There’s a lot of talk about what’s “possible” for working moms in modern society.

For some reason I’ve been hearing a number of comments recently about a commencement speech that Shonda Rhimes gave in 2014 at Dartmouth University.  She has a lot of wonderful advice in her speech, but there was one part I took issue with, which is what I want to discuss here.

Here’s an excerpt about balancing working parenthood from Ms. Rhimes’ speech:

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life…. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.  Something is always missing.

I appreciate that this is Rhimes’ experience, and I also appreciate her vulnerability and honesty about her experience.  I even appreciate the message she goes on to deliver, which is that being a powerful working woman is a wonderful gift to pass on to your children.

Most of her message I can resonate with.  But this portion of her message deeply concerns me.

It concerns me because this isn’t my experience.  It concerns me because I know a lot of powerful, professional women who DON’T feel like something is always missing in their life.  I simply don’t believe all working women are doomed to feel guilty and lost just because they are juggling a career as well as a family.

I wasn’t always so convinced that it was possible to have a healthy and integrated life.  I spent my first year or so as a working parent struggling just to stay afloat.  In those moments, those desperate moments when I didn’t know how I was going to survive working parenthood, I would have found this message oddly comforting.

I would have thought:

“Whew!  Okay, so this is just how it’s going to be?  It’s just going to be a struggle, huh?  Well, I’m not happy about that, but I’ve been having such a hard time with this so at least I know I’m normal.  At least I know I’m not doing anything wrong… this is just the way it is for working parents.  I guess now that I know that I can make peace with it. It’s just not possible to have the life I really want.  I’ll just try to get through the day and hope for the best.”

If I had stopped there though, if I had accepted Rhimes’ belief that this was just what successful working parenthood is, then I would have been selling myself short.  I never would have taken the time to create a life that didn’t include feeling guilty, stressed out, and lost.  I would have settled, and I would probably look back on these years when my son was young with a whole boatload of regrets.

If I had accepted Rhimes’ beliefs about working parenthood, I never would have uncovered the real problem in my own life:  I was only reacting to my life… I wasn’t living my life.

There was ZERO strategy involved in my day.  I was just trying to keep up with all of the demands coming my way.   It wasn’t my fault.  That transition into working parenthood is intense, and it completely transformed my life. Becoming a mother added a depth to who I was that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. Becoming a mother also came with a whole new set of responsibilities and time constraints that I was only marginally prepared for.  It took a while for me to figure out how to make my new reality really fit the new me.

Knowing what I know now, I’m so glad I didn’t accept the message Rhimes shares in her speech.

What concerns me even more than the message itself is that this message is catching on quickly.  Working women all over the world are learning to accept and justify a false belief:  if they want a full life, they’ll have to get used to feeling like a failure in one area in order to be successful in another.

For many of us, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know.  As a result, we get stuck in what’s familiar because reaching for the unfamiliar can be incredibly scary.  And for a mom that’s already experiencing so much transition, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out how to create a better life.  So you accept your current lifestyle (even if it’s killing you slowly) because at least it’s familiar.

As a mom who now balances a successful career, a happy marriage, quality time with my son, my friends, and myself, I believe there’s a different message that needs to be shared with working moms.

It’s time to stop underestimating our ability as successful professionals to manage our lives effectively.  It is possible to find meaning and purpose and peace as a powerful mom and professional.  It’s not only possible, it’s critical.  

Here are the 8 specific steps I personally took to transition from an overwhelmed working mom who felt guilty about missing out on my kid’s life to a calm, organized, successful working mom who feels peaceful and complete in her life.  If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone out there who is willing to look beyond the myth that being a working parent immediately dooms them to a life of stress, constant feelings of failure, and guilt.

  1. I analyzed my schedule to identify where my time was really going.  I was surprised to learn that I was wasting quite a bit of time on things that really weren’t that important to me. I began to get conscious about where my time was going, and I committed to making my time work for me.  I very quickly replaced unnecessary activities with those that were actually meaningful to me.
  1. I clarified my life values, and committed to certain priorities over others.  Through this exercise, it became very clear that my family was my priority, but my job was taking over my life.  I began to see an inconsistency between what I identified as my values, and what my actions reflected.  I started to make specific changes so my outside environment matched my internal values.
  1. I developed a vision for a happier life.  I began to allow myself to dream of more for myself and my family, where I didn’t feel like I was failing or missing out or struggling all the time.  I clarified what elements I absolutely needed in my life to feel complete and at peace, and which elements of my life could be left behind.  My vision itself has evolved over time, but the important part was that I began to open my mind to something more.
  1. I began to critically assess my relationships.  There’s a saying among successful people that “you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”  So I began to let go of relationships that didn’t support my priorities or who drained my energy.  I began to focus my energy on my most important relationships instead.  I surrounded myself with people who reflected the type of life I wanted to live.
  1. I set boundaries.  I learned to say no to others.  I reclaimed control of my life by choosing which things would receive my attention.  I let go of the guilt associated with disappointing others.  As John Acuff says, “your ‘yes’ should be expensive.”
  1. I mapped out a plan to take small but significant steps toward my ideal life.  I considered what I actually wanted my life to look like, and I came up with specific action steps that would move me in the right direction.  I considered the obstacles that might stand in my way, and I developed strategies to overcome them.  I reached out for help when I needed it, and I made minor course corrections as I moved toward my ultimate vision.
  2. I learned the practical skills I needed to operate my life more effectively.  I learned the science behind habits so I could replace my bad habits with healthier ones.  I became more efficient, both at work and at home.  I learned to pass up every opportunity for the right opportunities.  I practiced “just in time learning” so I didn’t experience information overload or analysis paralysis.  I established routines and systems so I didn’t waste my energy on repeatable activities.
  3.  I set myself up for a successful transition into a life I love.  This piece is still in progress.  Today I question my limiting beliefs, and challenge those ideas that aren’t working for me anymore.  I let go of the “working parent guilt” by being as present and focused as possible on what I am doing in each moment.  I accept imperfection as a part of working parenthood.  Some days are better than others, but I know not everyday will be rainbows and sunshine and that’s okay.  I surround myself with supportive and positive people, and I release those people who keep me stuck in a stressful life.  I step outside of my comfort zone.  I give myself the space and the time to be uncomfortable with change, while continuing to drive forward with faith.  I trust my instincts, and allow myself to march to the beat of my own drummer.  I choose a different path when the one I’m on isn’t working.

Daring to create a better life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.  I appreciate Rhimes experience, and I believe her intent was a good one in her speech.  But it’s not necessary to sell yourself short.  You are a powerful working woman.  And you are a powerful mom.  It is possible to have a fulfilling and balanced life.  You just need to believe it’s possible, and then take the right steps to get there.

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