The Unhappy Work of Moms: Four Steps to Feeling Better

This “unhappy work of moms” post was originally written in 2015. The pandemic has certainly thrown a wicked wrench into our lives–especially for parents of young children. We’ve never faced a crisis like this before–one that has impacted so many people so fast. We have new challenges and new “work.” We are, of course, more anxious during these uncertain times. I do believe, however, that the suggestions in this article still hold true. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well. – Stacy

When I was employed at the Families and Work Institute, I regularly analyzed data from The National Study of the Changing Workforce. One of my responsibilities was to field media requests. If reporters called needing a statistic about the lives of employees in the US on and off the job, it was my job to find them the answer.

I don’t remember many of the facts and figures I uncovered, but I do remember one critical finding that has remained true throughout the course of this multiyear study—there are two critical components to job satisfaction:

  • meaningful work, and
  • a supportive supervisor.
happy face among sad faces - unhappy work of moms

Having coached many smart, caring women, I believe the study’s findings are relevant to not only the “work” related to one’s career but also the “work” related to one’s home. This is why I believe all mothers “work,” whether they are employed or not.

This means that the unhappy work of moms comes from a lack of meaning and support. That is, you have to find the tasks you do for your home, such as child care, elder care, housework, etc., meaningful. And, you need supportive people, such as partners, family, and friends.

Sadly, women, more than men, usually do the more mundane or tedious parts of child care. They are also more likely to do the menial chores of housework. It’s hard to find “meaning” in such tasks.

And, most women I’ve spoken with, regardless of their employment status, find motherhood to be, at times, very lonely.

Thankfully, working with my clients has also taught me that there are ways to improve your situation; you don’t have to feel stuck with the unhappy work of moms.

Four Steps to Start Feeling Better

Here are four steps to take to feel better about your work. The first two are short-term strategies; the last two are long-term game plans:

First, train your brain to find meaning that already exists in your work. Your brain will naturally focus on what is wrong in your life. Therefore, even if it is something small, you have to find something meaningful to which you can redirect your thoughts. One of my stay-at-home clients continually reminds herself that she quit her job to focus on raising her children. Another client and I figured out that her long commute actually gives her time to think, read, and write.

Many of my clients have found it helpful to put these reminders into physical form. One puts post-it notes on her computer screen. Another sets an electronic reminder on her phone. Though these may seem like small gestures, they have prevented my clients from becoming overwhelmed or feeling depleted.

Second, remind yourself of the people who are supportive of you, and do something to support them. This step is helpful when you feel powerless to change your situation and especially when you feel stuck. It helps redirect the focus away from your unsatisfying work and toward thoughts that will energize you. Again, the action you take can be small. You could surprise your assistant or coworker with ice cream. Or, compliment your partner on something he or she regularly does for you. Telling your child, “It looks like we both had a hard day today. Let’s give each other a hug!” is a nice way to empower both of you to be mutually supportive.

Third, start looking for more meaningful work by taking small, enjoyable steps. In The Lighthouse Method, I describe how smart people feel they need a master plan before embarking on making a change. But, small action steps that are pleasurable add up quickly. They get you on a roll much faster than thinking (ruminating) or planning. Take a peek at a course catalog and find one class that seems interetsing. Spend 20 minutes doodling if you like to draw. Or, email someone who has a job you are curious about. Maybe even invite him/her to have coffee with you next week.

It helps to do little these things as often as you can. Keeping track of such small activities by recording them on a calendar also helps. Again, creating some sort of physical representation of your progress is motivating, further building your momentum.

Finally, build your personal board of directors. The BFF and Prince Charming metaphors from our culture seep into our mindset more persistently than we realize. They make us expect that our best friend and our partner should be able to fulfill most, if not all, of our needs. But that’s simply not realistic; no one person can be everything to another. Just as corporations and nonprofit organizations need board members with diverse resources and skills, we each need a diverse team, composed of supportive family members, colleagues, and friends, to help us throughout our life.

For example, I have two friends to whom I turn for spiritual guidance. When I need medical or health support, I turn to two other friends. I have two writing friends and two writing coaches. I have a financial adviser and a marketing specialist I can lean on. Identifying in advance who these individuals are for each vital arena of my life helps me know who to turn to when I feel overwhelmed or confused. I’m less likely to feel panicked or pressured to react just because I heard or read about something I “should” be doing that I’m not. (If you’d like an easy, systematic way of building a personal board of directors, please contact me.)

Most—52 percent of—workers are unhappy at work. This is one time when it would be good to be in the minority, wouldn’t you say?

An older version of this article was first published in May 2015.