In a new book, “Power Moms,” mothers who reached the top of the corporate ladder explain why feeling guilty over work and family is both futile and a waste of energy.
By Joann S. Lublin
This essay is adapted from Joann S. Lublin’s “Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life” to be published Feb. 16 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
As I explored how powerful women navigate careers at the top of the corporate ladder while raising a family, one thing became clear: Working-mother guilt persists in American society today because gender-role expectations haven’t evolved enough.
Such guilt has troubled Power Moms, both the first wave of the pioneering generation of women now typically in their 60s, and a second wave of moms in their late 30s and early 40s who earned executive roles more recently. Yet most of the mothers I spoke with have sought to reject it as a debilitating waste of energy.
One of those baby boomers, Andrea Jung, ditched her guilt partly through strict self-discipline. Ms. Jung, the first female CEO of Avon Products and current CEO of Grameen America, one of the fastest growing microfinance organizations in the U.S., decided to no longer worry whether she chose wisely between her two youngsters’ athletic events and her business meetings.
Hired by the cosmetics company as a product manager in 1994, she was a single mother throughout her 12 years at its helm. Accepting her difficult choices about work and family meant that “one day Avon wins, and one day the children win,” said Ms. Jung, who is now 62. “The one thing that helped me for the lion’s share of my career was [saying], ‘I am not even going to think about what I am not at.’ ”
Some Power Moms from the younger generation are highly outspoken about the futility of guilt. “This whole concept of working mothers’ guilt is more like a social contrivance,” insisted Bonny Lee, vice president of corporate finance at SiriusXM Radio, the satellite-radio company. Her daughter, Francesca, was 10 years old and her son, Jude, was 8 when we met in December 2018 at her Midtown Manhattan office.
“I personally don’t feel guilty about working. And I don’t even feel particularly guilty about sometimes preferring work over spending time with the children,” the 43-year-old executive said. It’s so important that “I don’t care if you think that’s shallow,” she continued.
Several executive moms I interviewed described how ditching working-mother guilt had positively affected both their careers and their kids. Here are some of their best tips for allaying guilt:
Give Children a Voice in Your Work Life
As a rising star at P&G, Melanie Healey traveled a lot while her son and daughter were growing up. Yet “they never put the guilt trip on me,” Ms. Healey, now 59 years old, recollected.
A key reason: Ms. Healey made Nick and Jackie feel important by explaining her rationale for every work trip. She started doing so once Nick turned 5 and Jackie was 3. After they reached school age, the executive alerted them ahead of time of her expected travel-related absence from, say, one of their lacrosse games.
“But I want you to know I am thinking of you. I am rooting for you,” she assured each child. “When I am back, I will be here for your [next] game.” She also encouraged her kids to select the most important events that they wanted her to attend throughout their school year.
Dana Spinola goes much further by involving her three sons in an unconventional way. The founder of fab’rik, the Atlanta-based chain of clothing boutiques, she organized a personal “board of directors”—and installed the boys alongside its adult members. This group reminds her to stick to her work and family goals.
Ms. Spinola, who is 46, credits her sons with curbing her tendency to focus too hard on fab’rik when she’s with them. “They’re wiser than anyone,” she said. Roughly once a week, one of her boys will invoke his right to a family movie night in their home.
On such evenings, “there will be nothing else done [for work],” Ms. Spinola explained. Multitasking, computers and cellphones are banned. “We are all watching the movie.”
Arrange Workday Getaways With Your Kids
Like Ms. Spinola, Mary Hamilton significantly expanded a remedy for guilt that the prior generation of executive moms merely flirted with. Boomers rarely skipped work in order to spend a day with their offspring.
Ms. Hamilton, a 45-year-old managing director at Accenture, the global management consulting firm, inaugurated a regular Mama Day for each of her three sons in 2018. Theo had just turned 4, and her twins, William and Marcus, were toddlers.
She uses three days of vacation every quarter for the outings, taking a different boy to San Francisco–area museums and parks. “What I’m trying to do is create some independent memories for each of them,” she observed.
She initially hoped to arrange her special excursions once a month, but that proved to be too ambitious. “In the long run,” she said, “we’ll be able to create many great special memories—probably even more so if the special days are a bit more scarce.”
Carve Out Time for Yourself
Anjali Sud manages a team of over 600 people as the leader of Vimeo, the New York-based online video hosting, sharing and services platform. The former investment banker was only 33 when she got promoted to Vimeo CEO in mid-2017. In 2018, Vimeo generated nearly $160 million in revenue.
On weekday evenings and weekends, Ms. Sud, who is now 37, devotes a lot of time to her son, Saavan, who was born in November 2018. On Sundays, she devotes at least two hours to herself.
Her husband, Matt, a full-time investor, likes bonding alone with their son during Ms. Sud’s Sunday me-time. She typically dons her AirPods to “just walk around the city by myself,” she said. She might arrange Sunday brunch with friends or read a celebrity magazine.
“I’m very proactively and explicitly trying to rejuvenate every week,” she said. “I genuinely feel zero guilt for taking this time.”
As a result, she loves her intensely demanding job even more than she did before she became a mom. “Taking time for myself has not only helped me be more effective as a CEO,” she went on, “it has helped me be a more relaxed, happy and fulfilled mother.”
Emily Chardac, another second-wave mother, lacked any fitness regimen during her four years at Guggenheim Partners, a global money manager. When we spoke, the 34-year-old executive had a toddler and two school-age children. She was the second-highest human resources officer at Guggenheim.
We reconnected in January 2020, right after Ms. Chardac quit her high-powered post to become a full-time HR consultant. She said she had resigned because she hated coming home feeling depleted, drained and directionless. “The guilt was mostly self-imposed. ‘What example am I giving my children?’ I wasn’t proud of the answer.”
Being self-employed gives Ms. Chardac control over her schedule. With blocks of time that she reserved for staying fit, she attended Pilates, yoga and ballet-style classes during the inaugural week of her consulting career.
“My clients are paying me for my expertise and balanced [work-and-family] approach. So I need to care for myself in a new way,” she noted. “When I live my life authentically, I’m hoping that the guilt is a fleeting thought.”
Streamline Your Priorities
Time is an especially precious commodity for working mothers. While a busy Home Depot vice president, Stacey Tank somehow also found time to serve on five nonprofit boards. Her trick? She effectively invented a 25-hour day.
You feel as though you gain that mythical hour by “streamlining everything that can be streamlined,” she said. “Just be super efficient at the stuff that matters less so that you can spend time on the things that matter more.”
Ms. Tank, who is 39 years old, carefully organizes her daily routine to minimize unnecessary stress and duplicated efforts. She assembled a digital photo folder of her business outfits, matched with appropriate shoes and jewelry. A glance at the suitable combinations enables her to pack quickly for frequent business trips.
She even bought a special towel that’s guaranteed to dry hair 70% faster. Now she spends three minutes blow-drying her long brown hair rather than 15.
In her opinion, devising brutally efficient tactics resembles a game. Winning the game creates extra time with her two sons—and reduces her feelings of guilt. Ms. Tank became an executive at Heineken N.V. in June 2020.
Take Strategic Breaks
Several executives overcame working-mother guilt by taking sabbaticals from their high-octane positions. Jane Stevenson, a vice chair of organizational-consulting firm Korn Ferry, took a year off in 2009 so she could develop deeper ties with her children, eighth-grader Emily and fifth-grader Jonathan. At the time, she was a partner and top biller at a rival firm. She ran its biggest practice, which recruited chief marketing officers. “I was definitely burning the candle at three ends,” she said.
I asked her why she had taken a sabbatical at a time of tremendous professional accomplishments during her late 40s.
“Everyone said, ‘Kids don’t like you once they get to a certain age,’ ” she replied. “And so I didn’t want to miss my window.”
But from a career standpoint, “it was a very scary decision,” she conceded. “I was panicked.” Just before her sabbatical commenced, her employer insisted that she commit to generating $1 million of revenue while she was away.
Ms. Stevenson, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, prayed for divine guidance before she signed the onerous agreement. “I just needed to do this [sabbatical]. It was like a calling,” she recollected.
During her sabbatical, she generated leads for more than $2 million of revenue—without placing a single business-development call. When corporate clients approached her about possible fresh search assignments, she directed them to relevant colleagues. “The work that I’d done all my life paid off,” she noted.
Among other things, the protracted work break allowed her to be Jonathan’s classroom mother and a chaperone for Emily’s weeklong class trip. “I would never in a million years trade that year. It was the best year of my life,” she observed. She recommends a sabbatical as a smart strategy for working moms to ditch their guilt.
A multimonth sabbatical isn’t available for everyone, of course. Yet even a brief strategic break, such as taking a day’s or a week’s vacation to host playdates with youngsters of stay-at-home moms who assist you during child-care crises, could prove worthwhile.