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Time and Energy: Essential Natural Resources for Working Mothers
Recently I wrote an article for this website in which I offered 10 commandments for working mothers—suggestions, really, for ways to make their complicated lives a little easier. As that article is still on the site, I won’t repeat the recommendations here, but I do encourage working mothers—as we approach another Mother’s Day—to reread them and determine whether they apply to their lives.

The article generated many comments and led to a request for me to write another focusing more closely on down-to-earth time management techniques than on general principles. Before I began writing, I reflected on my many years as a working mother. In doing so, I came to the conclusion that time—or lack of it—may not be the critical determinant of whether a woman can be both a mother and a worker outside the home. Equally or even more important is energy. Here I am calling time and energy the essential natural resources that we must have in order to cope with and succeed in both of our roles.

1. Consider your own energy level before deciding whether to work outside the home.
Perhaps we don’t often recognize it, but people differ in energy level just as they differ in other biological characteristics, such as height. Some people can go from early morning to night with hardly a pause; others are exhausted by noon and need to rest in the afternoon. If you are in that second group, think twice about whether you want to add outside work to the already full schedule of mothering. Values come into this decision quite early. I happen to consider the job of mothering our most important job. I also know that we can share that job with other people (babysitters, childcare workers) without harming our children if we have a loving and secure relationship with the children, and if the ones we share the task with provide quality experiences for them.

But what if you are too tired to give your child much love and attention when you are at home? That creates a shortfall in the type of home environment to which your child is entitled. So, evaluate your own energy level before making a work commitment. The average workday for a mother who works fulltime outside the home is at least 15, maybe 16 hours. If you think your energy level cannot handle that, don’t try it. Or look for a part-time arrangement. Even though your family might desperately need the money, you might do more harm than good by overtaxing yourself.

2. Design a “home work contract” with your partner.
Obviously this is relevant only if you have a partner; without one, your task is even harder. The most critical times for working mothers are the morning getaway—a hassle if ever there was one—and the time in the evening when your children are fussy and want your attention, when you’re already tired, and when there are dozens of things to be done. Many more young couples share cooking and clean-up tasks today than was the case when I was a young mother, so it should be easier to arrange good “contract provisions” over these issues. If you cook and do the dishes—and I intensely hope that the family eats together—your husband should take responsibility for baths and pajama donning. That allows you to go the bedroom, books in hand, for a nightly reading ritual. Or change the pattern; work out whatever fits your family. But see to it that the contract is observed.

As part of this, I strongly advise you to get help for your main housecleaning chores. For me, every other week seems to work just fine. Money-wise that comes to just about the cost of a good suit and a couple of pairs of shoes. And, even if we work outside the home on a daily basis, most of us could cut back on clothing purchases. Now you might say that this is an unrealistic recommendation for a mother earning minimum wage or not much more, and it is. In such situations, maybe a cooperative work-sharing arrangement would be possible. Perhaps a working mother who knows someone who provides cleaning services could ask that person to clean her apartment or house every other week in return for a couple of hours of childcare. If you’re in that situation, be creative and see what you can work out.

3. Devise shortcuts for routine tasks.
Instead of making a special trip, stopping at the grocery store on the way home from work, kids in tow, can save an hour. Here you might also factor in the gasoline you save by shopping on the way home. If you decide to use that time-saving shortcut, don’t forget that putting away the groceries once you’re home will add to the energy drain and subtract from the time-available pool for that day. In fact, putting away groceries is such an energy drain it needs to be included in the basic work-sharing contract.

A popular term today is “multitasking.” No other person in the world has to multitask like a working mother. It seems second nature to us. In the era of cell phones it is even easier and more tempting. We take our children to the library and, while they are looking through the stacks, call the plumber or scribble a grocery list. Our children quickly catch on to multitasking and adapt to it, but don’t forget to “mono-task” with them frequently. Stuffing your cell phone in your pocket and taking an incoming call while you read to your children should be an absolute no-no.

4. Learn to do without TV on most nights.
If you give your child special loving attention in the evenings—which you want to do if you haven’t been able to be with them all day—you’re not going to be finished with reading stories, picking out clothes and reassuring little ones who can’t go to sleep until 9:00 or 9:30. Then, if you become tempted to watch a movie, you’re going to get to bed so late you won’t want to get up in the morning. If you really want to, you can watch TV on weekends. But, during the workweek, you should just forget it. After all, you need a few minutes to sit and look at the paper!

5. Develop relaxation skills.
They are featured in many magazine these days: taking deep breaths, relaxing the shoulders, meditating, etc. I wish I had known more about them when my children were little. I used to have to do almost all of my professional writing after my twins went to sleep. Sometimes I would get so keyed up that I couldn’t go to sleep myself until after midnight. It wasn’t good. So find a good relaxation routine and make certain that you follow it—perhaps even before you shut your child’s bedroom door. You have earned it, and you need it. In the long run, it will save time and conserve energy.

6. You’re in this for the long haul.
Don’t get the idea that the time/energy drain will be over when your children reach elementary school and can do more things for themselves. What happens is that new assignments take the place of others that no longer exist. Just as your preschoolers need you to converse with them to help them build vocabulary and learn how to express their thoughts, your elementary children need a time and place to talk to you about their concerns, successes and challenges. The same is true when they become adolescents. Personally, I think we withdraw too much from our “mothering” role when our children reach adolescence. And this is just as big an issue in affluent, suburban families as it is in economically stressed families. The other day I was talking to a very conscientious mother whose 16-year-old daughter has her own car. The girl goes many places after school and on weekends on her own. As though to demonstrate her attentiveness to her daughter, her mother commented, “She has to check in with me every hour on her cell phone.” Of course, that doesn’t quite cut it. So long as she remembers to call, the girl could be anywhere doing anything. The need for parental supervision goes on and on and on.

These suggestions have not exactly been time-management recommendations. In fact, they are based more on beliefs about the primary importance of mothering than they are on the amount of time available for work inside and outside the home. Decisions about becoming a working mother have to be based on a realistic assessment of the mother’s time and energy. Into these resources have to be factored the intra- and extra-family supports available. Finally, work decisions must consider economic need and the mother’s own commitment to the application of her education and training to work that will benefit the community and, at the same time, permit full utilization of her unique talents and skills. Being a working mother is a very rewarding life, but don’t let anybody tell you it’s an easy one.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education