Is The Myth of ‘Having it All’ Hurting Our Work/Life Boundaries?

Work. Is. Different.

“I generally prioritize my family and work over myself,” admits one surveyed Mom. “I am the breadwinner … and turn myself inside out at work to try to keep my standing there. Then I come home and want as much time as I can have with my kids. And there’s little time left for me. I feel like my kids are little once and I can’t get the time with them back.”

Nearly 200 Moms shared their struggles, triumphs and feelings in the survey about setting personal boundaries. The context and consequences for drawing lines at work are different. Somewhere in the back of our minds, despite grim statistics about the motherhood penalty, we believe there’s a loophole. We were promised life without limits, and want to prove to ourselves that being great Moms while doing great work, is possible.

From potty-training, to college essays, our children’s needs are vast and unpredictable. We (lovingly) anticipate this. However, the stress of constant juggling, whether playdates or presentations, becomes draining. For many, work-ethic and identity are still tightly intertwined. As one surveyed Mom explains, “It’s hardest re expectations surrounding work and motherhood. I was taught to derive my value from good work.”

Wait, What About Discretionary Time?

Our kids and careers vie for our attention. Yes, we expect commitments when we’re paid for our time, however no one knows what ‘work time’ means anymore. What felt freeing at the start of the digital era, has become so boundless, there’s little distinction where ‘work’ ends and ‘personal’ begins. Some employers take full advantage of this and create cultures where work has no end.  Putting Moms on the defense and disproportionately hurting women’s advancement, reports the New York Times, “…returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased. This is particularly true in managerial jobs and what social scientists call the greedy professions.”

The Career ‘Ladder’ Now Sits on Quicksand

Even the dreamiest professional match can shift. Overnight. Leaders change more often than the light bulbs in most organizations. Conditions at home aren’t static either, differences in personal or family health can completely unravel whatever work/life formula was in place. It’s all pretty fragile.

Who wants to risk asking for ‘too much’ with persistent leadership and pay gaps for women? The pressure to excel, not just perform, is quite real and affects our financial security. We prepare for an endurance race, but as we ascend professionally, learn it’s been chess all along. No running shoes were required. Playing chess requires strategy and mental energy. Nearly 1 in 4 surveyed Moms (22%) cite, being “tired and overwhelmed” as the biggest barrier to setting healthy boundaries and 1 in 10 found work conflicts the hardest to push back on.

When Smart Boundaries Are Hard … Professionally Speaking

When the majority of American families rely on Mom as the co, primary or sole breadwinner, finding a way to make ‘working life actually work’, is the only plan. Moms consistently face situations where holding firm boundaries are difficult, but few can walk away. Many make flex-forward adjustments, but even Moms who run their own businesses are not immune, several Mom-CEO’s expressed similar dilemmas.

The following 4 themes surfaced from surveyed Moms, across the working-mom-spectrum, as the most challenging boundary-setting scenarios:

Professional Obligations or Opportunities

 Prospects for good fortune create a compelling case for our time.

“…When there is a professional opportunity that is VERY exciting!”

“…Hard to stick to work boundaries when money is tight and I need the clients.

“… I often don’t follow the rules around setting boundaries when there are really good opportunities. I try to think about my stress (level) and listen to my body.”

Guilt Meeting Expectations From Others

As echoed throughout the survey, many difficult boundary-setting decisions depend on expectations within relationships, at work and at home.

“It is hardest to say no to new requests for my time (e.g. serving on additional committees, etc.) when I know the people asking, know that they already do a lot, and know that one of my close (and overworked) colleagues will have to do it if I don’t.”

“…I’m responsible for so many others – my families and the families of others that I feel I need to make choices with the group, not myself, as the beneficiary.

Wrong End of the Power Dynamic

We set boundaries when we feel powerful. Inevitably seniority, tenure and job security factor into how Moms advocate for needs at work.

“(With) social obligations about staying later at work than I would like, I’m always afraid I might lose my job, or not get the next promotion.”

“Sometimes there are situations at work where I feel outnumbered as one of the only females in a male dominated IT (Information Technology) department and they get condescending or ignore me…”

“With clients. I work with a high demand population and have very good relationships with many. It’s difficult to not attend to their perceived needs beyond my boundaries of time.”

Feeling Off-Balance

Other Moms shared stories of boundaries becoming difficult when the amount of time spent at work or home feels unbalanced.

“When I feel like I’ve been letting something slip (for example, haven’t been focused at work so more likely to bend over backwards when an unreasonable request comes in).”

“…When I am feeling guilty. I will skip the workout or dinner out if I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough at work or I haven’t felt like I have seen my family enough.”

Although boundaries are the antidote to overwhelm, there’s no prescription that suits all Moms. Work circumstances and most importantly, the amount of support at home, contributes to boundary setting ease.

Why Does it Feel Like We’re Still Trying to ‘Have it All?’

Most Moms dismiss the idea of ‘having it all’ for the pixie dust it is before our first child turns one. It’s another concept, like work/life balance, that doesn’t quite fit Motherhood. Yet, giving up on our desire for fulfilling, rewarding careers is rarely an option. Nor should it be. This matters, not just to our identities, but to our bank accounts. Who wants to cede control over her destiny? Right, no one. Work is just one of the many places with uneven rules. Despite this, Moms continue to make extraordinary contributions and gains, even in the least family-friendly settings.

On a positive note, voices demanding flexibility and better infrastructure for Moms at work, keep getting louder. Until we get there, raising our expectations about the boundaries we set, life we deserve and relentlessly supporting each other’s success, paves the road that moves us forward.

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