A List from the Working Mother Battlefield.

Lifeblood donor fest 2014

Here’s something I love: I love it when I’m struggling with an essay and then, unexpectedly, I read something that both sends me into orbit and crystallizes my thinking. Bam! Block removed.

For weeks months I have been stymied trying to write about some of the parenting advice I’ve gotten over the past 15 years from older, wiser friends. One particular bit of counsel was 180 degrees opposed to my mother’s wisdom, and in the end I decided to listen (mostly) to my mother and not my friend. The older my children get, the more I wish I had listened to my friend; and so I’ve been trying to write about it. Every few days I’ve tried a new structure, a new way of coming at the issue, but all to no avail.

Then last night I was in the kitchen making boeuf Bourguignon (tasty; here’s the recipe). And to keep from fidgeting with the meat while it browned, I was scanning Facebook and stumbled on this article, “10 Things Not to Say to a Mom Who Works Outside the Home,”  which a friend posted and tagged with the comment “Someone says #9 to me every day. Ugh.”

So I clicked through to read the article, which first appeared on Cattywampus and then on Huffington Post and then, just recently, on Scary Mommy – which is to say, it’s made the rounds and is still going. Three paragraphs in, I groaned aloud. It’s 2015 for Christ’s sake; are people still really saying things like “I don’t know how you do it – it must be so hard” to women who have both careers and children? Apparently they are, or this post, written in 2013, wouldn’t still be circulating.

This, a “don’t say” list, is the best we have to offer as support for our working-mom sisters-in-arms? So we can, what, drink wine and commiserate? Hmmm, no, not doing it. It’s not because I don’t like wine; you know I do. And it’s only partly because I don’t see merit in the approach, don’t see any upside to wringing hands over how we wish we were better understood, wish people would just stop already with the 1950s fantasy that wasn’t ever reality.

No, the biggest reason I won’t be inviting you over for a bottle of Malbec to dissect this list item by item is that – and this is really true – people don’t say these things to me, not any more. It has been years, in fact, since I’ve heard a single item on the list; which is why I (mistakenly) thought people, generally, had stopped saying these kinds of things.

Am I still in the thick of it, the often-confounding muddle of working motherhood? Yep, you bet I am. I am messing it up with the best of ’em. So I’m not exactly sure how I got out of this particular line of stupid-comment fire, but I suspect it has to do, at least in part, with the good advice I’ve received over the past 15 years from wise and wonderful women friends. With their help, I’ve come to a place of feeling settled amid the chaos. Perhaps feeling settled provides a kind of immunity against stupid comments. Or possibly, and this more likely, with the help of these women I’ve narrowed my inner circle, cut off the toxic snipers. Either way, the effect is the same. And while I can’t guarantee that any of these things will work for you, I do hope they will.

So, here’s my list, my counter-post to “what not to say.” It’s seven, not 10, because #workingmom #blahblahblah. And I’d be remiss not to give the real credit where it’s due, to my network of big sisters: Barbara, Cristina, Leanne, Mary, Patty, Penny and Sharon. See item #3 and know that I cherish you. Here’s what you have taught me about figuring out the whole working mother thing:


1  Spend time figuring out who YOU are and what YOU want. You, just you. Not mommy-you or wife-you or career-you. Just you. Writing will help. If you are not certain – absolutely sure – about who you are as a person, then people will say stupid things to you because they’ll see that you’re still searching and try to figure things out for you, probably by saying things like “why did you have children if you’re not going to raise them yourself?” Seriously, it’s like being on an airplane; secure your own mask first before assisting others, and before someone tries to assist you, thinking you’re incapable.

2  There is no right answer. Work. Don’t work. Work part-time. Take a leave of absence. Whatever. No matter which path you choose you’ll do some things that make your child(ren) want to name monuments after you and some things that, at a minimum, land them in therapy later on. So choose what you choose, and then move forward. When you stop obsessing over whether or not you made the right choice, you’ll stop attracting people who say stupid things.

3  Surround yourself with women who truly support you and the choices you make. These women may or may not have made the same choices as you. In fact, you may find that some of the women best suited to supporting you have led different lives from your own, have made different choices about work and family. What you’re looking for is women who have your best interest at heart and who respect your innate and inalienable right to be you.

These are the women who will make the bitch face on your behalf when people say stupid things to you. These women will stop malicious gossip in its tracks, will know when to help you say “no,” and will pinch hit for you without your ever having to ask – and without asking that you return the favor. They will insulate you from the snakes trying to poison or undermine you, the ones eager to make it look like you can’t handle what you’ve signed up for.

When you find this support network of women, protect them with your life; they will do the same for you. And should you find only one such woman friend, know that even one is enough. Do not go through this life alone, Ophelia.

4  You cannot have it all, unless you change your definition of “all.” If your dream of the perfect life includes making partner at your law firm and simultaneously being president of the PTA, room mother for second grade, a cook Julia Child would envy, a world-class triathlete, and having 10,000 followers on your Instagram and Pinterest feeds, then you are in for certain disappointment. Also, people will tell you that you look exhausted. Give it up, sister. Working motherhood is like college; the way not to burn out is to pick the 1-2 classes in which you truly need (and want) to earn an A+, and then take the rest pass/fail. Life will work out better this way; this is true even for men.

5  When you have a conflict and have to choose between mother-you and career-you, pick whichever one only you can do. This dilemma is tough, because you want to do both things, I know. I get it. But your trying to do both things at the same time is what’s causing people to make the stupid comments (see above). Sometimes being there for your children will win this contest; other times work will win. Review items #2 and 4, and then see #6, below.

6  Motherhood is a temporary job. Oooh, you don’t like this one? Well, hear me out: Yes, you’ll always be Tommy’s mommy; he’ll always be your baby. But if things go the way they’re supposed to go, then Tommy is going to move out of your house, out from under your wing to fly on his own. Your job is to help get him there, to independence. Barring tragedy, active motherhood is a temporary assignment. Once you see it that way, it changes your perspective; it also sharpens your focus and helps you prioritize (see #5 and then, again, #2).

7  You want them when they’re little, but they need you when they’re big. This is the big reveal, the one bit of advice I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about. It is, I see now, the single most important piece of advice anyone would give me as I marched through the motherhood gate. It came, quite unexpectedly, from a tennis friend one day when I was eight months pregnant and flitter-fluttering around about how I hoped I could work from home, maybe part-time, and have a flexible schedule once the baby came.

“No,” she said firmly, wagging her finger at me across the net. “You put that baby in the very best childcare you can afford, then you go back to work and sock money away. You want them when they’re little, but they need you when they’re big. That’s when you need flexibility.” What she meant, I understand now, was that if being a working mother was a financial requirement for the family, then the time to log hours at the office was when the children were young.

Right, I know – you don’t like this one, either. Again, hear me out: Even though you’ll find 1,000 experts who’ll tell you the early years are the important years, that birth-3 is game-changing for children, that children can never recoup later in life what they miss in their early years, etc., what you must try to understand and accept is that there are actually qualified people, with real degrees in early childhood education, who can teach your young children every bit as well as you can (in my case, probably better).

But there is no middle school version of this caretaker; you’re it. You, the parent, are not just the best but probably the only person to talk to your child about sex and drugs and alcohol and depression and everything else that surfaces during puberty. Regrets over not driving that Pre-K field trip to the petting zoo will be nothing in comparison to not being in the kitchen one afternoon when your teenage son screws up the courage to ask you if you ever got drunk at a party in high school because, well, a friend was asking about it.

If you have to choose one period of time to work long hours and another to have flexibility, be flexible when your children really need you. You want them when they’re little, but they need you when they’re big. They really, really do.


So, one night this week, in the middle of the night when I wake up suddenly realizing that I forgot to turn in _____ (oh, fill in the blank – a report, a permission slip, money for the field trip, an employee’s timesheet… ) I’ll probably remember something I neglected to include on this working mother list, too, maybe even three forgotten somethings that would have made this list a neat 10. But for now, seven is what you get; seven tips that have helped me immensely on the working mother battlefield. Maybe they’ll help you, too. I hope so; we’re all just figuring it out the best we can, you know. All of us, whether we work or don’t.

And to the friends who have been the source of this wisdom these last 15 years, swing by the house one day soon; we’ll drink some Malbec.

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Marie says:

    Too many of the lists I see circulating seem drafted for attention over enrichment. To do or not to do, yours feels more nurturing; substance over shock value. Well done!

  2. Brilliant, simply brilliant, my friend. And that #7, oh it’s so hard to believe, but so very true! I’m in the throws of #6, as you know… it’s all such a brief time, but so big. Great work! And man do I want boeuf Bourguignon right now! How many other writers can throw that into a piece? You amaze me. xox

  3. Barbara Viser says:

    Amen, sister. Take care of yourself. No one else is going to.

  4. jgroeber says:

    Affirmation of all the good stuff. “Take care of you.” Who would have thought some of the most important bit of advice we could possibly absorb would come from a movie about a prostitute who ends up with Richard Gere in the end? If only we’d been paying attention way back then, the last twenty-five years would have gone so much smoother.
    Sounds like you’ve got a handle on that first one, and with that, perhaps the rest really do follow. (For now I’ll listen closely to 1-4, although I’m afraid 6-7 I’m utterly unable to process. Can’t do it. But when I’m ready, I know who to come back to for advice. 😉 )

  5. Patty toe says:

    My dear J-La, you’ve got a mighty fine pitch of heart-felt advice laid out in this blog. I love the age your kids are now and fondly recall the tough love that those years demand. My, my, my……..

  6. spanishwoods says:

    Love this post. Number 7……right on.

  7. spanishwoods says:

    It is hard to understand in advance, you’re right.

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