Author and workplace culture advocate Lisen Stromberg has a message for her younger self, and for all of us who feel overwhelmed as working mothers of young children.
“I remember feeling panicked all the time that I wasn’t doing what was best for my children, and I wish I was a little kinder to myself.”
She describes her memories of “being in a constant state of triage.”
“Before 8 a.m. we’ve got to get clothes on, teeth brushed, lunches packed, baby breastfed,” the mother of three recalls — and all before the work day begins.
Lisen describes this ability to juggle as “accordion-like,” where moms are capable of expanding and contracting “in a beautiful way.”
“I wish I had known that my capacity would expand and I would be able to do all those things — not always well — and the kids would live through it.”
Since we talked in January about her book, Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, I took a pause of sorts from writing, while I transitioned into a new job and dealt with an intense new chapter of parenting.
In the eight months since then, I’ve found myself repeating Lisen’s mantras–and sharing them with other moms navigating career and parenting pivots of their own.
“Frankly when I was a new mother, in some ways professionally that was a productive phase of my career because I was so darn focused and so capable of getting everything that needed to happen done,” she says. “And that’s a powerful place to be.”
It helps to hear–from someone who’s lived through it–that this stage of parenting can be a “Phoenix rising” moment, as Lisen describes it. She also believes all the hormones coursing through us in early motherhood are actually a benefit.
“You’re just like on fire in this gorgeous way,” she says. “At the time it feels like hell.”
And that cocktail of physiology and limited time can lead to clarity.
“I got very clear on what I needed to do and who I was fighting for,” she says. “In my case I was fighting for my kids and my future.”
For Lisen, that meant every aspect of her life had to fit: her work, her relationships, her health, “everything.”
“It changed me in a powerful way.”
Women Helping Women Succeed
Work PAUSE Thrive is a wonderfully thorough analogy of research on working motherhood, which features stories of women who’ve successfully paused their careers–in a number of ways.
For Lisen, it meant rethinking her role as a journalist after maternity leave ended (which she wrote about in The New York Times), taking turns with her husband to amp up their careers at different times, and starting her own non-profit organizations and consultancies.
She cautions that pauses are not about getting relief from the stressors parenting.
“Being overwhelmed is the reality of parenthood,” she says. “You are now responsible for another soul.”
Instead, it’s about taking a moment to reassess what you want for yourself and your family. That can mean making adjustments in a current job, returning to work after taking time to focus on family, starting a business, or finding another passion to pursue.
“The women who I saw truly thriving were the ones who just had clarity,” says Lisen.
She describes these success stories among mothers who were “very intentional about their choices, and very empowered about their capacity as humans and what they can deliver.”
Lisen points out that these same women were willing to live with their choices even if it didn’t work out the way they planned.
“I think the women who suffered–that I interviewed with–are the ones who weren’t clear on their values and weren’t clear on what they were willing to give up and risk, and felt guilt about it.”
Lisen originally set out to interview 25 women, which then grew to 150, and then 1500 interviews later she had a comprehensive body of data to back up her instincts about the non-linear paths of working mothers.
“I wanted to be really sure that my intuitions and my beliefs and my experiences were real,” she says.
It Takes a Village
I was surprised to learn in Lisen’s book about a period in U.S. history where childcare was provided by the government so that mothers could support the economy during wartime–guilt-free.
“There seemed to be absolute clarity that this was an important thing to do for your country and to do for your community,” she says. “And it was liberating in some ways, right.”
When their husbands returned from war, the support went away, and mothers “re-claimed their roles” at home.
(And we all know what’s happened–or I should say hasn’t happened–for childcare since then.)
“With 64 million millennials right in the prime childbearing years–not having paid leave and not having affordable childcare–we’re seeing so many women pause their careers who never even envisioned they would do that,” says Lisen.
She cites the paradox of wanting to advance women in the workforce, but not having the structures in place to support them.
“We don’t honor caregiving in our country in terms of our policies and our workplace,” she says, noting the added pressure of being available 24/7.
The secret to thriving is what Lisen refers to as “time mastery” and it was shared by all the women she interviewed who stayed in the workforce. They successfully affirmed their commitment to their jobs while speaking up when they needed to make time for personal responsibilities.
“Their employers didn’t punish them for that, and that’s a distinction we need to make,” she says.
“If there’s anything I could wish for the next generation of talent,” says Lisen, “it’s that they feel empowered to be able say ‘I know I will give you 110 percent but I have to give it on my schedule.’ ”