She leaves work in a rush to pick up her 4-year-old daughter from day care before they close. She knows they have no tolerance for lateness. She can’t afford to be charged a late fee or risk being kicked out. She glances at her watch, now with her daughter in tow, and then rushes through traffic to get her 6-year-old son from his after-school program. She stops for gas, a few groceries for dinner and lunch for her son’s field trip tomorrow, and finally by the post office to mail a late birthday card to her mother. She arrives home, where she lets the dogs out, unloads the groceries, says hello to her husband and starts dinner. She answers the phone, referees a fight between the kids, helps with homework, signs forms for the next school day, does a load of laundry, bathes her daughter, reads a bedtime story and tucks her kids into bed.
Approximately 75 percent of women with school-aged children work outside of the home and as many as 50 percent of working women in the U.S. are the primary breadwinners. The effects of work stress, the demands of running a household, and the disadvantages of reduced quality time with their children take a toll on women’s physical and psychological well-being. We see more cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal distress, weakened immune response to illness and depression in women today. Mothers of infants and young children have the highest rates of depression. Shorter workdays and creative human resource practices, such as job-sharing programs and telecommuting, have increased flexibility and reduced stress for some working mothers. However, for many women in the workforce, being able to balance work and family life is a challenge. For these working moms, proactive strategies that include self-care, stress management and enlisting the help of others may be beneficial.
The adage, “put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then assist others,” is extremely appropriate. To help others, you must first help yourself. For most women, this requires a shift in thinking and a change in habit. When working moms are physically healthy and emotionally strong, they find it easier to do all the things they need to do for their children, families and employers. While there is no one way to best care for self, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, annual medical exams and exercise a few times a week are key. In addition, stretching, deep breathing, meditation or a few minutes daily to do absolutely nothing appear to be very effective. Daily or weekly self-care routines seem to help working moms sustain a healthy lifestyle and reduce the perception of stress. Learning to say no is another tool that can be extremely effective for busy moms. A good rule of thumb is to consider saying no to requests if another person attempts to use obligation or guilt to persuade you. A very nice method of declining is to simply say, “I would love to __, but I can’t.” Very rarely do others follow up with “Why not?”
ASK FOR HELP
When possible, it’s important to ask others for help. Many working moms have a spouse or older children who can assist with the household chores or errands. Consider alternating trips to the grocery store or sharing basic errands with other working mothers. These strategies can have an immediate effect on the quality of the time women can spend with their families. When everyone does a small portion of the household chores, the entire family benefits. In addition, get to know other parents who can assist with carpooling or transporting children to school, practices or other events. Talk with other employed mothers for timesaving tips and support and, above all, let the little things go. I have never heard a mother say, “I wish I would have done more dusting,” but she may say, “I wish I would have spent more time playing with my kids.”
One very effective strategy to reduce work/family stress is to compartmentalize. I teach women to set work aside as soon as they leave the office by using some very specific strategies. For example, make lists on your telephone or in a notebook so you can capture important work-related thoughts, and then move back to the home-related task at hand. This is particularly helpful for reducing guilt when your children want your attention. If possible, save emails or other work for after your children go to sleep, or if your kids are old enough for homework, sit at the same table and work along with them. Laughter is also great medicine. Laughter has been shown to reduce pain, physical tension and stress by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Laughter can boost the immune system by decreasing stress hormones and improve cardiovascular health by improving blood flow. Changing the way you think about things can also provide relief. Very little in life is as urgent as we think it is. If the level of stress in your life is causing physical or emotional symptoms, consider talking with a psychologist or other mental health professional for effective coping strategies. Many companies have employee assistance programs — EAPs — for employees as well.
By Susan L. Shackelford, Ph.D.