'Having it all': not possible
Priorities straight ... it is possible to be a working mum like Samantha Baker, with baby Georgina and Ella, 4. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Ask your average frazzled working mum what she secretly dreams of and it will probably be something as pedestrian as a decent night's sleep and a few snatched hours alone. With every waking hour consumed by the demands of motherhood, work and maintaining domestic sanity, it's little wonder the "work-life balance" just feels like a luxury reserved for others. But does it have to be that way?
Adjust your mindset
"The idea you can have it all is ludicrous; maybe across a lifetime but not all at one point in time," says executive coach Kate James, the director of the Total Balance Group and a regular corporate speaker on work-life balance and stress management. Working mothers constantly feel they are spread too thin "and with that comes a lot of guilt", she says. Her advice is simple: stop trying to be perfect and be realistic. If that means putting career advancement on hold, so be it.
Overload ... taking on too much can lead to maternal guilt.
Karen Miles, the author of The Real Baby Book You Need at 3am, which looks at how motherhood affects a woman's identity, also believes "mother guilt" is at the root of a lot of unnecessary stress.
"Society tells us that to be a good mother, it should be all about the children - that if you go back to work or pursue personal interests or community interests, then you're a bad mother, which is absolute rubbish," Miles says.
As a working mother of two children, she concedes parenthood is exhausting. A woman should feel OK to admit she's feeling overwhelmed and can ask for help. That could mean outsourcing household chores or renegotiating with her partner who does what around the house.
A support network is also vital and provides the added opportunity to pool childcare. "It's a great relief to share your war stories with others in the same boat," Miles says.
Make your job work for you
Returning to part-time work can often produce career angst. "Don't make the classic mistake of taking a demotion when you return to work after having children, or a job below your skill level, thinking that will give you more flexibility," Miles says. "In three months you'll be bored and frustrated."
She points out you can't be happy in life if you're miserable in your job.
And don't feel bad about leaving on time if you have childcare obligations; have an open conversation with your manager or even colleagues if you think it is an issue. "You might need to develop a thicker skin," James says.
Take heart from the fact flexible work arrangements are becoming common as savvy employers realise they are the best way to keep working mothers in the workforce. It doesn't signal a lack of ambition, says the director for Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency, former corporate high-flyer Helen Conway. She points out many managerial positions are now being filled on a shared or part-time basis.
Nurture your relationship
"The issue of time together is still the No. 1 thing people quote as the wedge that comes between them in relationships," says the director of operations at Relationships Australia, Lyn Fletcher, citing the organisation's latest relationships indicators survey. She says it is essential couples prioritise spending quality time together. "If not, you're saying it's not important," she says.
Miles says parenthood has to be a team effort, with couples sharing their emotions and expectations of what type of parents they want to be. Negotiation and communication is the name of the game. Research by the University of Queensland Institute for Social Research reveals many men want a greater share of domestic duties and to be more involved in parenting. So, ladies, maybe it's a matter of asking.
Happiness amid chaos
Samantha Baker, 37, pictured above, is living proof "work-life happiness" is as much about mindset as the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Mother to five-year-old Ella and 15-month-old Georgina, she has returned to work recently as a part-time HR consultant and this year started a law degree.
"It's something I'd always wanted to do and I didn't want to wake up at 50 and regret not doing it," Baker says.
She's the first to admit "it's an overwhelming juggling act at the moment".
Fortunately, Baker has parents who look after the kids on the two days she goes into work. A nanny looks after them another day, who fits in some washing and ironing. A cleaner comes around once a week.
Baker concedes exercise and time with friends have taken a back seat, as her study consumes what free time she used to have during evenings and weekends. However, she describes her husband as "a gem" who supports her decision to return to study.
"I'm happy with the choices I've made," she says. "I chose to have children, I want to work and I enjoy the learning; running a perfect household just doesn't give me a sense of achievement."
Five steps to help you keep your sanity
1. Outsource whatever you can
Free up more time by outsourcing the mundane stuff. Do your grocery shopping online, hire a cleaner, put your ironing into the laundromat … but don't hire the dog walker - that can give you exercise and time to unwind.
2. Make time for yourself
Schedule recreational time into your working week - whether it's the gym, a night out with friends or just a Saturday morning of quiet pottering - and then stick to it. And don't hoard your annual leave - you need the holidays.
3. Relieve the financial pressure
In his book Fat, Forty and Fired, Nigel Marsh famously wrote about people who are slaves to "jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like". Maybe just by spending less, you won't feel the need to earn as much? That applies to shopping sprees, eating out, where you live or the car you drive. Ask yourself: do I really need the extra debt?
4. Do an audit of what's really important in life
Acknowledging it's impossible to be all things to all people is the first step towards achieving happiness in work and life. "It's critical to do an audit and ask yourself what you really need and want," Kate James, of Total Balance, says.
5. Watch your diet and alcohol intake
Neglecting your diet and bingeing on alcohol are sure ways to feel flat and rundown and you're likely to suffer long-term health effects. So back off the booze and fatty foods and try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.