What’s happening in our surroundings impacts our mental health and our sense of self. It’s especially easy to see examples of this in the present moment. COVID has created ongoing uncertainty. As a result, many of us are anxious and less happy. A key reason we’re feeling so much anxiety internally, is that we are surrounded by unknowns externally. We’re immersed in murkiness and uncharted territory.
Anxiety is future-facing emotion. It springs up when we feel nervous or uneasy about an impending event or unrevealed possibilities. The future has felt uncertain for most of us for nearly two years. That feeling has settled inside many of us, as persistent anxiety and worry. We have internalized what’s happening around us. What’s outside is now also inside.
We see the same pattern around social justice issues and our mental health. Working parents, and mothers in particular, experience this internalization every day as we see the impact of inflexible policies that are not family-friendly on parents' identities. The result is parents who perceive themselves as not doing well enough either at work or at home. What’s surrounding us seeps inside our minds. We adopt external messages as “knowledge” about ourselves. But really, it’s not about us at all. In fact, many of these messages aren’t even true or accurate. Yet they impact how we feel about ourselves, and at times they harm us. When our environment is feeding us distortions as “objective information,” it’s a threat to our mental health and our sense of ourselves. Therefore, we must be deliberate around protecting ourselves from harm. This allows us to move through the world with more ease and a greater sense of wellbeing.
Working parents & systemic untruths
Working parents have always been stretched thin. They were before the pandemic. We live in a country that is inhospitable to parents and doesn’t value the needs of children. As a result, we have millions of mothers who identify with the sentiment, “I feel like I’m either failing at work or failing at home. I’m not truly successful anywhere.” These mothers live in an unsupportive environment that reveres work. We claim to value family. But, as a culture, we don’t put our money where our mouth is by way of policies and social support.
Collectively, we have a social problem around working and parenting. This is quite solvable, given that we see it managed much better in other wealthy countries. Here in the U.S., we accept this reality day-to-day. We have lost sight of feeling empowered enough to ask for more. Typically, we’re grateful for the meager scraps we get. This includes short maternity leaves, or insufficient workplace flexibility. Yet instead of, or simultaneous to, being outraged by our policies, we internalize the challenges we face as “personal problems.”
When millions of mothers and fathers are experiencing the same things, it’s not personal—it’s systemic. Those of us who experience these issues in our day-to-day lives often internalize them as our own problems. This happens with other systemic problems that surround us, including racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few. Oftentimes we are even blamed as the cause of the problem itself by society.
That’s simply not true. In fact, it’s an unconscionable distortion.
Parents have not created these problems around work and family. However, in our current climate, it is on them to come up with solutions for their own lives. How can we stop internalizing what’s happening around us? Can we instead protect ourselves, and acknowledge our own hard work and dedication to managing two full-time jobs—work and parenting? How can we change the narrative to reflect reality, and reward rather than punish ourselves?
I will present three strategies to help us create a barrier between harmful external messages and our inner world. They are: defining success for ourselves, setting better boundaries, and carving out time for rest and reflection.
Defining success for yourself, and yourself only
We live in a society where success is often shorthand for money and prestige. That definition may work well for some. However, working professionals increasingly want to define success more holistically. When you have all the money and accolades that you want, but have neglected other parts of your life, how do you feel?
When we define what success looks like for us, it’s important to think about what we want out of the most important aspects of our lives. This does include our careers and finding work that’s meaningful and engaging. However, it also includes thinking about how we want to show up as parents, what we need out of our key relationships, and what we want for ourselves personally.
Joy and satisfaction are about more than money. We can resist a one-dimensional definition of success. Instead, we can identify what success looks like for us given what we value across the board in our lives. We can also embrace the realization that how we envision success will change based on the chapter of life we are in. Therefore, we will need to keep revising our definition. When we are clear on what success looks like for us, right now, we have more freedom to make the choices that will truly make us happy and fulfilled.
Once we know what we want, our boundaries allow us to continually say a resounding “Yes!” or a firm “No.” Our boundaries are how we protect our time. If we can identify priorities that reflect our values, setting boundaries then allows us to build a life that’s in alignment with our deepest inner wishes. Maintaining our boundaries is also a skill that can help us. It helps build a life of balance between the parts of our lives that we value. Each of us must get clear on where it’s difficult for us to set boundaries. We can then strive to eliminate what’s getting in the way.
One way to improve at setting boundaries is to integrate delay tactics into your vocabulary as automatic responses. This is a way of giving yourself time to think. This allows you to respond deliberately rather than react automatically. We are then able to choose more intentionally. A good way to approach this is to think of some quick responses that you can begin to say in almost any situation you find yourself in. New responses can include:
“Thanks for thinking of me. This sounds like a great opportunity. I need to look at this in the context of my other responsibilities, and then I’ll get back to you.”
“That sounds like fun! Let me check on whether I have the time to devote to that right now, and I’ll let you know later this week.”
These types of responses allow us to express gratitude and thanks, and also to take some time to be thoughtful about whether we want to say yes or no.
Often women want to express kindness in some way. We’re socialized to easily feel badly for not being “nice enough.” Unfortunately, sometimes this leads to us saying yes to something that we don’t want to do, or don’t have the bandwidth to take on. This can result in feeling overwhelmed, being over-scheduled, and ending up stressed. Using a tactic like the ones mentioned above can allow us to meet our need to express positivity or to “be nice.” It also separates that need from whether we’re able to take on another commitment.
Consistent rest and reflection
Most of us are aware of the research that rest allows us to be more productive and to perform better. But in our culture of workaholism, it is often difficult for us to give ourselves permission to restore. Rest can look different at different moments. It can include sleeping, reading a book, or taking a stroll outside. When we listen to our bodies, and rest when we need to we can bring ourselves back to center. This is a place where we feel calmer and more peaceful, rather than overstimulated and frantic. Calming down allows us to be our best selves, and to enjoy our day to day lives. And ironically, when we rest we get more done over time.
Similarly, reflection is an opportunity to check in with ourselves, to keep clarifying what we want and need, and to refine what we believe. Both rest and reflection are important protectors and replenishers so we can feel good each day.
Career + Work-Life Reset
I began the Career + Work-Life Reset program for working moms in response to this idea that moms often feel like they are not 100% successful in their careers or as parents. Because we have cultural ideals around work that encourage always “being on,” and we have expectations that women should be supermoms, mothers are left in a bind. How can we feel that we are making enough of an impact in two distinct areas of life, that are each full-time jobs in and of themselves?
There is no magic bullet to solve this problem, because true solutions would need to be carved out on many different levels of society. Yet working moms can take back the reins, and assert their own power, by defining for themselves what success looks like for them, right now. They can reward themselves for their hard work each day, and give themselves the credit they deserve for being successful across the board.
In our program, we support women in this work of reclaiming what achievement looks like by having participants set goals across four important areas of life. This encourages a holistic approach to success: career, parenting, key relationships, and personal. Women come together for a 12-week transformative journey with like-minded women, and connect, brainstorm, and at times commiserate as they work towards their goals. We talk about a range of topics to remove blocks that get in the way of achieving your goals, help you to shift your mindset, and allow you to develop new skills, so you are more effective in reaching your goals.
When we as working mothers can recognize that we are not the problem, and free ourselves of that false narrative, we are positioned to take control of our own lives, and to assert what we want and need. When we can resist what society has told us, and dig deeper into our own values, we can begin to carve out a path that is uniquely ours, and is right for us, no matter what chapter of life we find ourselves in. By owning that we’re enough, creating realistic expectations for ourselves, and celebrating our successes—whether traditional or not—we can seize greater joy, contentment, and satisfaction in our lives.
Sasha McDowell is the founder of Epicycle Group, an organization that supports purpose-driven leaders, with a focus on parents and women, so they can succeed at work and at home. Through Epicycle, Sasha provides leadership and career coaching, offers a group program for working moms called Career + Work-Life Reset, and is launching a Work-Life Success Membership this spring. She also helps organizations to build more effective teams, retain women leaders and create family-friendly work cultures.
Prior to starting her business, Sasha’s career was in youth development and education, focusing on social justice and increasing opportunities for underserved groups. She is a seasoned manager who has worked with community-based non-profit organizations, in the corporate sector, in a national, MacArthur-winning non-profit, and in the New York City school district.
Sasha received her BA in women’s studies from Trinity College, and an MPA and MSW from Columbia University. She lives in South Orange, NJ, with her husband and two children.