The Phrase That Makes Working Moms Cringe

by Lynn Morrison
Originally Published: 
working moms
Dean Mitchell / iStock

I am a full-time working mom. Every day I go and sit in an office from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. I am the head of my business area and oversee a team that works underneath me. When the workday ends, I pick up my kids from after-school care, take them home, feed them, wash them, talk with them, read them stories, make sure they know that they are loved, and then I put them to bed. Once they’re asleep, I get on with the laundry and my writing and anything else that needs doing during “me time.” Weekends are spent shuttling kids to dance and swimming lessons in order to make sure that they have an opportunity to participate in the extracurricular activities that are impossible to fit in during the workweek.

This is our life. We follow this routine, week in and week out. It isn’t any more “difficult” or “challenging” or “tiring” than any other form of motherhood. I know because I’ve tried them all. I’ve been a SAHM. I’ve been a WAHM. Now I’m a working mom. Since becoming a working mom, there is one phrase commonly uttered in my presence that has really come to grate on my nerves: “I don’t know how you do it!”

I know the speaker of this phrase means well, but I also know they aren’t thinking through the ramifications of what they are saying. Beneath that pseudo-complimentary line are a few other implicit messages that undermine the role of the full-time working mother. When someone says “I don’t know how you do it,” they are also saying…

‘It’s too much for one woman.’

When did working and having kids become too much? At what point did we sit down and decide collectively that women, masters of the multitask, were not capable of holding down a job, being good at it, and still being a good mother at the same time?

When did filling up your days with activities that are fulfilling to you become the Mount Everest of motherhood?

‘I couldn’t do it.’

Of course you could do it. In fact, you already do it. There isn’t any secret superpower or advanced degree required to live my life, any more than there is to live yours. We both get up in the morning and go flat-out doing a mix of things we love and things we hate but have to do anyway. The fact that my to-do list is different from yours is irrelevant.

‘And what about the kids?’

We just had our parent-teacher meeting this year, and the first thing the teacher said to us was, “Wow, your daughter must be the hardest working kid here! I see her first thing in the morning, and she’s still here at after-school care when I leave at night. She must be tired at the end of the day.”

And then, there it was again, that phrase: “I don’t know how you do it.”

Given that my happy-go-lucky child was sitting right there next to me and the report showed her working at levels that “exceed expectations,” what is the point of making a comment like that? What on earth am I supposed to say? Yes, my child has a bowl of cereal at school in the morning. If she didn’t have it there, she’d be doing the same thing at home. Yes, she goes to after-school care, where she has a big snack and plays for a couple of hours with all of her friends. Three guesses as to what she would be doing if she came home instead!

Shouldn’t we be telling our future generations that it’s OK to “have it all” regardless of what your particular “all” looks like? Do we need to insinuate to a 6-year-old, who is successful by all accounts, that her parents are somehow failing her because they both work? What’s more, do we need to imply that the hard work her friends’ SAHMs are doing is somehow easier or less-than? If I, as a working mother, am climbing Everest every day, what does that mean for those mothers who choose to stay home? Are their days any less of a challenge than mine?

Saying to a working mom, “I don’t know how you do it,” is like saying to a SAHM, “I don’t know how you do so little.” Back when I was a SAHM, if someone had said such a thing to me, I would have clawed their eyes out, and with good reason. Back then I was climbing an entirely different kind of Everest. Personally, I’d be hard-pressed to produce a single mother I know who isn’t working her butt off every day. The idea that any one “type” of mother is somehow outperforming another is utterly ridiculous to me.

Expressing admiration for each other is a great thing, but even greater would be to find a way to do so without undermining one another.

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