Forget 'Lean In': Here's How to Define Your Success as a Working Mother

The key is in figuring how what works for you -- then asking for it.

learn more about Natalie Baumgartner

By Natalie Baumgartner • Mar 3, 2015 Originally published Mar 3, 2015

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

More than one person -- I can name at least eight off the top of my head -- told me I was crazy to start a software company when I had a newborn at home – and had decided to work part-time. They were probably right. But I ignored them.

Related: How This Mompreneur Cut Down on Child-Care Costs

For my whole life, I've bucked the notion that there is only one way to do things, one definition of success. That "one definition" idea didn't make sense to me when I was 4 and still doesn't as I close in on 40. I believe that as women, as moms carving out our path in the business arena, we need to stop trying to figure out if we're "leaning in" (a la Sheryl Sandberg's bestseller) or out and instead get clear on what "success" looks like for each of us individually.

For me, that realization came after the birth of my first daughter. I realized that a conventional black and white path (work or stay at home) would not work for me. So, I got creative. I implemented what I called an "in-office" maternity leave. I didn't take real time off -- I was conducting interviews from bed when my baby was just three days old. But I also didn't leave my daughter's side for even a moment during the first few months of her life.

She and I worked shorter hours but were at the office together when I was critically needed. I now have three young daughters, along with photos of each of them as babies sleeping under my desk during the day or on my chest during a board meeting. My brain has had to shift constantly between Sesame Street and startup fundraising at least twice a day over the past six years. Why do things this way? Because the dance I chose has allowed me to achieve my personal definition of success.

Finding that balance hasn't been easy, but during my journey I've discovered a few basic steps that may help others looking to craft their own success:

1. Define what "success" means for you.

Your success is personal. The perfect balance is different for everyone. So, how do you make it clear? Take a moment and imagine you're having a conversation six months from now about how thrilled you are with the balance you've achieved. What are you saying? What has changed? For example, you might say, "Over the past six months, I've achieved a great balance by working a shorter day in the office and taking work calls from home in the afternoons after picking my kids up from school."

2. Ask for what you need.

The people you work with are not mind-readers. The chances of your getting the balance you want without asking for it are nearly zero. Once you are clear about what success looks like to you, you need to explicitly ask for what you need. Instead of being vague -- "I need more time at home" -- try to be as specific as possible: "I would like to be able to drop off my son at school every day at 9 am but am willing to work 30 minutes later in order to maintain my hours." The better you are at explaining your requests, the easier it will be to negotiate a solution.

Related: 10 Single Mom Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Business Advice

3. Get creative about roadblocks.

You have to be willing to get messy. To make your ideal balance a reality, you need to be willing to think outside the box. There are countless stories of moms who've gotten creative about how to do their work and still parent -- women who re-invented the wheel. I know a mom who rescues wildlife and takes her baby into the field on her back. I know another mom in corporate middle management who negotiated hard for Fridays off to fully be a mom -- and won, achieving the right balance for her. In each case, these women have said that they had to get creative, and messy, to find their own path to success.

4. Continue to re-evaluate.

Your plan can't be set in stone. Just as your children grow and change year by year, month by month, day by day -- so too will your definition of balanced success. At least once a year, I find myself in a meeting with my own co-founders, re-evaluating whether my mom/work balance is working for me -- and for the company. When my third daughter was born this year, I moved from three full days of work to five shorter days. Our business needed me to be more present in the office, and my baby needed to see me more frequently. The shift took some time to adapt to, and I still never feel like I'm accomplishing enough, but the model allows me to fulfill the needs of both my children and my company.

5. Find your people.

You cannot do this alone. Choosing the path of "all of the above" sets you up for challenges. It's hard to be both an effective contributor in the business arena and a present, involved parent. Surround yourself with people who understand your mission and believe in you. I am fortunate to have two supportive co-founders, a husband who supports my version of balance, great child-care providers and other working moms who allow me to vent anytime. Other women I know -- single moms, women living abroad, women just getting back into the workforce -- have similarly found their supportive tribes -- whether mentors, co-workers, babysitters or adoptive grandparents. Find your support network; those people are out there.

Now: You may be thinking, "This isn't easy, possible or even practical." If so, I'm going to challenge you on that. You can do this.

Every working mom has the ability to define what fits for her. It's true that that personal balance won't happen overnight and that you will have to be willing to get creative, be persistent and be willing to lobby for what you need. You will run into roadblocks but you can surmount them. But this is not impossible.

So, get out of your comfort zone, get messy and create your own definition of success as a mother and working woman.

Related: Mastering the Juggling Act: 4 Successful Moms in Tech

Natalie Baumgartner

Chief Workforce Scientist, Achievers

Natalie Baumgartner, Ph.D., is chief workforce scientist at employee engagement firm Achievers. She has spent over a decade focused on driving the translation of engagement/culture research and theory into SaaS-based software, working to help organizations solve problems and achieve goals that advance their performance.

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