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Working Mothers Conference Focuses on Balance

When I talk to working moms, I often hear: “I’m always tired.”

Knowing that I, too, will someday be chronically tired—um, I mean, a working mother—I ventured out to the Working Mother Media’s conference, “Balance Seekers Town Hall,” to see what was in store. Inspirational experts on work/life issues shared their wisdom through lectures, panels, and workshops, while women and men of all backgrounds provided personal insight into how they do it.

Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media and author of This is How We Do It; The Working Mother’s Manifesto, spoke of her own struggle for work/life balance as a working mom. A woman recently wrote her to say that she’d lost her daughter in a store for three minutes and felt terrible. “I lost my daughter in an airport for an hour!” Carol laughed in response. She had visions of her daughter being carried off by strangers. In fact, her daughter was still in the air: the plane just hadn’t landed yet.

I was put in the nonparents group, which was also known as the “pre-moms” group. Two women I met spoke about their adventures in early pregnancy, how hungry they felt, why not to tell relatives future baby names, and stories of strangers coming up to them and patting their bellies! (I spoke of wedding planning—for which they had lots of good advice.) Other women in the group spoke of being single, while others talked of choosing not to have children.

One of the most arresting lectures was delivered by Colette Carlson, mother of two daughters, founder of Speak Your Truth, and contributing author along with Deepak Chopra and Mark Victor Hansen in the book, Conversations on Success. With warmth and humor, she delivered a talk on “The Truth About Balance.”

For Colette Carlson and many women at the conference, the theme of balance was different than I’d expected: in fact, achieving balance is not really possible, but “balancing” is. The difference means accepting a certain level of chaos—and finding your own way of making it work.

Here are Colette Carlson’s strategies:

Manage expectations. Often unrealistic expectations set us up for failure. Carlson says many working mothers tell her, “I feel like I should do more.” As working moms struggle to juggle work, caregiving, managing a household, and their many relationships, they feel pressured to “do it all” as a wife, mom, daughter, friend (the list goes on). And when they can’t, they feel like a failure. Carlson contends that women will feel better if they manage both their own expectations and the expectations of others. This often means simply embracing the chaos—and inviting friends and neighbors into that chaos.

One of the things Carlson reminded herself one day in the midst of all this chaos was “I had a perfect condo [before she married and had children], but I didn’t have all the love.” In her words, love is messy. And “life should be about what works for you,” not about what your neighbors next door think.

Speaking of the neighbors, she feels that women can be the harshest critics of all. She overheard some moms on the playground bragging about how their toddlers were already fully potty-trained, while those in the group who were not there yet seemed to shrink from the conversation, faces dropped. She walked up to the group, smiled, and told them that eventually all kids use the bathroom! It was a reminder that women need to support each other, rather than compete. Don’t try to be like the Joneses who “appear” to have it all, quipped Carlson. “Kick them out of your neighborhood!” Women roared in agreement.

Be authentic. For Carlson, this means sanity. The more authentic and real you are, the more sane you’re apt to be. This is easier said than done. Working moms feel immense pressure to be the superhero. But when you trust that you have the right answers (and not your friend, your mom, your mother-in-law, a sibling, or your neighbor), you’ll be more authentic to yourself and others. Making a concerted effort not to look for other people’s approval is key.

Ask assertively for what you want. For women it’s often more complicated than it appears. Working moms tend to juggle more, so they tell themselves they can always do more. Asking for what you want requires giving up a certain amount of control, too, but it’s worth it. It’s what she calls “multi-asking” versus “multi-tasking.” But as I learned, talking about asking for what you want is easy, but putting it into practice does not come naturally to many of us.

To prove her point, she had each person in the room turn to their neighbor. One partner held up a closed fist, while the other partner was told to open their partner’s fist. The exercise lasted about two minutes, as a room of three hundred women tried desperately with serious strength (because we women are extremely strong and capable, mind you!) to open their partners’ fists. Groans filled the air. At the end of the exercise, Carlson asked us whether we had succeeded. Few had. We did not ask our partners to open their fists; instead we’d physically struggled to do it ourselves! Most of us, including me, did not think to simply ask. Most of us had chosen the hardest route to get what we needed.

Asking for what you need also requires you to eliminate aggressive or contaminated language when you do it, not easy for overstressed working parents. For example, if a boss schedules a meeting late in the day, close to when you normally leave to pick up your child, you can find a solution to the problem without lapsing into frustration. Carlson suggests that parents craft a “whole message” around their requests, like this:

*What are the facts? (The weekly meeting is scheduled at 4 p.m.)

*How do I feel? (Tell your employer: “This concerns me as I need to leave by 5 p.m. and these meetings run over.”)

*Request/ask for what you need. (Tell your boss, “To insure I’m able to participate fully, I’d prefer the meeting be scheduled a half hour earlier.”)

*Ask for agreement. (Ask your boss, “Will this work for you?”)

Say no to others—yes to you. We’re all hard-wired to say “yes” before we say “no” and moms always think that next week they’ll have more time, but it’s seldom the case. Carlson recommends that women stop and wait a few moments before committing to another event or obligation.

Attitude is everything. Carlson speaks of being a “realistic committed optimist.” This means changing our outlook and the way we express ourselves:

Instead of: There’s nothing I can do.

Replace it with: I always have choices.

Instead of saying: Nobody appreciates me.

Say: I ask for what I want.

Stop using words like: “I’ll try” or “I should”

Replace with words like: will, choose, or must

The truth about connection. She also reminded the moms and dads in the audience that although the average parent spends about 38.5 minutes a week in meaningful conversation with their children, connecting is not solely about the actual time spent. For her it’s about the quality of the connection and those moments of amazement she feels with her kids.

Despite my trepidation about someday being a working mom, I left the lecture with a smile on my face. Future motherhood and career balancing will be a very tough road, but like millions of other women, somehow, I’m going to do it anyway.

Related Story: Seeking Balance? Check out Working Mother Media Event