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Secrets of an unflappable working mother

By Michelle Slatalla, Real Simple
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Tue September 27, 2011
Juggle your responsibilities strategically and you can be an unflappable working mother.
Juggle your responsibilities strategically and you can be an unflappable working mother.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Want to be an unflappable working mother? Do work at home, and home at work
  • Juggle your responsibilities strategically and ignore parental literature
  • Don't think of yourself as split into separate but equal roles

(Real Simple) -- Last Thursday, as I walked into the house after a business meeting followed by a 30-mile round-trip car pool, I smelled something delicious wafting from the Crock-Pot. On my way to the kitchen, I looked in the mirror, gave a thumbs-up to my dependable black pants, and thought, There now, being a working mother isn't so hard.

That day, like most, involved a lot of working and a lot of mothering, often at the same time. Ever since giving birth to my first daughter, 20 years ago, I have intentionally blurred the lines between work and home.

That's just what the experts tell you not to do. But I credit the overlap with helping me stay reasonably calm.

Here are my tried-and-true ways to keep domestic (and professional) chaos at bay.

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1. Do work at home; do home at work. You need to accomplish a certain number of things during a 24-hour period. Where you complete those tasks is beside the point; you just need to check them off the list in order to free up time for the things you want to do. Pedicures come to mind. And reading. So go ahead: Pay your bills at the office during your lunch hour, and check your work e-mail at home while you're waiting for the kids to show up at the dinner table.

2. Juggle strategically. Sure, try to accomplish A and B and C simultaneously, but don't do it all by yourself. Instead, get A to accomplish B, so you can take credit for C. For instance, I like to sit at the kitchen table and work on a laptop next to a child of mine doing algebra. While A does worksheets (and I write my newspaper column), she is being mothered by me. Also, I can change gears fast to Google the "quadratic equation" if A gets stuck. Child aces her math class, and I meet my deadline. Score two points for the working mom.

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3. Make your home office a command center. Those pesky experts say that to get any work done at home, you have to be cordoned off in a room far away from anyone who can nag you. This makes me wonder how many experts have children. Instead, figure out which location in the center of your house provides some privacy, while reminding everyone you are a presence to be reckoned with. From this spot, you should be able to stir a pot of simmering soup or assist with a history project that involves the use of glitter (by nixing the glitter).

4. Ignore the latest parental fear-mongering literature. I don't want to catch you reading anything with a title like Either I Should Be Drinking More or Less Chardonnay Out of Sippy Cups at Work and Home. Instead, stick to the classics that remind us, with great wit, what we like about this business of being an adult with a complex life. For example, Shirley Jackson's Raising Demons will help you decide whether it's more fulfilling to spend the weekend doing housework or playing cards with the neighbors. (Hint: Think mixed nuts and drinks over a few rounds of bridge.)

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5. Getting out the door in the morning (without anyone in tears) is the only thing you have to achieve before 8:30 a.m. Stop trying to organize everything. Your only goals are to leave the house looking good and without your first-grader sobbing because she hates getting dressed in the morning. If that means you put her to bed in her school clothes to avoid a 7 a.m. tantrum, I think you're a genius.

6. Arm yourself with secret weapons. Mine include a ream of copy paper (hide it in your underwear drawer so no one can cut it up into snowflakes), an instant thermometer, and emergency high heels (keep a pair stashed in the car).

7. Go with your gut, and don't second-guess it later. If you've spent days preparing for a meeting that starts in an hour and the school nurse calls to report a painful, though not hospital-worthy, monkey-bar injury, there's no one right thing to do. On any given day, your instinct might be to skip the meeting. Or suggest that the nurse apply an ice pack and send Shorty back to class. Make a snap decision and then -- this is key -- don't question it later. Let it go. Really. I mean it.

8. Leave your kids (and the stories about them) at home. While I'm sure your coworkers love hearing about Sophie's ballet recital or poison ivy, you can keep them begging for more by limiting updates on family life to one per week (unless your kid gets a perfect score on his SAT, in which case, keep the good news to yourself forever). Remember -- bragging about your kids is what family parties are for.

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9. Don't obsess over things no one will remember in five years. Come 2015, no one, not even you, will still be angry that the PTA insisted on scheduling meetings during the workday. Or that your child was the last holdout against potty-training at preschool. I learned this from a nursery-school director named Susie Meisler. She used to peel screaming 3-year-olds off their parents, carry them into her office, and call over her shoulder to the fretting parents, "Get a cup of coffee. Everything will be fine." And Susie was right.

10. Stop thinking of yourself as split into separate but equal roles: mother, worker, me. Listen to philosopher John Locke, who said that a person recognizes himself as the same being throughout his life, in different times and places. You are one person, indivisible, who just happens to wear many hats. And while I get that the weight of all those hats can wear you down, at least be happy you've got something important to do.

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