Psychologist Helen Marlo explores the myth of work-life balance and notes that the rhythm of life keeps changing. The best thing we can do is go with it. Think of life as a symphony moving from a crashing overture to a brief adagio then back to the up-tempo beat again.
In this podcast, Helen also explains why she started the organization, Mentoring Mothers, and why women in the workforce are more stressed than ever. Her advice: When starting a family, it’s especially important to think about the role home played in your own childhood, and how you can make this a place of joy and celebration. Learn more about Mentoring Mothers here. Highlights of our conversation and full transcript below.
On work-life balance:
“I don’t use the word work-life balance. I challenge that mindset and teach others to be in what I call work-life rhythm. And that encourages a more fluid and receptive stance toward life.”
On the non-profit organization, Mentoring Mothers:
“One of the reasons I started Mentoring Mothers was to help women realize how charged home is and what different meanings home has for them. The stay at home mom who is afraid to leave her house often has some early trauma (as does) the woman who can’t bear to be at home and has to be out as much as possible. My work is helping them to relate to home differently. Building a healthier connection to home. A more flexible relationship to home in all its dimensions.”
On getting enough family time in the digital age:
“We have a growing awareness of how much (our devices) intrude on the home space. Even something as simple as developing rituals based in the home can help offset this and be really life-giving. Here’s one ritual I’ve done with all of my children. At some point, each received a magic box that contained an encouraging message or something concrete that they really desired. It might also include a note, ‘This ticket is good for time with the family,’ or a family photo. This ritual has changed as they’ve gotten older but it grounds them in this idea that what happens at home is valuable and there can be magic and beauty in home life.
“Sometimes we move the furniture then put on disco music and dance.”
Welcome to Reinventing Home, a podcast and online magazine about home and the well-lived life. I’m your host, Valerie Andrews. And today we’re going to be talking about working mothers. Why career women with children are struggling to get enough time at home. What kind of expectations we all carry about home from our own childhood — and why work-life balance is such a dangerous myth.
My guest today is Helen Marlo, a Professor of Clinical Psychology and the Department Chair at Notre Dame de Namur University in Silicon Valley. Helen is also a Faculty Scholar with the Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement. A clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in San Mateo, CA, Helen founded Mentoring Mothers, providing emotional support for women from pregnancy through the time of birth.
Helen, when you agreed to be on the show, I emailed you, asking if you think the deck is stacked against working mothers and why. What’s your response to that?
Helen: It’s funny, when you asked me that earlier, a memory came up. I thought I would just quickly share it. I have an amazing OB-GYN I who championed, supported, and cared for women his whole life. He is an amazing soul. Here I am giving birth to my third child and he let my husband pull my daughter out. I didn’t catch it until much later but the first thing he said as the baby emerged was, “Good job, dad.” It was a good job that my husband did. But I actually did a natural birth, with lots of blood and lots of work.
As a working mom I (notice) that when husbands and partners do something, people often say, “Oh my God you’re so lucky.” If I’m late for my child’s school event, I’m an obsessed career driven woman. If a husband makes it at all, it’s “What an amazing dad!”
Valerie: Was this lack of acknowledgement one of the reasons you started the organization called Mentoring Mothers?
Helen: Yes. That and I wanted to address a new mother’s general feeling of overwhelm. To give them a place of connection and community. We meet with pregnant women at the local medical building twice a month to help them nurture one another, and have a more conscious experience of motherhood. Our goal is to support a woman’s emotional and psychological development and assist her in becoming the kind of mother and woman she wants to be.
Valerie: What concerns do the women typically bring to you?
Helen: Well, the ones we hear most often are:
“I just didn’t think this would be so hard!”
“Nobody prepares you for what it is like once the baby comes out.”
“Everything has changed. I just don’t feel like myself anymore.”
“I didn’t think I would feel so exhausted, stressed, worried, and lonely.”
“I don’t feel bonded to my baby—some days I don’t want to be around my child.”
And finally: “I am afraid I’ll repeat what I experienced as a child.”
Women are concerned with issues of childcare, self-care, and family history. And of course, they are also trying to figure out whether and when to go back to work.
There’s not much support in our society for women who are trying to combine work and family.
Valerie: Do you think the two paycheck marriage has put everybody under constant stress and strain? I’m hearing that the men are suffering as fathers because they’re not getting enough time with their children and the women are just still trying to do it all.
Helen: Right. I see a lot of stress in one paycheck marriage. I would say a lot more. The significant thing is how the pay checks are negotiated. There can be a status issue: “Oh my God, you poor thing, you have to work. Your husband doesn’t provide well enough for you.” or, “You didn’t marry well enough.” Or if the wife isn’t working the husband really resents that because he bears a greater proportion of financial burden. I’ve seen that a lot where husbands think, “I’m really burnt out and having to work more and more and more because you would like to stay home.”
Valerie: I think we do a certain math in our heads that we never share with our spouses. When I was married and raising my stepson part time, I would calculate the amount of time I put in on the childcare and housework by how much less I was earning.
Helen: Yes, yes exactly. But we do it unconsciously.
Valerie: These are the conversations that we’ve never had. This is the unspoken basis of money in marriage that we never talk about that.
Helen: That’s exactly right. When one paycheck is disproportionately greater than another. that triggers an unconscious conflict for many of us.
Valerie: I’m wondering when this comes to a head and what brings a woman into the consulting room and to see a psychologist and say, “I need help.” Is there usually a trigger that has to do with her physical health?
Helen: That frequently happens. I see fatigue or exhaustion. More often than not, I see emotional overwhelm or a triggering of anxiety, depression. Anger. Resentment. Often times there’s the so-called “ghost in the nursery,” something the woman lived out as a child. You know, the trauma, rage of neglect they experienced back then that they’re not seeing themselves.
Valerie: There’s an important topic I was going to bring up with you next: How do we end up really recreating our own homes from childhood? Does that happen in every marriage?
Helen: That’s a great question and why I am so excited by the work you’re doing around home. People understand they have issues around their mom or their dad but there is something different about the trigger of home and what some people do to avoid home. So that’s one reason why I developed my service, Mentoring Mothers. There is an unrecognized link between early home life and early trauma that gets cracked open with pregnancy and birth.
Valerie: Do you know that wonderful story from Donald Winnicott, the child psychiatrist? He worked with a young boy whose parents were having trouble after the birth of the second child. The boy did not feel safe at home so he took a ball of string and tied it around the legs of the sofa and then around the legs of the chair and then around the legs of the coffee table. This was his effort to bind the home together because his parents were insecure.
Helen: That’s a lovely story. You often see the choices women make mirroring that. A mother might say, “If I work more than four hours a day then I’m going to be neglecting my child. I was latchkey kid. So I can’t do that.”
Another might say, “My mom was this frustrated woman who was really smart and never got to use her brain and resented us,” or “You know she always looked good on the outside but there was no emotional warmth. I’m not going to repeat that.” I see (these early childhood experiences) playing out in the choices women make around what kind of mother and homemaker they chose to be.
Valerie: Home is in many ways our primary attachment. And we must be conscious of the character of that home and whether we’re repeating what we had when we were children. We don’t seem to realize, with our focus on work these days, just how important home is in the formation of our inner lives.
Helen: Absolutely. I think it’s a neglected area.
Valerie: I’m reminded of the Kaiser Foundation study that was done about 20 years ago on early childhood experiences in the home. It basically showed that any early trauma in the home can set us up for major illnesses later on and, of course, the more severe the trauma, the more severe the illness. As a psychologist, how do you see this play out in other people’s lives?
Helen: Powerfully and all the time. This was one of the reasons why I started Mentoring Mothers. Look at the empirical studies and you’ll learn a lot about postpartum depression. Rarely do people think about this as post traumatic stress disorder. Yet a good 17 to over 24 percent of women qualify for that diagnosis or certainly have a number of symptoms.
Valerie: And if the (memory of) trauma is waiting in the wings, it’s triggered by the pregnancy?
Helen: I think that the experience of giving birth and having a child to care for can trigger that.
Valerie: What is your goal in working with women who have these difficult situations? Is it to get them to a place where home can ground them and serve as a kind of sanctuary?
Helen: When you can get to that place that’s a real success. Part of (my work) is helping women realize how charged home is for them and what different meanings home has for them. There’s the stay-at-home mom afraid to leave her house often has some early trauma. Conversely, there’s the woman who can’t bear to be at home and has to be out as much as possible or she’s going to go stir crazy. (We focus on) helping these women relate to that place of home differently, and on building a healthier connection to home than they had when they were growing up — a more flexible whole integrated relationship to home in all its dimensions.
Valerie: What’s the importance of having downtime at home in the digital age?
Helen: In all the years I’ve been a psychologist I see that becoming much more of a concrete need as of late. And I would say we have some awareness of how much (technology) intrudes on the home space. But something as simple as developing rituals that are based in the home can be really life-giving.
Valerie: Can you give me an example of a home ritual?
Helen: Here’s one that I’ve done with all of my children growing up — each child received a magic box. The magicians came when they were little and they still come in the night to bring them something. This may be an encouraging message they need to hear or it may be something concrete they really desire. Or it might just be a note: “This ticket is good for time with the family” or a photo with the family. We have this little ritual with all of our children. It’s changed as they’ve gotten older but it grounds them in this idea that what happens at home is valuable, that there can be magic, there can be beauty, there can be life.
This is a magical story about the boxes that you made for your children. Did you make each one different so that it reflects the personality of the child?
Helen: Yeah, I did. One has got purple blue sort of marbled paper and it’s got pictures of me when I was pregnant with my daughter. Iy has some butterflies and some flowers and a symbol that was in my dream.
Valerie: Was this is a dream you had about your child’s birth?
Helen: Yes. And a symbol from (another) dream was incorporated in my son’s. My dream about him that involved a boat and so the top of the magical box is covered it ribbons that looks like a sail.
My oldest is 15, my middle son is almost 12, and my daughter is 8. They remember that the magicians came and how they would squeal with delight. That was a really special really special thing for my children, especially as they got older and started to learn who the magician was.
Valerie: Tell me a little bit about your own process of learning how to balance enough downtime at home with your family.
Helen: My father wisely said to me, “If you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know.” I think he was not just talking about being productive and getting a lot done, but about the value of having a full life.
I was conscious enough to choose a profession that I loved. Not everyone does. And then they are stuck and feel trapped. But I loved what I did and I worked hard on not separating work from family so rigidly. And I think that’s different from what a lot of career people do.
Valerie: Oh, say more. Tell me how that looked for you.
Helen: Practically speaking, I have a very flexible schedule. I’m a night owl so I go with my biorhythm. I’d rather work really late at night. This makes my students laugh, “Oh she sent me the 1:00 a.m. e-mail.” But I get to choose when I’m on the clock and when I’m not. And the trade-off is that I can do a lot of pick-ups and drop-offs for my kids.
I can be involved in ways that many career women aren’t able to. So I’m very grateful that I can set my hours in my practice and that I have an academic job where I work (at times) of my own choosing. I teach weekend classes and my family comes up at lunchtime and we all have a meal together. This year, I was surprised by the number of female students who said, “You’re modeling something for me when you have your family come for lunch.” I just had my family come because I wanted to see them!
Valerie: If you had to create your own magic box — one that represented a healthy and harmonious home — what would you put in it?
Helen: I would like to have more time at home and more time relaxed time with my family, doing activities we find fulfilling. Sitting around the dinner table and laughing — something as simple as that, without a cell phone or a computer. Without any multi tasking. Being able to just have pure time together, fun conversation. There’s one thing I’d like to do more of. Sometimes we push all the furniture out of the way and turn up the music and have dance parties. We made our own disco ball in our living room, you know!
Valerie: That’s lovely. My last question for you, Helen, is do you have any personal strategies to recommend for women who are trying to accomplish so much. A personal check-in to to see if everything is going well or you need to make an adjustment?
Helen: One thing I would say that really matters is for people to know how much stress they can tolerate and how they feel about stress.
For me to be able to think about having a full life and a whole life is important. What experiences and memories do I want? Holding on to that helps me when the stress rises.
I don’t use the term work-life balance. I challenged that mindset when I was teaching wellness classes. I teach others to be in a work-life rhythm and that encourages a more fluid, responsive stance toward life. This is the rhythm you’re in right now, and it’s going to end at a certain point. Then what will you do to replenish yourself?
Valerie: That’s a beautiful concept. It’s based on flow and natural cycles. Your life has seasons and doesn’t have the same staccato rhythm all the time.
Helen: Exactly. And I think that’s more real. I think it’s been more constructive for the people I work with.
Valerie: The concept of rhythm is much better. Home is rhythm. Home is music.
Helen: Yes. I would add that I don’t think of home as a noun. I think of it as an adjective, an adverb, and a verb.
Valerie: The word homely has come to mean something unattractive but its original meaning was something comforting, warm, and wonderful.
Helen: Oh, isn’t that interesting! I like my work to feel homely in the best sense of the word.
Valerie: Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Helen: Well, you’re welcome. Your emphasis on reinventing home is so important. If we can view home as a way of being, we can bring that into all dimensions of our lives. My life can be my home.