Op Ed: Working Moms’ Work-Life Choices

DrBethEricksonContributed by Dr. Beth Erickson

Women have wondered since the beginning of feminism whether it is possible to have it all: a challenging career, healthy kids, and a satisfying marriage. And there isn’t a mother around who hasn’t occasionally questioned her choice from time to time, whichever one she has made. For some, it’s all the time.

The latest issue of Working Mother (November 2011) contains the results of the Working Mother Institute survey of 3,700 mothers to inquire about how they handle the question of striking work-life balance. The article that details their findings is titled “What Moms Choose.”

The “Working Mother Report” sheds light on what women feel about the paths they have chosen. Some of their results are surprising and even seem to contradict other results. But it is a fascinating exposition of the banes and blessings of being a working mom and a stay-at-home mom.


It is no surprise that, in the process of juggling their career and their children’s needs, many working moms report that they feel guilty about leaving their children to work outside the home. But what was surprising is that stay-at-home moms feel guilty, too. This survey shows that working moms and those who stay home with their children both feel guilty. Roughly one third of all mothers working or at home say they often feel guilty about their contribution to the household.

Yet, nearly half (49 percent of working moms and 47 percent of stay-at-home moms) admit they are their own toughest critic.

“You Can Be Anything You Want”

Life coach Shannon Kelley, who interviewed dozens of women for her book Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career – and Life – That’s Right for You wrote, “The message women, particularly younger women, have been raised on is that we can be anything we want. It leaves them with a feeling that they can – and should – be trying to be and do everything at once.”

“Our brains know we can’t, but our hearts are a different matter,” says Karen Wilhelm Buckley, co-author of Savvy Leadership Strategies for Women. She goes on to say that she sees guilt as one of the top limiters of success for women. “It’s like putting one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake and trying to drive.”

Sacrificing Personal Time

The Working Mother study found that 48 percent of working mothers and 42 percent of those at home feel guilty about not taking care of themselves. Yet, one said she feels like she’s playing hooky if she makes a trip to the nail salon. Meagan Francis, mother of four, says, “Working moms feel pressure to fill every nonworking hour with ‘quality’ time even though they know they’d like to squeeze in a workout or a solo trip to the bathroom.”

Time with Their Spouse

Not surprisingly, but very unfortunately, time with their spouse with no kids around too often goes by the wayside. And yet, mothers feel guilty about that, too. That’s another double bind for them, only this one is downright dangerous. Thirty-nine percent of working moms surveyed said they feel guilty about the lack of time with their significant other.

Stephanie Coontz, a family sociologist, notes that as the time parents spend with their children has risen – and according to her, we are at historic highs in this country – there is a corresponding decline in time spent with couples to nurture their relationship. As a marriage and family therapist, this indeed is a very dangerous trend.

I have long contended that the best gift parents can give their children is to be crazy about each other. And that, of course, is a daunting challenge when parents spend little or no time together. It would be understandable that feelings of jealousy of one’s own children can arise, along with increasing alienation between spouses or partners. This kind of situation is ripe for an affair or enmity between the husband and his own children.

Primary Motivation for Stay-at-Home Moms

Not surprisingly, the primary reason that stay-at-home moms give for not working outside the home is their wish to be with their children. Forty-four percent of mothers who stay home reported that this is their motivation. And the pull is particularly strong during the preschool years. Both categories of mothers say spending their time with their kids during the evenings and on weekends is part of being a good mother.

The feeling of being pulled in all directions, splintered by a million priorities, and worrying that they are succeeding at none are all too common for working moms. As women, we are so tough on ourselves. Too often, we focus on the 20 percent we didn’t get done, rather than on the 80 percent we did.

According to the What Moms Choose survey, more than half (55 percent) of career-oriented stay-at-home moms say they would prefer to work outside the home. However, they are not interested in a traditional full-time arrangement. Further, 35 percent of career-oriented stay-at-home moms say the cost of child care is a barrier to returning to work.

Further, 74 percent of career-oriented moms say working full time is desirable when their children are of school age.

Role Model

In Working Mother’s survey, 81 percent of working moms and 61 percent of stay-at-home moms say one of the ingredients of being a good mother is showing your children that women can succeed professionally. And I would add, when they succeed in establishing a work-life balance, they can show their children how it is done.

Household Cleanliness

This is a nemesis for many working moms. Fifty-five percent feel guilty about it and 42 percent worry they are being judged by others about it. But I advise moms to learn to just let it roll off their backs, because there are not enough hours in the day to do everything.

What This Means for You

  • Nobody can find the perfect work-life balance.
  • But they can find the balance that is right for themselves and their family.
  • However, even then, they should expect to be off balance for a time until they can reestablish their equilibrium.
  • The wisdom is simply to make peace with the choices you have made.
  • Moms need to learn to say, “I’m doing the best that I can.”
  • Moms are well-advised to leave having a tidy house to another day so they can concentrate on what is really important: loving their children and their spouse, and being as successful at work as they can be, given the other elements of their lives they value that compete for their attention.
  • In their zeal to be good parents, mothers short change being a good spouse or partner at their own peril.

Dr. Beth Erickson is host of “Relationships 101” on; Author of Marriage Isn’t for Sissies: 7 Simple Keys to Unlocking the Best Part of Your Life; Longing for Dad: Father Loss and Its Impact; and as seen in Fortune, Reuters, USA Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmopolitan,,, Christian Science Monitor, The Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Huffington Post; ABC Twin Cities Live and NBC Chicago.