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Tales of A Working Mother: You Can't Always Get What You Want (But You Can Get What You Need)

A couple of months ago my family attended a birthday party for one of my son's friends. I arrived toward the end of the event because I was taking some "Me" time to go to the gym and work on my novel.

As I approached the crowd of children and parents one of the moms stopped me and said,

"How did you do it?"


"Do What?" I asked, looking around self-consciously to see if I dropped something or bumped into someone.

"How did you get your husband to come to this party alone with three kids?" she answered, her voice not hiding her surprise.

I was as puzzled by her question as she was by what she saw as my success.

"Well," I slowly answered. "I covered the morning, so he agreed to take the afternoon. We trade off sometimes."

Her final comment was, "Can you tell that to my husband?"


Although it's been weeks since that party, this woman's question stayed with me because it's such a true experience for many mothers. Those who work outside the home and those who don't. Even though I have what researchers call an egalitarian family -- where both parents share parenting and breadwinning -- this is not a child's view of slicing the piece of pie perfectly down the middle. Like most mothers, when it comes to my fifty percent, it's a little heavier.

What I didn't tell this woman at the party is that these "trade offs" I arrange do not happen organically. She also didn't know how my husband and I had to change to realize we both benefit when we try to reach some level of equality in the parenting game.

When my first daughter was born 10 years ago my husband couldn't have been more helpful while we navigated those overwhelming first few months of round-the-clock feedings and all-night colic induced crying jags (by both the baby and myself). When we emerged, four months later, with a beautiful, happy, sleeping-through-the-night angel my husband disappeared. OK, not literally. However, he reengaged at the office as if we'd never had a baby, returning to a 50-60 hour-a-week schedule. He started major household construction projects that he worked on all weekend. And, did I mention I also worked full time? If you're a mother, I don't think it takes much imagination to realize what I did with every moment I wasn't working. Before long I was exhausted, frustrated and surprised that parenting was so hard, especially when you're flying solo. I couldn't be the mother I wanted to be because I was so overwhelmed and I'm sure my husband wondered what happened to the woman he married.

If I said there was an easy solution to solving my frustration and my husband's lack of involvement, I'd be lying. What did happen was time passed and I started approaching the challenges the way I would if I had a problem at work: with strategy, not emotion.

When my husband spent time with our daughter he was wonderful. He loved being with her, he knew enough of the logistics to take care of her and keep her safe. However, if I was around, and if I didn't ask for help, he believed everything was taken care of because I was the mom, after all, and probably knew best.

A recent study from the University of Michigan indicates that this behavior is not uncommon. The study suggests that the Super Mom syndrome is real and that many married working women will volunteer to work a "second shift" as the primary parent that's equal to the time anticipated by full-time, stay-at-home moms. The study revealed differences in patterns of negotiation between spouses and identified how some strategies are related to better outcomes than others. For example, during negotiations between one high-earning, dual-income couple, a highly successful career woman volunteered to pull the "second shift" and get up with her infant in the middle of the night even though she worked just as many hours outside the home as her husband. She never tried to get a more equitable agreement. The study said there are many reasons that working women do not ask or expect their spouses to share the tasks of care giving, such as guilt or lower earning expectations than their husbands.

What I learned from my first experience at motherhood is that I have to speak up, request the time I need, put it on a schedule and not feel guilty about it. I had to believe that I deserved time for myself and I deserved help (as equally as I could get it). What I found out about myself is that when I got it, I was not only a better mother, I was a better person because it reminded me of who I was as an individual, not a mother, wife or employee.

Besides giving up the guilt and martyrdom, like many moms who serve as their household managers, I also had to give up control. Let me tell you what that looks like. It means learning to keep your mouth shut when you come home from your nice free time and realize your husband did not do things with and for your children the way you do it when you're in charge.

When my husband takes the kids for the evening I know I'll find them fed, sometimes bathed and often in bed when I get home. I also know every bag, piece of clothing and toy they took on their outing will probably be spread all over the dining room table. I know the baby likely ate things not recommended by our pediatrician. I know my son will be asleep in the clothes he wore all day. In fact, one evening I found him asleep under the bed with his feet sticking out like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. However, they are happy, they are safe and they had fun in a way they wouldn't have with me.

While I may be annoyed that it's not the way I would approach the evening I've learned to let it go. I had a good time and I try to remember to tell my husband "thank you" for helping make that happen.

Pursuing all of this equality and "trade-offs" has been a win for my husband as well. He has benefited from the one-on-one relationship he forged with our children. Not to mention a happier, calmer wife. And, he's bought into the idea that being a family is more than showing up for special events. I also think he likes being seen as being "in charge" of the kids. He's proud that he can handle it and that he does it well.

I'm an advocate of the saying "If mama's not happy, nobody's happy." Asking your parenting partner for help so you can feed your soul does more than just change your attitude, it brings a measure of peace to your family as well.

Deanna Martin Mackey is the mother of a 10-year-old girl, five-year-old boy and one-year-old girl. She is an associate general manager at KPBS and has been writing professionally for 20 years. She is working on her first novel...about a family. "Tales of A Working Mother" appears monthly on