09/16/2013 02:11 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Winning at Your Own Mommy War: The Battle of the Working Mother

Nobody understands the concept of the balancing act like a working mother. Balancing is an everyday reality, but has only recently become part of the controversial conversation about the workplace. There are the classic "mommy wars," of course, between working mothers and those who choose to stay at home with their children in which everyone ends up feeling slightly guilty. But the struggle inherent in the every day life of the working mother -- a struggle that really does happen moment to moment, every moment, every day -- is more than the simple question, "To work or not to work." It's about how to be the best possible parent, the best possible person and have the best possible work experience. It's about trying to have it all, and as often as not, feeling like a failure when one of those many balls we've all got in the air falls to the floor, breaks a lamp and rolls under the couch (metaphorically, of course). It's a struggle that takes its toll, and it's a struggle that is very personal to me.

Yet, the good news is that women are speaking up about this, in louder and more authoritative voices than ever before. From Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In to Arianna Huffington's recent women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," it was the year for facing up to hard facts, like how maybe we are partially responsible for not being on top of the corporate ladder and perhaps we are not fighting for what we deserve. And maybe we aren't even always the "best" mothers, whatever that means.

I don't disagree with any of these notions, but somewhere in between that battle for what we deserve and that battle to be Super Mommy is a middle ground where most of us live. We can get theoretical all day about what we could achieve in either arena, but what happens when we don't have the resources, the time or the energy?

Ms. Sandberg reminds us that our husbands can bear half of the load (possibly true, depending on the situation), and that we can get more help in the house (but this does require some money). She maintains that we need support to help us with our children. We cannot be successful mothers and career women all by ourselves. This can be a hard message for many of us "I can do it all" moms to hear: that we might actually need to ask for help. Early on in my career, the head of the NIH made a simple statement to a group of women doctors that help is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Yet, I still have trouble asking for it.

I do know some things for sure about being a working mom. In my case, being a mother has never affected my personal ambition, but my son is always in the front of my mind, even when I am at my most intense in the workplace. I believe working mothers play under a different set of rules, and until we realize this, we will never quite master either role. It's not that being a mother makes us less hungry for success or less motivated to achieve our career goals. It's just that we also have to incorporate a full range of emotions into the mix that those who are not mothers don't have to deal with. Other people in other situations certainly have other things to contend with as they navigate their careers, but I believe that what mothers contend with every day as they balance their lives is unique to mothers, and something we all have in common.

Recently, when one of the women I work with had a baby, she expressed her concern about being a working mother, prior to the birth. Then the baby came, and "everything changed." (How many of us have uttered those exact words?) After the child's birth she sent me a message: "She's even learning the whole sleeping thing, a little better each night, which makes it that much easier to stay awake and just gaze at her. It's a whole new world." That "whole new world" will never change, even when she returns to her job. If women recognize this, it helps. If you know you are not going to be the same person as you were before motherhood, you will be readier to manage your job in a way that makes space for who you have become.

Womanhood and motherhood don't necessarily need to change, but perhaps the workplace does, and that can only happen if women themselves make room for the knowledge that womanhood and motherhood can exist together and be equal partners.This is the key to increasing the working mother's value, both in the corporate world and in the home, as well as to herself. The natural evolution of that will be a greater reliance of the capability and competence of working mothers, as well as a greater value placed on what is best for children. Until that happens, however, we will muddle along, as well as we can.

When I first started my training, one of the attending physicians who was the Director of Heart Failure ( a demanding position, dealing with very sick patients and doing research), showed up to her first day with white powder all over her pants. When I discreetly pointed it out to her, just to prevent her embarrassment, she proudly told me, without any sense of shame or concern for what anyone else thought, that she had been baking cookies at her daughter's school prior to coming to the hospital to work. She is well respected in the field, and head of the program at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country. Ask her what has mattered most to her, and she would say, without pause, that it is her daughter. To me, she is a role model for women. She has managed to find that balance, even as she too navigated her way through both worlds. She excels as both a mother and a doctor.

So, where does that leave the rest of us -- working moms who struggle to do it all and figure out who we really are without feeling like we have split personalities? First, we need to accept that we can be both, and we don't have to feel guilty about it. Second, we need to ask for help. And third, we need to prioritize our children's needs and our own needs above other less important things. This isn't always easy, but if getting your work accomplished means hiring a babysitter for those late nights, or spending quality time with your child means leaving the dishes, then that's what you do. It's never easy. It's never uncomplicated, but it is possible.

I am the last person to say that we can all have it all, as if there is some simple formula that will help us skip merrily from nursery to the hospital or the boardroom and back again without, well... getting flour all over our slacks. But what I do know is that being a working mother is worth the struggle. Know that you can do it. Ask for help. Share responsibility. Join up with other working moms to find solutions. Talk about how hard it is, and let yourself be buoyed up by both the frustrations and inspirations of other working moms. Most of all, put aside your guilt. You simply don't have time for it.

I think of the time before I had my son, and the time since he entered my life. I remember when he was first put in my arms, and how much I grew because of him. If I had it to do all over again, yes, I would still become a cardiologist, and yes, I would still become a mom. These are my two greatest accomplishments. What are yours? Embrace them! Let's join together and hold each other up, because together, we really can have it all.