How Working Moms Build and Lead with Limited Time

In the age of startups, #hustle, and productivity gurus, never has so much emphasis been placed on the relationship between hours and success. Typically, this results in a frenetic work ethic that’s not sustainable for working parents and other groups that are responsible for the livelihood of family members.

It’s been five years since Anne Marie Slaughter nailed it on the head in “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” challenging “the belief that more time equals more value.” Sadly, her words still ring true: “the culture of ‘time macho’—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.”

This precedent is in direct conflict with the realities of parenting: kids get sick, daycare isn’t always available, and doctors offices have limited hours. It’s time to be more transparent about the demands on working mothers, and elevate examples of leadership and entrepreneurship that don’t lead to burnout – or workforce dropout entirely.

For this series, I’m going to focus on working moms for two reasons:

  • While there’s been a lot of debate about the gender gap, examples of how women are building or leading companies – while actively raising children – aren’t typically part of the conversation. Without these stories, young women won’t have examples to inspire their early career choices, and women who are going through the life-altering transformation of becoming mothers will too easily feel defeated.
  • As a toddler mom, I’ve become somewhat of a cultural anthropologist on this topic for the last few years. I believe working moms are in a unique position to reshape corporate leadership and dispel the myths that perpetuate cut-throat startup culture. Stories from female founders who are simultaneously building companies and families are innovative by design.

Without further ado, let’s get into it!

How Do You Build or Lead with Limited Time?

I’ve been fixated on answering this question for years, starting long before I became a mom. I was intimidated by the idea of working motherhood, so I read voraciously like any type A person would. From I Don’t Know How She Does It to I Know How She Does It, and Lean In, I couldn’t guzzle down stories about working moms fast enough.

While these gateway stories were inspiring, I finally felt empowered when any notions of super mom flew out the window. By talking to other parents with the same sleep deprivation or childcare struggles, it released the pressure I was needlessly putting on myself to return to my pre-maternity leave pace.

The way Sarah Argenal from the Working Parent Resource put it into words really resonated with me: “As an overachiever in my life before kids, I was used to learning new skills and then mastering them. To put it bluntly, I was used to being good at things in my life; and one of the hardest things I had to do as a parent was realize that I was never going to be perfect at it. Our kids change all the time, and it was really disorienting to have to adapt and adjust to every new developmental stage that my child went through.”

The same can be said for how I previously spent work time. I was used to saying yes to every opportunity, traveling on a regular basis, and spreading my time across a lot of different projects and people. I had to completely rethink how I used and valued my time as a mother.

By surfacing stories about how working moms are building businesses or leading organizations, we can address “time” as a major contributor to the gender gap.

How Working Moms Make the Most of Limited Time

No matter the method, these stories – and the resources that follow – are about placing a premium on the hours you have available, rather than treating your time as a never-ending commodity. It’s also about recognizing your limits and making adjustments when you need to.

Whitney, founder of SproutFit, juggles a corporate job that requires frequent business travel, her new adjustable baby clothing start-up, and a 3-year-old: “It’s a lot of prioritizing, a lot of asking for forgiveness of friends and family members when I can’t go to events because I’m traveling, or when I need to take a me day,” says Whitney.

“My biggest thing right now is truly prioritizing, and learning what can be priority A, B and C,” she says. “Being able to communicate with my husband; with his traveling job and my traveling job, we have to make sure we’re keeping everything in check. It’s a lot of communication, a lot of priority checking and a lot of saying no.”

“I wasn’t always good at saying no,” says Whitney. “But, I’m pretty good at saying no now because it’s to protect, my family, my sanity and my future… our future.”

Sarah, founder of Piperoos, is going through “a phase where the balance of juggling Piperoos, and family and my day job has shifted in favor of family and day job.” In addition to a new role at work, she’s had to temporarily prioritize “the logistics of moving our family, and figuring out school, the new ballet class and swimming” over her environmentally conscious baby brand.

This isn’t the first time Sarah has had to rethink how she spends her time: “I struggled a huge amount after having my daughter. My identity had been so tied up in my career for so long.”

“Even if you have a really supportive spouse at home, even if you have a company that has set up structures in place that are supportive, you still end up facing a burden from a career perspective that you wouldn’t as a male in that situation,” she says.

Tips & Resources

  • Get a reality check on how many hours you have available: In the book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, there are actual calendars of working moms with leadership positions and high pressure jobs. Many of the women interviewed overestimated the actual time spent on work, which helps debunk the myth that everyone else is putting in more hours than you.
  • Figure out what your unique contribution is: Find the sweet spot between the work you’re most passionate about, what others perceive your super power to be, and your impact on the bottom line. Once you do, it becomes very clear how to prioritize your precious time and help your team stay focused. It also makes the logistics of how you get your work done less of an issue, because the value you deliver is ultimately what matters.
  • Get into alignment before tackling your most important work: This is about creating the conditions to tap into flow, which allows you to create quality without a lot of quantity (as measured by time). It’s a popular topic in podcasts like The Lively Show. Don’t be discouraged by morning rituals, which can be difficult when you’re trying to get kids out the door. As an alternative, you can pinpoint optimal pockets of uninterrupted time in the day for your most important problem-solving or creative work.
  • Cluster your hustle: As someone who works primarily from home, I arrange for one 12+ hour day per week to travel to and from the office, when extended childcare can be covered by family. I make the most of the long train commute, respond to emails while hopping from train to bus to Lyft, and then I can be fully present with my team in the office. Same goes for major customer events or conferences. The other days of the week, Zoom, Slack, texts and calls make it seamless to stay connected with my colleagues, and then I’m available for my family in the morning and evening.
  • Bring in reinforcements: There are likely many things you don’t need to be the one to do, in order to make room for the things that only you can do. In today’s sharing economy, there’s no reason you can’t preserve precious parenting time outside of work by outsourcing grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, your wardrobe, and more. By creating income for others, you can carve out time for you – and your family.

There’s so much more to say on this topic! If you have experiences to share, I would love for you to be part of the conversation. Please pipe in, either in the comments below, or by reaching out to me directly so we can chat.

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