Can we all agree to just stop using some phrases when it comes to parents and work?
“Working mom” is at the top of my list. No one calls my husband a working dad, yet he takes on just as much responsibility with our children as I do. No one asked him if he was returning to work after our children were born, yet that was a hotly debated topic in my circle. When I was pregnant with my son back in 2016, a friend of mine expressed sincere shock that I was planning to return to work after I had the baby. Nothing will give you back those precious years; how could you waste them at work? I cried for two days straight because of comments like these. Okay, some of it was hormones, but I was still upset.
Then I realized, I am a better mother because I work. I don’t judge my friend for giving up her career; everybody should make the choices that make the most sense for themselves and their families. But I like my job, I like my coworkers, and I feel like they make me, well, me. In fact, I was excited to come back from parental leave because it felt like getting back to myself. I’ve spent years building my career, so having the professional part of my life stop abruptly to focus on a new baby was incredibly jarring.
For me, there was so much worth in turning that part of my brain back on and realizing the contribution I can make to people outside of my household. I feel valued by my coworkers in a much different way than I feel valued as a mother or spouse. I realized that I need both in my life. It also sets an example not only for my daughter, who is too young right now to understand, but also for my son who sees that a woman can be both a mommy and a boss and that those two things are not mutually exclusive.
Returning to work was an adjustment. In fact, going back to the NYC rat race after my first child was born was more jarring than the sudden stop. The pace, the commute, and getting back into that swing took time. There was a much easier transition back after my second child, who was born during the pandemic. I didn’t have the opportunity to see friends or much family, so the feeling of external judgement wasn’t there anymore. It was also a much more manageable process easing back in the second time around.
Back to the subject of phrases that should be retired — “work-life balance” is next on my list. There was never a balance for me; the scales tip one way or the other and your attention needs to shift where the load is the heaviest. The idea of an uninterrupted, harmonious balance is an unachievable concept that sets us all up for failure.
Now that many of us have spent the better part of two years working from home, that scale is broken… gone for good. Kids interrupt your Zoom meetings, you take work calls at 8:00 p.m. while cleaning up from dinner, and there is never any break or differentiation between home and work. It is all one and the same. So how do you achieve perfect balance when there is no separation? You don’t.
It can often feel like we live in a constant state of no winning. There is no help, no life raft, especially with small children. You try your best to be present, but you are constantly splitting your focus between all the people that need you. You feel depleted with no end in sight. But you keep going and take some solace in the fact that we are all in it together and that your situation is not unique.
My employer gets it. I work for an organization that understands we’re whole people and that we don’t work in a vacuum. What happens in the world or within your own home impacts your work. And that’s okay. I’m lucky that my employer offers parental leave when so many others do not. And I’m lucky to have a team who understands that life happens and gets in the way of work sometimes. What is shocking to me is how many organizations do not realize that. So many parents are trying to fit within the constraints of a professional box that was built for another time and another place with different expectations.
There are easy days and difficult days, but what keeps me going is knowing that I, like every other “working mom” out there, am doing the best I can. And sometimes my focus needs to be on taking care of myself when I can’t take care of everyone else. Thankfully I have a partner who is in it with me, and we work through it together.
Lauren Ferrara is the Creative Circle VP of Recruiting & Delivery. She’s also a wife and mother of two.