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What to Do When Ambition and Motherhood Feel Like a Zero-Sum Game For many professional women, the choice between returning to work full-time or staying home full-time can be complicated. Here are some suggestions to keep it from feeling like a no-win proposition.

By Rebecca Horan Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury | Getty Images

"So, are you going back?"

If you're a mom or mom-to-be, you've probably been asked this question. I never had a definitive answer until I was holding a baby in my arms. And though I knew exactly where I wanted to be, at least "for a while," I always felt a bit of nagging professional guilt. The first time, I was a newly minted MBA who took herself right out of the on-campus recruiting process. The second time around, I was leaving a flourishing career along with a team I respected and enjoyed.

Related: Women, It's Time to Take Control

If you've ever felt torn between returning to work full-time after maternity leave, or staying home full-time with your kids, you're in good company. More highly educated women are having babies now than over the past two decades, and they're having bigger families. Increasingly, we're having children while in our 30s and 40s, putting us right about mid-career when we face the "return to work or stay at home" decision.

Societal judgment only intensifies the pressure that mothers face. A 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that moms tend to be judged harshly professionally if they take maternity leave and are judged harshly from a personal/family standpoint if they don't take a leave. Sounds like a no-win situation, doesn't it?

For some women, the "will you or won't you" answer comes easily. It might be a matter of not having the privilege of choice. Or it might be a matter of always having known what they wanted, unburdened by society's expectations and insidious maternal guilt. But, for many other high-achieving women, it's a complicated and fraught question -- one that remains open in their minds, long after they've made a decision.

And often, neither option feels ideal.

While the stay-at-home question no longer falls as squarely in the lap of women, stay-at-home dads remain more the exception than the rule, and working moms are still "three times as likely as working fathers to say that being a working parent has made it harder for them to advance in their career."

Related: 4 Ways Working Moms Can Fight the '3 p.m. Disadvantage' at Work

How do we reconcile our professional and personal goals with a desire to be there for our families -- when it feels like our heads and our hearts are being pulled in different directions?

While I didn't regret my decision to stay home each time and felt fortunate to have the choice, it was never without some inner conflict. As my babies grew into toddlers, my ambition once again ramped up, and I realized that, as a goal-oriented person, having an outside focus was critical to my happiness. As a working mom, I held roles with varying degrees of flexibility, but it wasn't until my second child was born that I decided to launch my own business as a brand strategy consultant for business owners, educators and entrepreneurs.

If you feel like your financial needs, professional and intellectual ambition and nesting instincts are at loggerheads, entrepreneurship may well be your answer -- but it's not the only answer. Thanks to the internet, the growing acceptance of remote and contract employees, and the growth of the gig economy, there are arguably more "workable" options for working parents than ever before. Our biological and career clocks don't have to be at complete odds.

Here are four steps to take when you start feeling like you're in an "either-or" situation:

1. Cut yourself some slack.

If you're happy working full-time or staying home full-time but feel an undercurrent of worry that you're letting down either your kids or your professional prospects, take some pressure off yourself and appreciate where you are.

Working moms: You're practically superheroes, and your kids are thriving. Being able to fully love and embrace your work is a rare privilege when many others feel stuck in "dead end" or toxic jobs. Celebrate this, and the fact that you're likely showing your child a clear path to professional success. By the way, a study from the University of Maryland found that the number of hours a mom spends with her children has very little if any impact on their psychological and academic success. It's all about quality over quantity.

Related: 10 Qualities That Returning Caregivers Bring to the Workplace

Stay-at-home-moms: You're the unsung heroes who are doing one of the most rewarding yet physically and emotionally draining jobs. As the expression goes, the days are long but the years are short. In the grand scheme, our kids are truly little for a relatively brief part of our working lives. If you're worried you won't be able to get your career back on track, know that the tide is changing and the marketplace is responding. "Rebooting" firms and "returnships" at major corporations like Deloitte, PepsiCo and Goldman Sachs have been created to help educated, high-achieving women if and when they're ready to return to the workforce.

2. Remember that moms make the best workers.

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that over the course of a career, skilled professional women who have children outperform their peers who do not in the areas of productivity, efficiency, time management and empathy.

Whether you're putting your professional skills to use now or planning to dust them off a few years down the road, rest assured that motherhood does not have to be career kryptonite. It can actually be one of your many superpowers.

3. Identify your personal and family needs.

You might be at your personal best when you're in full pursuit of your professional goals, making you a happier (and more present) mom during the hours you're home. On the flip side, maybe you feel personally fulfilled and at ease staying home full-time with the kids. There's no right or wrong answer -- each person needs something different to bring their best to the table.

But, if you're constantly feeling like "something's gotta give," it might be time to reevaluate. Are you happier to sacrifice more personal/family time if you're doing something that allows you to work within your zone of genius? Or would you be happier doing work that is intellectually stimulating "enough" if it allows you to have more personal time? Maybe it's time to seek out that "unicorn" role that pays more but demands less face time. They're out there -- really!

Knowing that you're going to be judged no matter what path you take can actually be liberating. Everyone else's opinion doesn't matter. One of the hardest but most important things to do is to filter out the outside noise and instead examine your own (and your family's) needs. As the saying goes, "when mama's happy, everyone's happy."

Related: Why Quitting My 6-Figure Job Was the Best Decision for My Family

4. Work differently.

Help change the "rules." The traditional 9-to-5 in-person model is outdated, and it's no guarantee of employee productivity. In fact, studies show that "self-managed" work time can actually be a boon to productivity. Take stock of your company -- is the culture toxic to working moms? If so, can you change it from the inside out, by lobbying for more flexibility, or even a job share?

If your current workplace just isn't cutting it, consider engaging with one of the many rebooting and recruiting firms that were created to help you find a better fit -- whether that means a better culture, more flexibility, or maybe a first client engagement to launch your consulting business.

CorpsTeam (formerly MomCorps), FlexJobs, The Mom Project and iRelaunch are just a few of the scores of career resources available to people seeking flexibility or an on-ramp -- many of which were created with mothers in mind. Flexible Resources is the recruiting firm that launched me into my second career after my first stint as a stay-at-home-mom. (Tip: you don't need to be a mom to use these firms and find your ideal working conditions! It's never too soon to begin to thinking about the level of flexibility and autonomy that's right for you, before your hand is forced.)

For me, having my own business has provided just the right mix. Does it work flawlessly? Nope! Some days I need to give more of myself to work, and my kids just need to be patient with me. Other days, work takes a backseat while I take care of family matters. And then there are the days when I feel like I can't give enough time to either.

And yet, I get to help entrepreneurs build businesses, challenge myself creatively, help out in my kindergartner's art class and hear what's going on in my 13-year-old's world -- all in a day's work. I'm around just enough to make them happy and drive them crazy. For me, that's as close to perfection as it gets.

Rebecca Horan

Founder and Brand Strategist

Rebecca Horan is the owner of Rebecca Horan Consulting, a brand strategy consultancy. She has spent more than 20 years helping established brands and emerging voices to claim their place in the market and forge a meaningful and lasting connection with their ideal customers, clients and students.

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