PBS's 'This Emotional Life': The Everyday Struggle of Working Moms

When new moms get back to work, we naturally spend our days wondering about our babies and second guessing how they are thriving under the purview of someone else. Anyone else.
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Jug•gle: to hold, catch, carry, or balance precariously; almost drop and then catch hold again. If you'd like to try it, then have a baby and go back to work. If it starts to get too easy, then have another baby.

There is no balancing act quite like juggling the responsibilities of a working mother. The incessant needs of the growing family multiplied by the demands of excelling in any workplace can be challenging. Many working moms would strongly prefer to stay home and focus solely on the full-time challenges that come with the job as a stay-at-home-mom. But they are torn away from that option by the need (or perceived need) to contribute to the family income. The resulting transition can be incredibly difficult.

The intense emotional turmoil experienced by many moms when they return to the workplace after birth stems from our evolutionary bond and desire to care for the needs of our partners and children. Those feelings are collectively referred to as "Attachment." Hardwired maternal instincts drive us to protect and care for our young under a close watchful eye. Failure to provide such care to the fullest extent breeds feelings of guilt. So when we get back to work, we naturally spend our days wondering about our babies and second guessing how they are thriving under the purview of someone else. Anyone else.

Natural instinct that drives us to care for our babies is healthy and has kept children safe and thriving and parents and children well bonded for millennia. However, in today's dual income society, that strong maternal urge may have undesirable consequences. By way of analogy, a computer that runs one program is very efficient and quick. Each subsequent program that you open will slow the computer down and affect all of the other programs negatively. Eventually the system becomes so inefficient that nothing is really being accomplished. The solution is to close some of the programs before the system crashes.

Women naturally want to be the best moms they can be. Employees want to perform well at their jobs. Before the first baby arrives a mother is like a computer running one program. Even when the program is working to its fullest capacity, the system holds up well. However, when she has a child, a new window is opened running another program. Each subsequent child is like opening more and more windows and running more programs slowing the overall speed and efficiency of all of her tasks, both professional and personal. It's no surprise that the 'Baby Brain' phenomenon that starts during pregnancy gets worse when the baby is born. Contrary to the computer scenario, in real life we are unable to close out the programs (our children and our jobs).

Men are wired differently. The masculine instinct is to hunt, gather and provide. That instinct gets even stronger with the arrival of children. Working dads love and care for children too, but nature affords them the ability to minimize the kiddie window while they are at work so that they can focus on providing. The difference in mommy and daddy wiring should suit the needs of the family quite well - after all one parent has to be able to really focus on the financial needs of the family while the other parent addresses the emotional needs and overall care of the family.

So where does that leave moms who don't have a choice but to contribute to the family's income? Start by knowing that not being home while you work doesn't make you a bad mom, or mean that you won't have a close and loving relationship with your child. In fact, research suggests that children of working moms have an equal if not greater attachment to mom. Renowned pediatrician, author and parenting expert, Dr. Jim Sears suggests that "attachment parenting is especially beneficial to the working mother/baby couple - it helps you two re-connect after the workday ... you will be a great mother, who gets to know her baby better than anyone else in this world."

Next, have reasonable expectations. If you demand of yourself to be everything for everyone then you are setting yourself up for failure. You work hard and do the best that you can do while you are at work and then come home and do the same. All of that double work is going to take a physical and emotional toll. Don't be afraid to 'reboot your system' from time to time by indulging in some alone time. Your time rejuvenating with a great workout, a long bath or shower, a visit to the spa, a show, and/or a sporting event -- whatever floats your boat -- is not just for you, but for all the people who depend on you as well. If you don't take care of yourself you will be useless to them. Commit right now while you are reading this article to do one special thing for yourself this week. And don't get all guilty feeling about it!

Additionally, asking for help and taking advantage of community resources may simplify your responsibilities. Find out which local grocers and errand establishments, such as dry cleaners, offer home delivery in your area. Often times there are little or no delivery fee. Job share grocery shopping with a close friend, so that you each can make fewer stops and pick up what the other needs.

Lastly, Dr. John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute and marital and parenting expert, suggests the importance of being mindful and in-the-moment when we spend time with our children. The concept shifts the emphasis to focusing on the quality of time spent with our children, rather than the quantity of parent-child interactions. Before you interact with you children, ask yourself: "How can I optimize and be more fully present with the available time I have with my child[ren] to make it a more meaningful interaction." This is what will truly make a difference and enhance your overall bond and attachment with your children.

Alright time to put work away and go play with my kiddies.

This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife

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