A Dilemma for Working Mothers: Fix the System, or Go Around It?

June 25, 2019

Two months ago, I exited my leadership role at a media company.

Now I’m thinking about what I want to build next. And while the WHAT is still coming into focus, my mission is oh-so-clear: I want to build something that supports women in cultivating fulfilling careers, earning money and gaining power. Especially moms. Because we need more women in decision-making roles.

As I ponder the HOW behind that mission, I keep coming up against a big question. 

What’s more effective for propelling women forward: pushing within our broken work system (the “traditional” way of working) and finding ways to improve it? Or going outside the traditional model of work and creating new options?

There is no doubt that our traditional work framework — the system the majority of our country functions within — is designed for men. And, the higher up you go in a company, it’s designed for men who have a wife who does the lion’s share of the work at home.

Despite this, some women are managing to navigate the system and become breadwinners. Others, frustrated with how hard it can be to have a traditional job while raising a family, are opting out of the mainstream to take a less-traditional path, growing a freelance career or building a part-time or flexible business from home.

Opting Out of the Traditional Workforce

I carry some shame about opting out of my leadership role, about admitting that I couldn’t couldn’t lead a large team while also being a mother with young kids and a working spouse. 

Actually, that’s backwards; what I couldn’t manage was taking care of my family and myself while doing my best at work. 

(I know, I know, I did it successfully for nearly four years, and working moms always feel like they’re failing no matter how much they accomplish…  but in the end I just felt like this was a puzzle I couldn’t solve.)

This is hard to talk about because I had it so good, way better than most women who juggle a family and a job. My company was flexible and accommodating. I had a beautiful private space (with a sink!) for pumping at work. Our family income was enough to afford a nanny to watch our youngest son. My commute was short. I had a supportive and engaged partner at home.

Yet I still couldn’t make it work. In the end, I had to accept that working fewer hours from home on my own business is a better fit for our family right now. 

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I recently talked with another high achiever, a female leader in engineering who also left her job. Not because she didn’t like the job, but because she was running herself into the ground trying to work that job and take care of her family.

The thing is, not everyone knows how to make money without an employer. It can be really hard to get started. I was fortunate to have years of practice before having kids, so I had the know-how, the connections, a readership that might support whatever I built — and most importantly, the confidence that I would succeed. For others struggling within the conventional work model, those pieces aren’t always readily available.

Supporting Women, Regardless of How or Where They Work

Here’s what bothered me so much about leaving my job: I thought that if I wanted to change the system, wanted to normalize things like leaving at 4pm for school pickup or securing a private space to pump before going on stage for a speaking engagement, I had to stay within that system. 

I so desperately wanted to be an example of a woman who could have kids and be a strong leader at work.

But now that I’m a few months into our new life, I’m starting to see it differently. I’m realizing that the worlds of traditional and non-traditional work aren’t perfectly delineated, and individuals don’t necessarily fall into one camp or the other; we’re not solely employees or entrepreneurs. 

We transition between creating our own paycheck and relying on an employer for one, depending on what phase of life we’re in. Or we start in one place and learn, then move onto the other. 

That’s my story; I worked at traditional news organizations, left to grow my own business, joined another company when my agency was acquired, then decided to go out on my own again.

And while I’m no longer in a “regular” job, I might actually be better positioned to push us forward now that I have more physical and mental energy, less rage, and a clearer head.

In this next phase, I want to help women who are launching businesses and thinking creatively about how to earn income. At the same time, I see lots of opportunities to support the women who are still in the old-school system, who are working their asses off to change it, beat it, win it. 

Because to truly shift the balance of power and money, we need women leading within the traditional world of work as well as outside of it.

So here’s to chipping away in both directions — to pushing forward and reshaping the “typical” way of working, while building new ways of approaching work at the same time.

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    16 Replies to “A Dilemma for Working Mothers: Fix the System, or Go Around It?”

    • Probably could have written this myself. Just left my “regular” job last week and starting the “stay at home mom” thing with a 3 and 1 year old on Monday. Will continue pursuing my writing, consulting and podcasting on the side but all because I love them (“less rage”) and I think all will be better in general.

    • Joanne says:

      Hi Alexis,
      Completely agree. I’ve been pivoting and working to quell the space between ambition along with continued learning (I would say the rate increases as meaning deepens), and redefining my role in my workplace. LMK if you want more via email.

    • Erad says:

      I am here for this!!
      I have been struggling in my roles as spouse, stay home parent and mother of 3. Slowly but surely I have extended my education and have been working from home. Now I am at the part where I need to further my career by being my own employer.

    • Mandy says:

      Yes! This is a group that can use the help. Me included! I love this assessment I’m seeing circulate more and more that you touch on here: maybe women *can* have it all but not all at the same time.

    • MB says:

      Before I had kids, I worked 50+ hours at a daily newspaper. When my son was 3 & my daughter was 2, we realized that our son was not where he should be with learning different skills. (He was later diagnosed with autism) I then left and started freelancing since it was more flexible, which I did for 13 years (in there I worked part-time at a business magazine for 2 years but kept my freelancing gig). Last year, I was asked to become the editor of the business magazine. At that point, I was burned out from freelancing, constantly going after gigs and trying to make more money (which I did). I’ve been back at what my mom calls a “real job” for just over a year and while my kids are older (and my son drives), I still find it hard to find any kind of balance between family & work while taking good care of myself. Some days, I like working in the magazine’s small office & other days I wish I was back home working. I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect answer.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Your last line hit home for me, MB — “I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect answer.” It’s aligned with having it all but not at the same time. Thanks for being here!

    • Leigh says:

      We live in a world that tells women and especially moms that we have to be perfect. Which… just isn’t possible.

      Fwiw, making this choice and sharing it the way you have is part of being a strong leader. It’s not always about leading teams. Being vulnerable, honest and letting people into your decision-making process opens that path for more moms who feel pulled in too many directions.

      I share your desire to help and support women and moms. Maybe we can combine forces someday soon! 🙂
      Thanks for this, Lexi!

    • Oh gracious, you’re speaking my language! You likely won’t remember this but I wrote for you a few times in the past (writing site–name is totally slipping my mind) and at that time my son was very young. Some days it was all I could do to make sure the basic were done (word count sorta met, we were fed, clothed and mostly sane).

      Like you, I am all about balance and trying to live authentically and meaningfully, even though it’s meant a steep drop in my income from my “working woman” days. Now that I’m a solopreneur I get lots of great perks (chaperoning field trips and running to the library at lunch come to mind) but there is a ton of juggling too. Plus, no one sees you as “working” when you do it at home.

      Glad you’re back to blogging and I look forward to reading more about your successes and challenges (of which there are bound to be a few at least) moving forward.

    • Crystal says:

      Yes, yes, yes. I relate to this SO MUCH. I created my own business so I could have more flexibility as a mother. But I have also intentionally limited the growth of my business because I know the reality is that I can’t do “it all” well. There are definitely seasons though and I have high hopes for reevaluating everything when my current babe (#3) is older.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        On seasons — exactly! I have to keep reminding myself of that when I get frustrated that one part of my life isn’t moving fast enough. Thanks for reading.

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