7 practical tips on balancing motherhood and career

As a mother of two children under two and a woman who works three part-time jobs outside the home, I’ve put a lot of thought and prayer into how to balance work and family life. I am far from professing that I have it all figured out, but I have stumbled upon some pieces of wisdom along my own journey. Of course, no two families face the exact same circumstances, and what works for my family may not be what works for yours, so I am far from advocating for a “one size fits all” approach. Yet I do think there are some basic principles that can help substantially with trying to discern through the challenging decision of how much to “work” and how much to “stay home.”

Before I get to principles, I’d better define my terms. Suffice it to say that “working mother” is redundant since “staying home” is at least as much (and most often a great deal more) work than going to “work.” And when I refer to work outside the home, I am not limiting that to a career job. Work outside the home can also entail volunteer hours or other forms of ministry. So without being all-encompassing, I hope the following principles can help you in your own discernment to more fully live out your role as wife and mother while balancing career goals and ministry outside the home. And if you are in a stage of life without a husband or kids, most of these principles still apply to living a healthy balance as a woman of faith.

1) You can’t do everything

Let’s admit it. As women, some of us (myself included) want to do everything. We thrive at multitasking. You can work mornings at the office while nursing a baby while cooking dinner while teaching religious ed while singing in the choir, and that’s downright impressive. But even if you can do everything, I would argue that you can’t do everything well. Suppose even that you feel at peace while juggling 10 different commitments, I can assure you that your husband and kids will experience the stress and hurry of your life as a detriment to family life.

Now please don’t mishear me: I don’t mean that you can’t do anything outside the home, or even many things, but you absolutely can’t do everything. Remember that saying no to something frees you to say yes to something else. So if you find yourself overloaded, perhaps a first step is to say “no” to something to allow for more peace and calm in your heart, and thus in the heart and life of your family. For as wife and mother, you truly are the heart of your home and family (cf. Casti Connubii, No. 27).

This discernment looks different in different circumstances. I was struck by podcaster Lila Rose’s insight that she felt called to structure her work life so that she could be present at least 50% of her kids’ waking hours, thus keeping mother as the primary caregiver in her children’s lives. Of course, one woman’s suggestion may not be best or even possible for everyone, but I found this to be a helpful example of one way to establish a healthy balance between career and family life.

2) Don’t operate out of fear

Before I made the decision to step back from full time to part time teaching in order to be more present to my growing family, I was afraid. I was afraid to let go of a fulfilling career I had spent a decade building and a school community that I love to be home with little people too young to even carry on a conversation. My husband and I also faced stress over what this decision would do to our finances. God gently convicted me in the midst of that fear and led me to realize that we see only the immediate while he sees the future. If I am clinging to what I have now out of fear that I won’t have things “as good” if I let go of the now, then I am refusing to trust that God wants the best for me and knows how to get me there. Why refuse the glory of living God’s adventure out of a misguided fear that my own vision is greater than that of the creator of the universe? Needless to say, when we moved forward to where we felt God leading us, it all worked out for the best and in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.

3) Prioritize family over career

I am not saying that you must choose one or the other. In some cases, I think you can have both family and career. But suppose you find yourself in a situation where it becomes clear that you can choose only one. For instance, you could be open to having another child but risk the loss of a step up in your career. Or you realize that you are not sufficiently present to your family and have to decide whether it is worth cutting back hours at work to be more present at home. In any situation where it becomes clear in your discernment that family and career stand in opposition and you can only choose one, then the answer every time is to choose family first — for if you are a wife and a mother, then there lies your primary vocation. As a teacher, I’ve been personally convicted that, as tempting as it might be at times (especially since I prefer interacting with rational high schoolers to corralling two year olds), I won’t be comfortable raising other people’s kids at the loss of being present enough to raise my own kids.

4) You don’t need to know your 10-year plan

This is so freeing. Approach discernment one year or season at a time. Perhaps what works well with one child won’t work well with two. Perhaps a new door will open once your children are school age. Perhaps God has something entirely different in store for you than you had ever imagined. Let him do the long-term planning. We just get to focus on listening in the present as he unfolds his glorious plan for us one petal at a time. It’s more beautiful that way.

5) Jesus is the one who gives you life

Your work does not define you. Your children do not define you. Your husband does not define you. Jesus does. Now I’m not saying that you are going to feel fully alive changing diapers, nursing every couple hours, and watching a toddler run around the living room all day. But then, neither will you feel fully alive moving up the corporate ladder. And you won’t even feel fully alive traveling the world. But on the flipside, you will be radically alive doing any and all of those things as long as you are saying yes to Jesus and letting him be the one to give you life in whatever circumstances you face. Stay grounded in that conviction.

6) Don’t let success elsewhere lead to failure at home

At one point, I realized that the part of my life that was going the “best” or the “smoothest” was one of my jobs. Not long afterward, it occurred to me that the reason my career was going better than my family life was because I wasn’t able to give enough of myself to family life in order to make home the best part of my life. I almost gave into the lie that, because my job was going “best,” that was a sign the job was the thing I should keep doing. But sometimes we have to let go of the thing that is going best in order to let the most important things take precedence. For me, that meant cutting back some on outside work.

At a practical level, here are three signs that likely indicate a need to cut back at work: 1) Your family consistently gets the leftovers of your time, energy and attention. 2) You are unable or unavailable to take care of basic needs for your family (and that includes your own basic needs). 3) You don’t have time to enjoy your family. If you start to notice those things become tendencies in your family life, don’t wait too long to make a change.

7) Don’t minimize the value of home life

I recall hearing Kimberley Hahn share the following anecdote: At a talk she once attended for women, the speaker warned women against prioritizing their families over career paths. According to the speaker, a woman would ultimately find it unfulfilling to just be known as “Johnny’s mom.” But Kimberley’s mature reflection led her to later ask, “Doesn’t it matter who Johnny is?” Suppose you were the mother of John the Baptist or John Paul II. Then wouldn’t being Johnny’s mom be the greatest thing you could have accomplished in life? I share that story to encourage you that there is no such thing as “just” being a mom. Mothers change the world in untold ways, and I would argue that most mothers have the greatest potential to change the world — not through their careers, but through their children. So do put your heart into the roles God calls you to in the world, but don’t ever minimize the value of your dedication to your family.

Keeping these principles in mind, no situation is the same, and each situation has its challenges and its blessings. Maybe you have to work more than you had hoped to in order to help make ends meet. Maybe you had to give up a career sooner than you anticipated. Maybe you are struggling to understand how this is all going to work out when you do have children someday. Maybe you are longing for children, but they haven’t come. I don’t have the answers to your specific situation. But Jesus does.

So wherever you find yourself, I want you to know that you are radically loved, that you are called to an unspeakably beautiful vocation of motherhood (physical, spiritual or both), and that you can trust Jesus with your hopes and dreams with the sure and certain knowledge that he will transform and fulfill them in ways you can’t imagine but that will be for your good and for the good of your family.

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