07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Give Mom a Break

As Mother's Day approaches, I've been thinking about the extraordinary mothers I know.

My own mother, in addition to raising me and my siblings mostly by herself, founded and ran an extraordinary organization, Catalyst, devoted to helping women advance in the corporate world.

My wife, a psychotherapist, also edits a psychoanalytic journal, volunteers and served as president of a local mental health organization and remains as deeply involved as ever with our two grown daughters. Over the past several months, she's spent countless hours helping our younger daughter plan her wedding.

The organization I run today, The Energy Project, is comprised largely of women, most of them mothers, several of them single mothers and all of them fiercely devoted both to their work and to their children.

I meet these sorts of women all the time, as I did this week when I was at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. One of my hosts was a dynamic young professor named Lynn Wooten who alternated telling me, with equal pride, about her broad-ranging scholarly work and her 15-year-old son.

I'm awed by the complex lives that so many women I know -- most especially the single mothers -- manage with such grace.

I'm also aware what they sacrifice, which is most often themselves. I realized it again in my visit to Michigan, where I spent time with a group of mostly female leaders of social service agencies around the country.

My mandate was to give them strategies to better deal with the intense demands in their lives. What they told me, each in slightly different ways, is that they feel guilty taking any time at all for themselves when others, including their families, always seem to have pressing needs.

It's the same thing my colleagues and I heard when we began working with ICU nurses at the Cleveland Clinic, who worked 12-hour shifts, felt a passionate devotion to their patients, but sometimes didn't have a chance to sit down or eat during their entire shift.

The message my organization tries to deliver to these women is that conscientiously taking better care of themselves ultimately helps them take better care of those they love and serve -- and makes their lives work better.

One of my organization's aims is to give these women permission to give themselves permission to pay attention to their own needs without feeling guilty about it.

At my small company, the women with young children plainly have a balancing act. They want to be with their kids in the mornings before school and they want to have time with them in the evenings. They also have demanding full-time jobs that include commuting time.

The competing demands can create tensions. I want the women I work with to be with their kids, and take time to work out, and have a rich life outside the office. To make that possible, some of them work to varying degrees from home. But I confess I also sometimes find myself wishing they were in the office more than they are.

It's at these times that I have to remind myself of the message I spend my life preaching to leaders of large organizations: the better you take care of your people, and encourage them to take care of themselves, the better they'll take care of your clients and customers, and the more value they'll add to your company.

This applies equally to men and women, but the stark reality is that many more women than men still work what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild memorably called "the second shift" -the daunting responsibilities of running a family in addition to working full-time jobs.

That's what I'm thinking about this Mother's Day: all the extraordinary mothers in my life who juggle far more responsibilities than I do. And how much they deserve a break, not just Sunday, but regularly.

Can you think of a way to give the woman in your life an extra 30 minutes to herself each week? Maybe she'll use that time to work out, or read a novel, or just stare out the window with a cup of tea. Regardless of what she chooses to do, she will come back to you and your family more refreshed, energized, and ready to face her many responsibilities.

If you can't find those 30 minutes, what's one thing you could do, every week, to take better care of her, and enable her to take better care of herself?

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