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Overcoming Working Mom Anxiety

How to curb those feelings of insecurity and panic when faced with two full-time jobs - work and motherhood

By Sheri Wallace

Ellen Tanowitz, an attorney in Waltham, Massachusetts, is described by her husband, Charles, as having a "high level of working-mommy guilt." Despite working from home two days a week, Ellen says that she was compelled to design a Blue's Clues paw cake for her son's second birthday. That might be fun, you say, but Ellen then customized the party games, hid paws for the kids to find, and made homemade play dough. She also sewed her own beanbags for the beanbag toss and burned a personalized soundtrack for the event. Charles says she does more than any other mom he knows, and still has "pangs of guilt." Ellen just laughs and says those "pangs" are better described as "what keeps me up nights."

Other working moms know just what Ellen is going through. Expected to keep a tidy house, feed nutritious meals to the family and pets, run errands and carpool, and meet professional performance standards, women are left feeling inadequate and anxious - that is, if they ever have a few minutes to stop and think.

Where Did June Cleaver Come From, Anyway?
Shari Thurer, Ph.D., author of "The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother," says that our current ideals of the perfect mom are based on fiction. Or at least not the reality of the 21st century. The impossible woman standards are grounded in the postwar era, and in advertisements that depict women crying when they receive an iron for a birthday gift. Picture the 1950s. Suddenly mothers and all things domestic were prized; after all, the world had recently been through two world wars, and Dr. Spock was preaching parental sensitivity. Women were suddenly able economically to stay home, and the age of June Cleaver was born.

Thurer adds that highly educated women are especially prone to working-mother guilt because they have been taught that there is a right and a wrong way to approach every situation, when in fact, there are many good ways to raise a child. She points out that until the 1950s children rarely received any highly personalized maternal attention because there were just way too many children to take care of - not to mention family survival.

Ways to Make Work Positive
For executive moms like Ellen, coping means trying to keep things positive. "I try to focus on the good things that our family has because of my career," she says. "But I'm balancing so many roles that being positive is sometimes impossible." Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Parenting An Only Child and Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day, says that women are unwilling to compromise when it comes to their children, and this sets them up for anxiety. She suggests that one way to cope with working-mom guilt is to change your way of thinking.

"Modeling a successful working woman is incredibly important if you have female children," she says. "But even if you don't have girls, you still can be a positive role model and show that women are a force in the executive world." Newman says that it is important to remember that you will always be your child's mother, and that your kids see you differently than you see yourself. "You could be feeling guilty that you haven't baked cookies for that after-school snack, but your child doesn't see it at all. They are just glad that you want to hear about their day."

Here are some tips that Newman says can help executive moms view their career in a more positive light:

  • The small things you say really do sink in. You don't have to be there every second, or even be a model mother, your children still listen to what you say and do.

  • Your kids instinctively know when they are loved.

  • Set your priorities and evaluate them often. Focus only on what is truly important, not what that stereotype in your head is saying.

  • Don't slack on the rules. Your children want to know that you are there if they need you. They might complain about your rules but they still appreciate them.

  • Remember when you leave your child at daycare that non-working parents use childcare too. If your child is having a particularly rough time with separation, it's most likely a stage rather than something that she would really want to change.

  • Start a small email support list or call your best friend. If you're having a horrible day have a friend who isn't working check in on your kids and give you a status report.

Ellen said that support from other moms who are in similar high heels is her lifeline. "I can call this one particular friend and just vent," she laughs. "She knows how hard it can be, and she always is very supportive of me." Both Newman and Thurer agree that an understanding ear can make all the difference. "No one else can quite understand what you're going through if she's not a working mom," says Newman.

Thurer says that if you don't have a good support system in real life, that you might consider joining a cyber mom's group. "Just make sure that it isn't too time consuming," she warns. "If the group is too large you can spend time online that you don't have." A reasonable alternative might be a message board community, or even better, finding a couple of moms who live in your neighborhood.

If you still find yourself up at 3 a.m. designing a birthday cake from scratch, you might need to reread this article. Then again, Charles says that Ellen still has those beanbags and party games around somewhere.

Also see:
From power lunches to power rangers: How working moms keep it together
Simplify your life to focus on what you care about
More articles about work and family balance

Sheri Wallace is the working mother of an almost two-year old, and has dibs on Ellen's birthday cake design.

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