Most mornings, when the alarm sounds at 5:30 a.m., 33-year-old Lindsay Armour sleeps in while her husband gets ready for work. But “sleeping in” for Armour, who lives in Southampton, Pa., means laying awake and mentally going through the motions of her rigorous daily routine—being a mom, wife, school teacher, and CrossFit devotee. Before she knows it, it’s her turn to rise for the second alarm at 6:15 a.m.
Like Armour, many working moms are mentally preparing for their day before their feet even hit the ground. So it’s unsurprising that a recent survey by the Pew Center found that around 56 percent of working parents reported feeling tired and stressed.
“Fifty-six percent of employed parents say the balancing act is difficult,” says sociologist Mary Blair-Loy, the founding director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions at UC San Diego. “This isn’t an individual problem of poor motivation or lack of ability to juggle.”
In families in which both parents work, which now constitutes most American households, couples are striving to have fulfilling careers, satisfying personal lives, and meaningful relationships. This comes at a time when kids are participating in demanding sports and activities outside school and when being a parent involves more engagement than ever before.
“The expectations for involved parenting for mothers have gotten higher—and they’ve increased for fathers, too,” says Blair-Loy. “What our society now expects from its adults in terms of work commitment and family commitment is really high.” Even when both parents work full time, women typically take the lead on health-related issues, household chores, caring for sick loved ones, and managing kids’ schedules and activities. Even with all that, women have to find time to manage their personal fitness—either scheduling regular gym sessions or squeezing in a quick workout wherever they can.
The consequence: Women today are in executing mode around the clock—parenting, working, staying fit, getting involved in their communities and maintaining relationships, which is making us stressed and taking a toll on our health. A number of studies have linked stress with cellular aging (and, as a result, shorter overall lifespan) as well as increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
According to the American Psychological Association’s most recent “Stress in America” report, the most commonly reported symptoms of stress are feeling irritable or nervous, having a lack of interest or motivation, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed. Forty-one percent of adults who are married or living with a partner say that they lost patience or yelled at their spouse or partner due to stress in the past month, and 18 percent of those who are employed said they snapped or were short with a co-worker.
Ask Armour about the most stressful part of her day, and she’ll say it’s a three-way tie between the mad dash to get herself and her 20-month-old daughter, Casey, out the door in the morning; the 1-hour commute after she drops Casey at daycare; and the few hours after work when she’s making dinner, running one-on-one interference with Casey while her husband’s at the gym, and then bathing Casey and preparing for the next day. (“It’s frustrating because I think, This is my only time with her! I have to make the best of it,” says Armour.)
For Armour, guilt-free efficiency is the name of the game. She reminds herself that those stressful periods are the byproduct of conscientious life choices (her choice to keep a job she loves even though it’s far away, maintaining her regular CrossFit sessions, even though it means evenings that are a little more hectic) about which she’s unapologetically proud. The hard part for Armour, and many women like her, is feeling good about tough choices that sometimes make you feel like a less-than-perfect mom, daughter, partner, friend, or employee.
“Despite a constant instinct to feel bad about the things I can’t do or that I’m not doing as well as I might like, I’m trying to let go of some of the guilt,” she says. “If I let go a little bit here and there, it doesn’t mean I’m dropping the ball.”
“The word ‘balance’ is a misnomer,” says Laura Berman Fortgang, life coach and author of numerous books, including Now What?, who often works one on one with working mothers. “Think of a tightrope walker whose balance can be thrown off at any moment. It’s the same with life and especially the life of a working mom. What I think people want is a feeling of calm and not being pulled too far in one direction, whether it’s toward work or home.”
If that sounds like the lazy mom’s guide to work-life balance, think again. “Remember that the refrain ‘work-life balance,’ a holdover from the 1980s and 1990s, is outdated in part because it’s unsustainable,” says Berman Fortgang.
When Chelise Firmin’s first child was born in 2007, Firmin, 39, was working as an independent contractor providing optometric services to private institutions. Taking time off from work to have a baby meant unpaid maternity leave, so Firmin, who lives in Elkins Park, Pa., rushed to return to work. Back on the 9-to-5 grind, however, she felt like she was “failing and floundering all the time.”
Since then, Firmin’s perspective has changed from baby number one to baby number three. “I have come to accept there can be no balance,” says the mother of three (Kylie, 8; Rodney, Jr., 5; and Xavier, 3). “I cannot be 100 percent focused on being an optometrist and 100 percent focused on my kids. I know that some women can do that—give their all to more than one area of their lives—but I’m not one of them. I simply don’t have that in me to do,” she says. “That’s something I learned to be okay with as an older mom.”
While other working mothers are trying not to let anything fall through the cracks, Firmin says she has learned the joy of letting things go.
“I have learned over the years that a little bit goes a long way. With my health, my bare minimum is that I can have carbs for lunch but not for both lunch and dinner, and I have to exercise for 10 minutes a day.” (It used to be that Firmin only gave herself credit for exercising if she did it for an hour at the gym. But now she counts the workout she gets from pushing her youngest son Xavier uphill in a stroller.)
These are the kinds of adjustments we have to make to avoid negatively impacting our health, says Randi Protter, M.D., director of the Capital Health Center for Women’s Health. “Trying to keep all the balls in the air does take a toll on our health,” she says. “There’s anxiety and depression, and there’s lack of sleep as you’re trying to get everything accomplished. We also know that both stress and lack of sleep negatively impact your physical and emotional wellbeing.”
Berman Fortgang says that one way mothers can feel less stressed is to have some kind of consistency, which, she says, “comes with systems, support, strong boundaries, and knowing when and how to say no.”
Firmin isn’t shy about asking for help. In 2015, when she opened her own optometry practice, she asked her husband to be her business partner and surrounded herself with a trustworthy team of people who all know her kids are her first priority. But in the early going, she found it very difficult to stay away from the office.
“It’s my business, and I’m the person in charge, so I thought I needed to be there 6 days a week,” Firmin says. “But I got sick after a few months of doing that. These days, I remind myself that I staffed my office with professionals who have 30 years’ experience precisely so I wouldn’t have to be at work all the time.”
Always Chasing a Better You
Owning her own business, says Firmin, affords her some liberties that might be more difficult for a working mother who has a boss or supervisor to whom she reports. However, even when she was working as an independent contractor—where servicing multiple accounts sometimes felt like having a handful of bosses—she says that she put more pressure on herself than any of her clients did. What louder voice is there in a working mother’s head than her own nagging about what she should be doing better.
That word, “better,” is the problem. It used to be that working moms strived for perfection, but moms like Armour and Firmin realized they weren’t chasing perfection as much as they were caught in a cycle of constant improvement. This is its own disguised perfection; to bury the desire to be “perfect” under words like “better” and “more.”
“I could spend more time buying the right groceries to cook a better meal or to have a better workout or to teach a better lesson at school—something can always be better,” says Armour. “I make the choice to maintain my fitness even if it means complicating our lives because of how I want to view myself and how I want Casey to feel about her own strength and health. I want her to have a healthy notion that taking care of herself is important, because that’s something I have struggled with.”
The notion of self-care is one that Dr. Protter emphasizes. If going to the gym for an hour doesn’t sound doable, take a page from Firmin’s book of doing what fits into your life. “It’s hard for many women to get to the gym. But all of us have sneakers. If you look at the studies, we know that a brisk 10-minute walk offers tremendous health benefits. Unlike sleep, exercise you can bank,” Dr. Protter says. “Let each of those 10 minutes add up to 120 minutes a week. If my kids ask me for 10 minutes to help with homework, I do it. So why not make that 10 minutes for myself?”
Protter says many working moms might be forgoing exercise simply because they see their jobs as their “me” activity. “The time at work is actually the least stressful time of day,” she explains. “You’re focused just on you and your project and your job.” Working parents hope that as they get older they’ll have more time to exercise and eat well, she says, but with American adults working longer that’s not guaranteed.
Although the temptation is around every corner to be the best in every role you play, trying to be happy in as many aspects of your life as possible may be the more attainable goal and one that takes less of a toll on your health and your life.
“Women can play many roles, and they can do them all well, but it’s important to set firm boundaries and keep some separation between the various roles,” Dr. Protter explains. “Set some time aside that is truly your time, which, in the end, will make you more effective, healthier, and happier all around.”