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How to Solve the Work-Life Imbalance

Katrina AlcornDitch the guilt and self-blame—and change the conversation about work and life, says the author of MAXED OUT. A new dialogue starts here…

Q: Most working moms feel maxed out. Yet we rarely say more than, “I’m tired” or “What a week!” What are we NOT saying to our friends, family, each other?

A: I hear from a lot of women who say they have the life they always wanted (kids, career) . . . and it’s killing them. They feel like they’re always letting people down, like it’s somehow their fault that they can’t be all things to all people.

My message to them is: You’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.

Society and the workplace have not caught up to the fact that most mothers today are in the workforce. We’re expected to give 100% to our jobs, and then somehow simultaneously give 100% to our families. But of course, we can’t. No one can. We can’t be in two places at once, and we only have so much energy.

Where to start?

The cold economic reality is that most families need two incomes today just to live a basic middle class life. About 70% of American kids are growing up in households where all adults work.

So parents today are doing double duty, trying to work full time and somehow take care of all the things parents do—take kids to the doctor, do the parent-teacher conferences, show up for the play, etc. Yet schools still get out at 3pm (or earlier) and take summers off. Parents are lucky if they get two weeks of vacation a year. These things are incompatible. So it’s vital to recognize the flaw in the way our roles as working parents have evolved—while schools and most employers have not—and begin to communicate more about those realities, not getting stuck repeating messages of self-blame and guilt.

Q: How can we change the way we talk about the overwhelm so that people will listen and respond?

A: We have to stop treating this overwork issue as a personal choice—something we’re doing to ourselves—and communicate that it’s a societal problem. It’s a public health problem. Companies are burning out their workers, and it’s costing them hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity. So it’s even a business problem.

When we see the problem for what it is, that’s when we’ll get serious about solving it. We need better government policies (like paid parental leave), true. But there’s a lot we can do in the workplace, too, that would address this issue. By having forthright discussions about the competing demands of modern life, we can change the conversation around flexible schedules, telecommuting, job shares, and other changes in work culture.

Rather than being apologetic, it’s reasonable to request policies that empower employees to get their work done when and how they can best do it. These are the kinds of things we should be talking about.

Q. How do can women talk about these problems in a new way, so the conversation shifts from “What I’m doing wrong” to “Let’s improve the situation for everyone”?

A: The most lasting way to change the conversation is to change our actions, to show that we really are all in this together. At the end of my book, I list 10 things each of us can do to address this “maxed out” problem, here are a few:

1. Practice saying no—Working moms have to find ways to say no. It’s not about letting other people down; saying no to others is about saying yes to yourself.

2. Tell your partner what you need—Communicate with your partner about how to make your roles as egalitarian as possible (and see #1 above!).

3. Be an ally to other women—We’ve all felt judged at one time or another about our choices as mothers. Remember the cultural and institutional forces that make working and parenting difficult, and cut other women slack.

4. Sign up for MomsRising—10 percent of the proceeds of Maxed Out will be donated to this leading advocacy organization for moms and the people who love them. They lobby for parental leave, flexible work, other policies that improve the lives of families.

5. Let your HR manager know about ROWE—A management strategy gaining traction in corporate America, Results-Only Work Environments (ROWE) emphasizes employee results over traditional measures like the number of hours worked. Companies are finding that it actually saves them money and boosts productivity.

Katrina Alcorn is an experienced design consultant, speaker, and the author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. She will be speaking at the Conference for Women this fall.