Managing the Emotional Leftovers of Work

By Michele Dortch

Many working mothers accept the idea that career success comes at a cost, and that cost is the deterioration of her private life. To thrive in the corporate setting, she feels pressured to make choices that sacrifice her personal needs and those of her family. Yet, this is not always an accurate reflection of reality.

In researching and interviewing working mothers over the last three years, I've seen some working mothers have both a thriving professional career and an enriching private life, while others struggle to achieve success in either their professional or personal lives. What sets these women apart?

The working mothers who lead successful professional careers and have meaningful private lives effectively manage the emotional leftovers of work. An "emotional leftover" is the negative feelings of work that overflow into your private life. Working mothers who constantly battle the work + life dilemma have not found a way to minimize the emotional leftovers their work creates.

Why do emotional leftovers have such a negative impact on your private life? Work-related worry, tension, stress, or fear is difficult to shake at the end of the day, leaving you psychologically "checked out" of your private life.

Working mothers who suffer from the impacts of emotional leftovers often feel trapped. I found three main reasons why these women stick with these negative jobs:

1) She enjoys the money, status and recognition the job gives her. This is commonly called "golden handcuffs" and many working mothers chose to accept these external rewards instead of finding work that really fits them and aligns with their values.

2) She feels pressure from her company, especially if she's highly competent and well-liked. Traditionally, companies offer promotions to employees who demonstrate the highest level of competence. When a working mother who is already feeling like an "underdog" is offered a promotion or increased job responsibility, she feels pressured to "make it work" rather than negotiate for a role that would honor both her professional and personal goals.

3) She can't say "no." Declining a promotion or saying "no" to more work is usually wrought with fear - fear that the consequences of saying "no" will derail her career or create a perception that she's not committed to her work.

How do you minimize the emotional leftovers of work? Here are a few ideas:

Cultivate work that you enjoy

Aside from the external rewards, what are the work characteristics you seek? Many times simply reducing your work hours isn't enough because there are aspects of your job you really can't stand. For example, if you've become bored in your job, simply spending less time at work won't resolve anything. Instead, seek ways to bring more challenge to your work.

Determine whether your current job aligns with your values
Are you working in a business that really doesn't match up with your personal values? For example, perhaps you are working in a very loose environment where everyone "plays it by ear" and there is very little planning done. Yet your natural preference is to work in a more formal setting where work is organized and there are clear corporate guidelines in place.

Ask for what you need

If you're in a position that is over your head and you need more training, then ask for it. Or perhaps your child is suffering with health problems that are keeping your mind from focusing on work - ask for time away to care for your child. The key here is to know what you need and to simply ask for it.

It's tough to deny the powerful affect work has on your private life, and many accept it is as necessary and unchangeable. Instead of being in a constant war with your work, learn ways to make your job a more constructive experience, and the emotional leftovers will be positive rather than negative.

Bringing more than 10 years of experience from her career in organization and leadership development, Michele Dortch is the founder of The Integrated Mother, a company that provides working mothers with access to the resources, tools and community they need to create an integrated and fulfilled life. She also educates and consults with companies to increase retention by adopting more family-friendly work policies. Michele resides in Southern California with her husband and three children. Visit her website at:


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