There’s No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance: Real Survival Tips for Working Moms

mother-kids-crazedPicture the scene: I was living in Switzerland with my husband and two young sons, 8 months and 2-and-a-half years old at the time, when both kids came down with a vicious stomach virus. They got ill on a night I was preparing for a big meeting at work the next day. Both boys had high fevers and vomiting, and were so sick we ended up taking my youngest to the hospital.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. By the time we returned home, my older son was getting more and more violently ill.   After he vomited all over himself and his bed, I decided to take him into the shower to clean him off, and that’s when things turned terrifying. As we stepped out of the shower, he started having a seizure.

We hadn’t been in Switzerland long, and weren’t sure what the local equivalent of 911 was. My husband frantically called for an ambulance while I watched my son in horror. In the background I could hear my husband desperately trying to convey the situation to the German-speaking operator. “SEIZURE. SEEEEEE-ZUUUUURE…” I couldn’t believe I was spending the most horrific moment of my life getting lost in translation.

Turns out, febrile seizures are fairly common. The ambulance whisked him off to the children’s hospital and he recovered quickly, but they wanted to keep him overnight for observation. I desperately wanted to stay with him, as any mother would. But I had that big meeting the next morning, and I’d been preparing for it for months. My husband was working from home then, so we decided he would stay overnight at the hospital. It was the best choice, but I still felt terrible. I walked out of the hospital that night engulfed in a wave of guilt, sadness and anxiety.

I have many stories like that (on a sliding scale from harrowing to mundane). While most aren’t quite so dramatic, we all have some version of a situation where we’re forced to choose between our families and our work. While there’s no shortage of experts claiming to hold the secret to work-life balance, when it comes down to the moment of choice–"Sick kid or important meeting?”–no amount of advice can help you through that painful decision. You just have to make it.

But there was one piece of advice I heard early on, before I even had kids, that never fails to comfort me when I’m mid-crisis. I heard it at professional women’s conference in Silicon Valley, at a panel on the ever-popular question of work-life balance.

After the requisite conversation about time management and prioritization, one of the panelists finally cut through the crap and cried, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. You will need to just get used to failure.   When you’re winning at home, you will likely be performing less well at work.   And when you’re nailing it at work, you will likely be ‘failing’ in some way at home.” Those words stuck with me to this day.

If we can all agree there's no such thing as true balance, and no cut-and-dried answers about managing the countless demands of a working mom’s life, there are a few solid guidelines I’ve learned along the way to trying to “have it all."


  • Work-Life Balance is BS. We need to give up on the idea of “balance” and just figure out a way to do the best we can with what we have. Most importantly, stop judging yourself.   It makes you feel crappy, and it doesn’t solve anything.
  • Your Partner is Key. As Sheryl Sandberg advises in Lean In, it’s critical that our spouses aspire to be equal black-dad-helping-girl-with-homeworkpartners at  home. I say “aspire” because many men, even the good ones, still do a fraction of the household and child rearing duties (luckily, I've got a husband who’s a true partner). If your spouse is not committed to being an equal partner, then do your best to get them more involved–your family’s future depends on it.
  • Girlfriend Time is Quality Time. Even though you have absolutely no time, try to keep in touch with your female friends, even if it’s just through email. Those with children and spouses will help you through the trials and tribulations of motherhood and marriage. In some of my darkest moments, I have found solace in the words my friends have typed into a quick email. It’s just as important to keep in touch with friends who don’t have children. They remind us of who we are outside of being a mother and spouse.
  • Quit the Comparisons. Forget those women who pretend they have it all figured out and act like everything’s perfect. They’ll only make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t believe everything (or anything?) you read on Facebook. Most people  only  put superficial material on Facebook, and really just post the highlight reel. We can all curate a wonderful life online. Reality is a lot messier.
  • Cut All the Corners You Can. Shortcuts and workarounds get a bad rap. They’re lifesavers! Utilize all the shortcuts and tricks you can get your hands on and can afford. From freezing meals for the week to ordering groceries online, take advantage of anything that will make your life more manageable. The Internet is a godsend for working Moms–it can hook you up with everything from takeout, to expert parenting tips, to last-minute babysitters.
Takeout can save your life! Photo by Neal Foley.

Takeout will save your life! Photo by Neal Foley.

  • Give Yourself a Big Hug.   You deserve it. There’s no way around it: this stuff is HARD. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people aren’t exactly lining up to congratulate you on being an awesome mom. So congratulate yourself, and know that your life is a work in progress–one you’re improving on every day.

Sonya Zilka is a writer, mother, activist and Human Resources executive based In San Francisco.  She consults with organizations on workplace issues, encouraging more innovative ways of working that better integrate work into daily life.