explains Dr. Lyla Blake-Gumbs, a mom of three who practices family medicine at UH Case Medical Center. Even if you manage to keep track of every little thing happening in your household, she says, "the people around you might be suffering."
Own Your Job
The first step toward achieving some modicum of self-assurance is to identify the positive side of working. In a 2010 Working Mother Research Institute study, 71 percent of moms said they saw work as just a paycheck. That mindset misses the point, says Blake-Gumbs.
"If you enjoy what you're doing, that's half the battle. It's hard, but you get balance [from work]," she explains. "[Work] gives me a little bit of a break from the trials and tribulations of parenthood."
It can be hard to admit that work is a welcome haven from home. Ebony Martin, a staff accountant at the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the mom to twin 2-year-old boys, returned to her job after a three-month maternity leave. And while those first days of day care drop-offs were rough, she says, "coming back to work gave me a sense of normalcy."
She hesitates, though, at acknowledging the role her career has played in her sanity. "The time I'm at work seems to be — not saying [it's] my relaxing time, but it kind of is," she says with a chuckle.
Sixty-two percent of adults say a household with two working parents provides a more satisfying lifestyle than the traditional gender-oriented roles of the past — think Clair and Cliff Huxtable, not Carol and Mike Brady.
In fact, kids can understand — and even appreciate — their parents' jobs, says Brenda Powell, a Cleveand Clinic doctor and mom of two.
"If you need to work to support your family, that's really wonderful and important," she says. "Whether it's, 'My mom sewed my Halloween costume,' or 'My mom worked hard to support us,' as long as that child feels you're present, that they're more important than work, they get it."
Her daughter, now 22, loves to tell the story of the time she got sick at school. "I picked her up, but I took her back to my office. She had to sleep under my desk," Powell remembers. "She thought it was kind of cool, and I could check on her while she was [there]."
Find Your Flexibility
Working moms are more likely to keep working if they had more control over their work schedules. According to a 2011 Working Mother Report, it turns out 57 percent of moms rate flexible hours as the most important work benefit — more important than paid maternity leave and subsidized health insurance.
Some companies are taking notice. At Thompson Hine, rated one of Working Mother Magazine's top 50 law firms for women, management instituted a flexible scheduling coordinator who works with moms and dads on a case-by-case basis to create an ideal schedule.
The program has helped with the changing needs of lawyer and mom of two, Heidi Goldstein. With support from her company, she took extended maternity leave for both her pregnancies and has operated under a flexible work schedule ever since.
"I was out for a while on bed rest, and I still made partner," she notes.
Other programs, such as a mother-to-be mentoring circle that helps new moms transition out and back in, have made Thompson Hine a leader in retaining female lawyers.
Your company may not offer such a wealth of options for new parents, but have you considered asking for a change anyway? If you're a hard worker, with a history of positive reviews and a solid track record, consider speaking up for what you want.
"Parents should not be afraid to ask their employers for what they need to have a better life balance," says Dr. Carolyn Ievers-Landis, a clinical psychologist with UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.
According to Working Mother Research Institute, 53 percent of companies nationwide offer some kind of flextime, and 57 percent offer telecommuting. Both numbers are slowly rising, an indication that more employers may just need a gentle nudge from a valued employee to introduce some kind of family-friendly policy.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Of course, some bosses simply don't care or don't have the ability to address the plight of a working parent. If flexibility at work just isn't an option, it's up to you to make the most of your nonwork hours by regimenting your free time — and that means doing something some of us hate to do: plan.
Think you've got it covered with your trusty organizer or snazzy iPhone app? Odds are, those tools are filled with play dates and work meetings, not the stuff in between: the meal plans, the chore schedules and the exercise routine.
"You can't just be flying by the seat of your pants when you're working 40 hours a week," notes Kim Langley, a life coach and mom of two.
She advises parents to take charge with scheduled family meetings — and she's not above a little bribery. If cupcakes will get everyone to show up in the living room for a 10-minute meeting that includes divvying up chores and planning an upcoming family activity, then bake them (or buy them).
Langley used family meetings to ask her children questions such as "Are we having enough fun? How are we doing?" It provided her with valuable feedback and gave her kids the sense that they were a team, not just a family.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 40 percent of working moms say they always feel rushed — always!
With time-management issues like these, planning anything more than the day's schedule can feel incredibly daunting. But how much time are you really saving? If you're staring blankly at a cold stove at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, when you've just schlepped the family home from work, school and day care, you might become a believer in the Sunday power hour. That's the one hour a week you sit down with a pen and paper and prepare yourself.
"Sunday is my shopping day, and Sunday is the day I plan the meals for the week," says Jill Stovsky, Cleveland Clinic registered dietitian and fitness instructor. The mom of three involves her kids at every step: They get to offer suggestions for the week's meals, pick out items at the grocery store and help out in the kitchen at dinnertime.
"Dinner is such a difficult thing for working moms, especially if they're coming home late," she notes. The slow cooker can be your best friend; load it up with meat and veggies in the morning, and you've got a one-pot meal ready to go that evening. Likewise, keeping staples such as ground turkey in the fridge or freezer can ensure healthful, quick dinner options close at hand, such as tacos, pasta or sloppy joes.
Live in the Present
You've only got 18 summers before they're (probably) out of the house, says Langley, so focus on experiences, not things. Feeling guilty because you have to work? It's a waste of energy.
"If you let yourself feel so guilty that you're working, and you buy them everything and don't set appropriate limits, you are going to end up living with a kid that you love, but you don't like," she says. "You have to put enough energy and leadership into the system that you like your own kids."
Martin knows that feeling all too well. She says she frequently overcompensates for her time away from the twins by letting them stay up past their bedtime or buying them more toys. But there are simple ways to refocus the energy and time you do have.
Tésa Nicolanti has created a full-time, work-from-home job as the blogger behind 2wired2tired.com, a site that details her life with two young kids and offers family-focused product reviews. When kids are underfoot, she lays out a hard and fast rule.
"Time management is important," she says. "I started using the timer on my phone. I set it and say, 'Give me 15 minutes.' It lets them know that if they can wait it out just for 15 minutes, they'll have my full attention rather than me doing the 'uh-huh, yes' when I'm not fully paying attention."
Use dinnertime and car time to engage your children (see the sidebar on pg. 111). And at the very least, try to relax that fixation on a clean house. Working mothers report it's the No. 1 thing they feel most judged about — but even stay-at-home moms rate it as their No. 2 concern, according to the Working Mother Research Institute.
"Relax about what other people's standards are for keeping your house clean, for getting your laundry done," emphasizes Powell. "Let it flow — let things go a little bit."
It's a word to the wise for working moms everywhere, and a reminder that being a working mom and a fantastic mommy don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Hanna-Baum, who's on maternity leave from her job as a program specialist in the special education department for the Cleveland Heights/University Heights School District, sees it from both perspectives.
Her mom raised her as a single working parent, and always encouraged her to maintain her own identity and her own career, so that when her kids grew up, she'd still have her own life.
"I love my job," she says, "and when I'm there, I'm very dedicated to the job. I don't sit around and think I'm a horrible person for putting my kids in day care."
But she's also made the commitment to be present at every opportunity. "We don't watch TV," she says. Instead, they make the most of their free time with walks, games and traveling. "You need to realize that everything in your life is important, but your kids are the most important."