"I'm happier working than if I wasn't working. I'm actually a better mom and a better wife, and probably a better employee," says Chattanooga, Tennessee, mother Mary Stewart Lewis from her cell phone as she and her 3-year-old son drive home from a baseball game outing with clients. This Bell South corporate saleswoman says work nourishes her self-esteem.
Baltimore, Maryland, environmental planner and landscape architect Allysha Lorber grew up with a mother and grandmother who worked. "Just the fact that they had that extra something that they could teach their kids about and that I can teach my daughter about, it makes me feel good," says Lorber, who was promoted to senior management just before her now 7-month-old's birth.
Samantha Cabot, who lives in Los Angeles, is a senior marketing manager for the staffing firm Robert Half International. She takes pride in her work and in raising her two young daughters. "I really enjoy working, and I think I have a lot to teach my children about how the world works through working," she says.
Lorber recalls someone once saying it's not fair to your children to be a working mom. She counters, "I don't think it's fair to [you] to sell yourself short if it is something you want to do, because it's not that hard once you get a system down."
"Some people think you have to be the complete extreme and be the supermom and be able to do everything," says Cabot, who believes she and her husband have found balance. "I think as long as you're happy, your children are happy, your family is happy, and you're doing the best you can—I think that's balance."
"You don't really find balance," says Carol Evans, author of This is How We Do It: The Working Mothers' Mainfesto and the CEO of Working Mother Media. "You have to continually seek it. It's in the seeking that you actually have some balance in your life. It's like a butterfly. It never really lands on your shoulder, but you can appreciate it as it's flying around."
Cabot, Lewis, and Lorber focus on setting priorities—especially when it comes to time with family. Home life revolves around high-quality family time.
Lewis, who refuses to take work-related frustration home, says, "Just because a customer is mad at you, that should not make or break your day. My son is the highlight of my day."
For Lorber, prioritizing also means letting a little dust gather in her home. "So part of the juggling act is letting some less important responsibilities go," she explains. She adds that she tries not to stay late at work, since that eats into family time.
Evans suggests sometimes trying to fuse the worlds of work and family. Attending a daytime school play, telecommuting, working flextime, or asking your employer to offer family-friendly environments such as pumping rooms, are good ways to combine work and family. Evans says for many moms, this fusion helps create balance.
If Lewis's son is sick or she plans to attend a field trip with him, she arms herself with her BlackBerry and puts in her work time after he goes to bed.
Lorber asked for and received a nontraditional schedule. She spends four weekdays at the office and Fridays with her daughter. On work days, if she has a meeting near her daughter's daycare center, she'll take a break with her.
Finding caregivers you trust and committing to a team approach with your partner is key. "If I didn't have him, I probably would fall apart," reports Cabot of her husband. "He cooks, he picks up, he'll get [the kids] from school. I think that it's really wrong especially in this day and age ... that fathers aren't applauded more." She also admires any single mother doing it alone.
Lorber's husband usually makes dinner, and she handles bath and story time. Lewis, too, feels fortunate to be in a true partnership. She offers this key bit of advice: "Sit down and communicate with your partner and find out what's important to him and what's important to you."
In a survey of 500 working mothers that she conducted for her book, Evans found that 31 percent of moms exercise at least three times a week and 98 percent have a hobby. "The people that I think are the most harried are the ones that never take time for themselves," says Lewis, who just returned from a weekend out with girlfriends.
Cabot recalls someone who once said she gets her "me time" during her commute. She encourages moms to take the time to re-energize. She suggests making time for walks alone or with friends, pampering yourself with a bath, shopping for something just for you (not groceries or items for other family members), taking a nap, and setting up dates with friends.
Evans advises pregnant women who plan to continue working to maximize maternity leave, gradually phase back, and ask for adjustments if needed. According to her survey, 69 percent of working women asked for a change and 74 percent received it. Evans also encourages fathers to take a paternity leave.
Will we still be talking about this balancing act in 20 years? Evans believes we will. When she purchased Working Mother magazine in 2001, it had already been around for 22 years. She was floored to be invited to participate in a debate over whether mothers should work. "In the scope of time, this is still a very new phenomenon. It will take several generations before it becomes a natural thing," she says.