08/07/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

To Have It All or Not Have It All

The myth of having it all needs some serious debunking, especially as related to motherhood and the work force. Being a working mother sometimes reminds me of those circus acrobats who spin plates on top of a pole. They run around like crazy trying to keep them all spinning, while continuing to add more plates. Inevitably, when too many plates are added, a crash is destined to occur. The working mom who "has it all" (a demanding career and devotion to her family) probably has at least a few teetering plates. Even some stay at home moms, who have decided to chair every school event and sit on the board of numerous charities, are perhaps spinning too many plates. No matter how good women are at juggling the complexities of career and family, no one is immune to the deleterious effects of stress, when too much pressure builds up. The breakdown of "mom" affects her own health, the wellbeing of her kids and can't possibly bode very well for job performance.

In the culture of "having it all," the pressure to work long hours, sleep less and squeeze in the family comes at a cost. Women are stuck traveling full speed ahead, not knowing how to stop the momentum they have created, even when their children are bearing the brunt. This is not reflective of a lack of caring. Most moms care immensely about meeting the needs of their kids, and feel torn when they can't show up. Of course, a certain degree of feeling torn goes along with the territory of motherhood, but eventually the fabric rips when there are too many tears in it.

There are many ways to strengthen the motherhood fabric, even if a woman does not have the luxury of flexible hours to make the carpool pickup or bring cupcakes to school on their birthday. Making a special lunch, a little note in their backpack and dinners together create bonding. Showing interest in their lives and asking lots of questions (even though they may only use one word to answer), will let them know that you are there.

Last week I was having dinner with a very driven mom/friend of mine, along with our two daughters. We were having a conversation related to Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." My friend's daughter volunteered that she didn't know how her mother did it! She was very busy, but she was always there. What she meant was that even if her mother was not physically present every single moment, she knew her mother was there with her. She drove the carpool whenever in town and checked in on her daughters throughout the day. She made sure her daughters knew that they were her first priority. It is not so much a matter of staying home with kids, but more of staying connected to them.

I love the story of two woodchoppers working side by side. One guy is super ambitious and determined to chop as much wood as he possibly can. He works furiously, but occasionally glances over at the guy next to him and notices that he is absent. At the end of the workday, he stands back to admire his rather large pile, only to notice that the other guy's pile is bigger. He is perplexed and asks the other guy how he managed to chop so much wood? The guy explains that he took a bunch of breaks to sharpen his saw and then had a hearty lunch, so that he would have more energy to chop more wood.

The balancing act of mothering also involves creating time to nurture yourself so that you have some of "you" left over to give away to your kids as well as to maximize your work productivity. This doesn't have to be a big time commitment. It could be as minor as taking a walk, grabbing coffee with a friend or even taking some downtime from the homework drill to "just hang out with your kids." Eating a healthy meal, having a little romance, exercising, getting a good night of sleep, all refuel mom. Ultimately, when you give yourself a break from worrying about all of the spinning plates, it resets your stamina.

Raising families makes women more resourceful, creative, efficient and strategic -- not to mention the crash course in multitasking that all moms receive. These same skills can also be harnessed on the work front, yielding a more productive workday. Taking time to cultivate close family relationships can fuel your workday and give you something to look forward to when you arrive home. We need to shift the emphasis from juggling life in order to "have it all" to one of "having balance," setting priorities that work, being present with our kids and taking time to sharpen one's personal saw.