During the years my kids were little, my husband worked nights as a TV news anchor. That meant this working mom was on her own in the evenings, and things could get, well, a little crazy. One night, I rushed home at 5 p.m. to give my baby son, Hunter, hugs and kisses, paw through the fridge and then bundle him up so we could make an emergency grocery run. As we headed toward the elevator, Hunter gave me a funny, quizzical look, something I hadn’t really seen from him yet. What’s up? I wondered. Then I glanced into the decorative mirror in the hall and discovered what was puzzling the little guy—in my frenetic state I’d accidentally placed his tiny knit cap on my head.
As you’re well aware, being a working mom can be challenging and exhausting at times, but I never once regretted going down that road. I loved running magazines—I was editor-in-chief of 5, including Cosmopolitan for 14 years—and my kids, now 22 and 25, seem to have really benefited from the fact that I worked. Plus, over time I got better at it. I learned good strategies, some from trial and error and some from watching other moms pull them off. Here are some of my favorites:
Set your own boundaries. No one will ever look at their watch in a meeting and tell you, “Oh my god, it’s 5:30. Don’t you have to get home to your kids?” You need to take the bull by the horn and train people to recognize that you generally leave work at a reasonable hour, you don’t spend your evenings on your smartphone, and you still do a terrific job. Sure, you have to take your workplace culture into consideration and you don't want to do anything that undermines your boss’s confidence in you. But you also have to do what’s right for you as a mom. Work smart and efficiently. Do more than what you’re told to do. Go big with your ideas. But also set the boundaries you want to set and don’t be intimidated by snarky comments from co-workers.
That said, also be flexible. Periodically throw everybody a curve ball—stay late, for instance, or come in on a Saturday. That shows you’re willing to put in even more when it’s absolutely necessary. Of course, if you sense irritation from your boss about your boundaries, you need to have a conversation.
Go ahead, ask for it. One of the most important messages in my book is that women have to ask for what they want. We often don’t ask because we’re afraid they’ll say no—and be mad at us for asking. But the squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease. Wish you could work at home one day a week or job share with another mom? Ask. If you’re a strong performer, it won’t hurt you. Just remember: Don’t make your ask about simply taking care of your own needs (“I want to spend more time with my baby”); you want to show you have your boss’s needs in mind, too. (“Working at home one day a week, and not having to worry about the commute, will help me be more creative and productive.”)
Be a just-in-time mother. This is a great trick I learned from Judsen Culbreth, one of my oldest friends and one-time editor-in-chief of Working Mother. When you first walk in the door at home or pick up your kid at day care, squash the urge to brush your teeth or sort through the mail and deal instead with the needs of your child right then and there—to show you something he made at school, for instance, or to have you get down the old box of Legos. Addressing a little thing now—instead of saying, “In a couple of minutes sweetie, okay?”—can buy you lots of calm later. Because it’s probably not about the Legos anyway.
Make your kids your little interns. My mom was the school librarian, and sometimes on holidays she’d bring me to the empty building with her to help on little projects, including decorating the display windows. I loved doing that, so I started bringing my own kids to work when they were about 5 or 6. By the time I got to Cosmo, my daughter was 10 and my son 12. I had them make lists of women who should be on the cover and edit cover shots with me—as kids, their instincts were fresh and unadulterated. My daughter even helped me come up with a column idea. But I should point out that they never wrote the cover lines!
Study other mothers. Other moms can be a great source of info. I always tried to pump them for fresh and easy ways of doing things. When I complained to my friend Judsen that I hated the fact that my new son had to go to bed just two hours after I arrived home from work, she said, “There’s no rule that says babies have to be in bed at 7:30, you know.” So I started putting him to bed at 9:30 until he started school—and he took monster naps during the day.
But don’t worry about what other moms think. As wonderfully supportive and helpful as other mothers can be, they can also be critical and judgmental. A professional acquaintance who is a Hollywood agent is one of the only working moms at her kid’s school. One day a parents group gave out awards, and this is the prize she was given: Fastest Drop Off. Pretty bitchy, right? Just ignore attitude like that. And remember the words of Madeleine Albright: “There’s a place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women.”
Kate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, is the New York Times bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, including her Bailey Wiggins mystery books and Gutsy Girl books. Her latest is I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know, on sale now.
This article was originally published on Working Mother.
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