05/14/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Shades of Gray for Working Moms

Michelle Cove

Three years ago, I made a documentary and got a call from my film producer Kerry telling me she had set up a meeting with a major production studio in LA that was interested in it. I needed to "fly across the country the following week. Was that do-able?" Um, YEAH! We discussed the details and when I hung up, I stood in my office making squeaky noises of delight and fist-pumping the air. And then I looked at my Google calendar and saw on one of the days I'd be away "Risa's ballet recital." [Fist-pumping...over].

I considered asking Kerry to reschedule the meeting, but knew full well that when a big-shot exec asks you to "take a meeting" about the project you've been working on for years, you show up. So I began making to-do lists and organizing for departure. When I told my daughter Risa, then 5, that I was so sorry but wouldn't be at the recital, she responded, "Wait, you're not going to be there?" [Dagger to heart.] I resorted to bribery, telling her that I would leave special gifts with Daddy for the big day, and call her before and after the performance. She perked up a little at the idea of "special gifts," but still felt gypped.

The next week in L.A., I learned the valuable skill of how to hide knocking knees under a conference table while pitching my heart out to the studio big boys. (They ultimately said no, but I wouldn't know until days later.) I walked out of that office feeling victorious for at least saying what I had planned without throwing up. I then bolted to a quiet spot and called Risa for all the details on the performance, and she shared in giddy delight how it felt to prance around on stage in butterfly wings, and, yes, she loved the fancy barrettes I left on her pillow! I felt equal parts guilt and relief she wasn't pissed off at me.

Flash forward to this past year, when I learned something better that I could have done. While researching my book I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms, an expert suggested that I could have asked my husband to videotape the recital and then watched it with my daughter when I returned home. It never occurred to me (and I'm a filmmaker, for God's sakes!). Risa and I could have ooohed and ahhed over her dance, and I could have asked how certain moments felt while doling out high-fives. It would have been easy.

We working moms tend to think in black and white. "I can either go to this meeting or see my daughter's ballet performance." "I can either take on car pool this week or miss my deadline." "I can volunteer at my child's afternoon Valentine's Day party or make it to staff meeting." It's not surprising that we see the world in black-and-white; we are highly rewarded for doing so at work and it allows us to meet our goals. But that's not the skill needed for handling the tug of war between a career and motherhood.

What we need for this tug-of-war is to find "in-between options" that are "good enough" and stop beating up on ourselves. If doing car pool tomorrow means missing a deadline (not possible), what else can we do to remedy the situation? Why not offer a parent a service in exchange for him/her taking on extra driving -- like helping that parent with taxes or pet sitting? If we can't make the afternoon class-graduation party, can we read a poem about graduating to the class first thing in the morning? We working moms, who juggle not only work and kids but ailing parents, pet hamsters, friends, dying plants, and other obligations, are some of the most resourceful people in the world. We just have to slow down when it comes to work-parent dilemmas, and get more creative. Let's all give ourselves this decadent gift of gray.