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When Success Came From Dialing Back

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No one expects to do it all, things just end up that way. Children arrive, and career pivots are made. New opportunities peek out their heads, and before you know it, the kind of ambitious woman we love to celebrate finds herself overcommitted in the midst of raising a family and trying to carve out a new venture, the point of which is ultimately to support said family in the first place. Picture the entrepreneur pumping milk in an airport lactation pod, the C-level executive who runs home for bedtime then works into the night, the creator whose failsafe organization strategy requires them to spend two hours every night tossing My Little Ponies into color-coded bins. It is the age of burnout, and four different simmering pots require your attention: what do you do?

Sometimes, the answer is dial the heck back.

Romper spoke with three moms, each very successful in her field, who chose to recalibrate an area of their life. It started with adjusting expectations for themselves, but had lasting effects on everyone around them. The first lesson they can offer is “yes, this can be done.” Read on to find out how.

She handed over the reins to other people.

Latham Thomas knew exactly what she wanted for The Continuum Conference, a culmination of her years of work as the founder of Mama Glow, a women’s health organization that provides doula support, yoga and mindfulness classes. “I am one of those people who loves to execute on my vision and have a certain way that I want to do it,” Thomas says of her expectations for the November 2019 conference.

Yet while organizing, she realized she couldn’t do it alone: “I let go of the reins and I trusted certain people to do what they were supposed to do.” The conference’s success in the short period of time they had for planning, “was only possible because of delegation,” she acknowledges.

“People don't learn unless you give them a chance,” explains Thomas, who is the mother of a teenage son. “People just have to do it their way, and that also has to be OK.”

In other words, she found that everything can’t be done the way that you would do it. Whether it’s a relative learning how to put down a baby for a nap or a child learning how to wash dishes, giving others a chance to make mistakes is a crucial step towards relieving your own load.

“At a certain point, you have [decide] my peace is more valuable than if this is perfect,” she says.

She became the parent she actually could be, not the parent she wished she was.

Morra Aarons-Mele, a mom of three in suburban Boston, was asked to solicit auction items from local businesses for her daughter’s co-op nursery school’s annual Snow Ball.. The co-op’s rules require every parent to take on volunteer jobs.

“I just didn't do it,” she says about the school’s volunteer job. “I was working, running my company, trying to parent three kids and I had my book [coming out in], which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Aarons-Mele is founder of the social impact agency Women Online and host of the podcast “The Anxious Overachiever” with Harvard Business Review. Her work has her traveling around the country under regular circumstances, but she wanted to be that mom who solicited lots of donations for the auction — even though it was not practical — so she didn’t speak up.

In retrospect, Aarons-Mele realizes she’d been assigned a time-intensive job that was ill-suited to her availability. “Instead of being a grownup and having a difficult conversation with the other [parents], I just was passive-aggressive and let it drag on some months,” she says. Looking back, Aarons-Mele can see how she didn’t advocate for her needs and instead tried to hold herself to a standard she wasn’t capable of reaching at the time. “I was angry at myself for not setting boundaries,” she recalls.

The following year, the nursery school gave Aarons-Mele a different volunteer job. It only involved a couple days of intense work and then it was over. This commitment suited her time availability much better.

“I think for a lot of us moms who are trying to have a career that we love and be really hands-on parents, there's always this level of denial about the mom that you want to be and the mom that you can be,” she says.

Aarons-Mele’s auction donations flub was painfully embarrassing, she explains, but it taught her a valuable lesson as a mother:

“I realized that I had to stick to my boundaries and I couldn't be everything.”

To get her first conference off the ground, Latham Thomas had to delegate heavily. Photo courtesy of Latham Thomas

She prioritized their budget to get the help they needed.

Jessica Bates, a strategist at a women’s rights nonprofit in Washington, D.C., gave birth to her first child nearly two years ago. Nothing went the way she expected: She delivered her son via an emergency C-section, saw him placed in a neonatal intensive care unit, and struggled to breastfeed. Then postpartum depression hit her with a wallop.

In their pre-parent lives, Bates and her husband had a cleaning service do a deep clean of their home once a month. But as she became “so sick” from postpartum depression, the couple were drowning in the dirty laundry and dishes that newborns create. Her home got “even smellier, even faster” with a newborn, she recalls, and the mess was “one of the things that really upset me” while she was sick from postpartum depression.

Realizing that having an orderly home was crucial to her mental health, they decided to hire additional help from their cleaning service. Now, once a week, a cleaning crew of three tidy their home — and they work magic.

“I open the door and I just take a deep breath and I'm, like, 'Ahhhhhh,'” Bates says. “The laundry is folded neatly, the toys are put away properly and there's no Cheerio crumbs anymore smashed underfoot.”

Hiring additional help was worth the financial gymnastics she and her husband had to do make it happen. “We prioritized [the expense] because the end result was extremely valuable,” she says. “We economized in other ways very quickly,” like no longer going out to dinner.

Bates also takes antidepressants for her depression and sees a therapist. All of these methods of care are important for her family’s mental health. Bates now says she is a “happy mom” who feels “human again” — in part from living in a clean home.

“Being happy around my son is so important because he's important,” she says.

She didn’t have to overextend herself to ‘prove’ she loved her kids.

Aarons-Mele has struggled with overextending herself and says being involved with her kids’ schools and extracurriculars has been “my way of showing my kids [that] I care.”

But, she points out, children themselves don’t always see a parent’s efforts in the same light. For example, she notes that parents may feel obligated to go to every one of their child’s sports games when that just doesn’t matter to the child. “Some kids do [care], some kids don't,” says Aarons-Mele. “Some kids are like, 'drop me off, I'll see you in two hours, whatever!'”

Older children, especially, may feel comfortable sharing opinions on what’s important for mom or dad to do. Ask your kids what matters to them. Do they want you volunteering in the classroom? Do they want you chaperoning every field trip? Do they want you coaching their sports team on weekends? (Do they even want to be on the team?) The answer might surprise you — and you can alter your commitments so everyone is happier.

She learned how to say ‘no’ and take time to recharge.

Recharging our batteries — figuratively speaking — is very important for mental health. Unfortunately, “workism,” the late-Capitalist iteration of the Protestant work ethic, means a lot of us don’t say “no” until we are burnt out.

Thomas realized she needed to regularly power-down her commitments and recharge during her menstrual period. “One of the ways that I learned to start saying ‘no’ was during my cycle — the first few days I don't feel like doing anything,” she explains. “So, I would mark that in my datebook or my calendar or my phone … It's maybe five days or so in the month that I black out for really minimal activity. I don't commit to big events or activities or commitments during that time.”

What it is important, she says, is treating that time as a serious commitment, like a doctor’s appointment. You won’t get your much-needed rest if you push back or reschedule when something comes up! (Because you know something will come up.)

Another way to not go 110% is to address one task at a time. It’s true that most moms can’t help but multitask in order to get through life. But Thomas has learned that “figuring out how to uni-task, instead of multi-task” is so much better for herself and her family. Doing one thing at a time allows her to be centered, rather than frazzled.

Dialing back can feel scary, and like a step backward. It can be really hard to admit to yourself that you can’t do everything, to say “no,” or to ask for help. All of these things seem to go against the vision society holds of successful people.

But Latham Thomas, Morra Aarons-Mele and Jessica Bates prove that in a frieze of busy, ambitious people, achieving more sometimes means slicing things out of the picture.