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Advice for Working Moms: Get Happy!

By: Shari Lifland
Last updated 8/5/2010

For the millions of women who daily juggle the competing demands of the workplace, children, a significant other, community, and so forth, personal happiness may occupy a place on their “to-do” list just below “bring about world peace.” 

Is happiness a pipe dream—a luxury that most working mothers are too busy to think about?  Is the term “guilt-free working mom” an oxymoron?  And what steps can women take to simultaneously meet the needs of the many people who depend on them and invest in their own happiness? 

We spoke with Cathy L. Greenberg, Ph.D., and Barrett S. Avigdor, J.D., the authors of the new book What Happy Working Mothers Know (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) to find out.

AMA:  In your book you write that every working mother is entitled to happiness.  So let’s begin by defining what you mean by “happiness.”  And why is it so important?
Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor:  Happiness is the feeling of being satisfied with your choices and the life you have at home and at work.  While these feelings may come and go, happiness is a choice we can choose to make everyday, if we know how.

Happiness is necessary for our well being; it is a health issue, especially now.  When we ignore our own happiness we actually ignore our overall well being. We see the results in our energy level, our decision making, our daily routine, and in our ability to be resilient.

Obviously, bad things happen.  No one is happy 24 hours a day.  The key is to choose the positive path whenever possible, to be optimistic, and to expect good rather than bad things to happen.

AMA:  You interviewed 1,000 women to gather stories “from and about real people, real experiences, real moms, real jobs, real workplaces, real hardships, real issues, real solutions, and real happiness.” 
Was there any finding that genuinely surprised you?

Greenberg and Avigdor:  Here’s our #1 most surprising finding:  We found that no matter where these women were from culturally or what their education level was, women felt they became better “decision makers” after they became mothers.  They became more long-term thinkers, more strategic, and more interested in the future for their children and themselves.  (We want to make it clear that we are not saying that women who do not become mothers are less capable decision makers, but we were delightfully surprised to find that more women reported that they became truly enlightened after they became mothers; that they saw the world through a different lens.)

AMA:  OK, here’s the big question:  Is it possible to be a working mother and be guilt-free?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  Guilt is the enemy of happiness.  It is a useless energy waster!  Yes, working mothers can have a guilt-free work and life—but it’s a choice.  It’s the choices we make that keep us happy, so as long as we are making the right choices for us, why should we feel guilty?  Knowing what you truly stand for—understanding your values and sticking to them—are what underlie your “guilt-free life.”  You have to make sure you believe in your values and make decisions based on those key values for you—not anyone else.

To get rid of the guilt once and forever, working moms need to understand that their happiness is important to their family and that doing satisfying work is an important component of their happiness.  Dwell on the joy of your child’s accomplishments, your own successes, and your dreams, whatever they are.  Let go of the guilt so you can thrive.

AMA:  There’s an old saying that “every woman can have it all—just not at the same time.”  How do you react to that notion?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  It is true—we cannot have it all at the same time.  But we can influence the choices we make to truly be happy.  We also need to understand the difference between having what makes us happy now and having it all.  Which situation truly makes us happy? 

One of the key tips in the book shared by a working mother is “Choosing what you want to do is half the battle in life; taking time to celebrate your choice is the other.”  So if you choose to stay home for a while, never stop dreaming for yourself. 

Having it all may be an impossible scenario, so stepping back and taking the time to understand what’s important for your own happiness is a good first step toward setting goals and objectively formulating the right aspirations for your future.

AMA:  How can motherhood prepare women for the demands of the workplace?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  Motherhood is great leadership training.  As we have discussed, motherhood creates better long-term decision makers and, as a result, prepares women to make higher quality decisions that benefit them as well as others.  In the board room or at home, women who become mothers view situations from multiple perspectives, which is always good for decision making.  Through these diverse experiences they become better teachers, better managers and leaders, and are better able to support their teams and their families.

Are successful people happier than those who are less successful?  Aren’t super achievers like Bill Gates and Oprah always somewhat dissatisfied, as they look for ways to achieve even more?

Greenberg and Avigdor:  It’s the opposite:  happier people become more successful. They see the opportunity in failure and the possibility inside of sadness or despair.  They see the silver lining that enables them to keep reaching for their goals.

AMA:  More mothers are in the workforce than ever before.  Do you think our institutions have responded sufficiently to meet their needs?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  Not yet.  We need more flexibility in our work day, better work/life policies, and certainly more time at the beginning of our relationship to motherhood to truly integrate our lives as working mothers. Other countries boast six months to a year of maternity leave for both parents.   More women need paid sick leave and personal health days.  I heard a manager tell a working woman she should save her sick days for her children’s sick days.  I thought, how can you take care of yourself or your children if you cannot take the sick days you need to recover?  There is definitely more work to be done in this area.

AMA:  What steps can a working mother take right now to start on the path toward a happier, more fulfilling life?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  There are four steps to creating a foundation for happiness at home and at work.  Here is our “H.A.P.P.Y.” method:

H—Health: Find one small thing you can do each day to support your health.
A—Adaptive:  How we deal with change makes the difference between being stressed and being happy.  As a working mother, the goal is to create the right boundaries for your children, your relationships, and your work so that you still have something left for yourself.
P/P—Proud of your work/Proud of your family: Even in a bad economy, good things happen if you look for them.  Find one small “win” each day in your workplace to focus on for both you and your team.  And keep in mind that motherhood is not a competitive sport!  Look for one positive trait or gesture each family member has demonstrated and celebrate the moment.
Y—Young at Heart:  To be young at heart is to be joyful and free of the shackles of negativity, no matter what your age. 

AMA:  Finally, what do you want women to take away from your book?
Greenberg and Avigdor:  Simply this:  Make happiness a choice each day.  Happy women know that it’s not how many pairs of shoes you have, but how much fun you have dancing in them that counts.

For more information about What Happy Working Mothers Know, visit www.whathappyworkingmothersknow.com

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.