- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Work, eat, exercise, sleep. Day after day, month after month, the daily grind can lead to exhaustion, frustration and finally burnout. For many working women, career is life, with no end in sight.

Adding the pressures of marriage and parenthood to the mix can make matters worse, alienating mothers in an endless cycle of shuffling a hundred different tasks, all too important to ignore.

But the solution to rat-race woes may be no more complicated than taking an extended vacation, says Mary Lou Quinlan, author of “Time Off for Good Behavior.” Women need to learn how to take breaks, if only just to catch their breath, she says.

“Women, in particular moms, don’t give themselves permission for time off,” she says. “They put themselves last in line behind everyone else’s needs. Even when they take ‘vacation,’ it’s a personal to-do list. What I’m suggesting is that a mom would consider looking at her calendar three weeks forward, pick a weekend, put your name on it, check into a hotel and give herself a weekend that has time to nap, time to move and time to reflect.”

Americans are taught from an early age that they must work hard and nonstop to succeed in life, says Muffy Mead-Ferro, author of “Confessions of a Slacker Mom.” Starting in grade school, she says, children are taught that success is dependent upon constant effort and focus.

“A friend of mine, whose daughter is in first grade, was telling me about how her little girl really didn’t want to go to school simply because she was tired,” she says. “She told me that she decided just to let her stay home and take a day off. But my inclination would be to say that ‘these are the rules and you have to go to school.’ It’s so easy to start very early on driving our children and teaching them that they can never get behind.”

That drive for success can be attributed to an inherent American competitiveness. “Americans want to get ahead of everybody. We are afraid to be losing,” Mrs. Mead-Ferro says.

“Americans have inherited a very linear model of work where you start working at age 22 and you go all the way straight though to 65,” says Miriam Peskowitz, author of “The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars.”

“The problem is that the workplace isn’t geared to support them or support these breaks in the middle of their careers, but I think it’s crucial to take time out; otherwise, it’s just this huge rat race,” she says.

For many, the workweek has expanded from the traditional 40 hours to as many as 60 hours. With the advent of cell phones and wireless messaging devices, business people are in constant communication with the office.

“With dot-com culture, the sense that people could communicate 24 hours a day, seven days a week shifted to we must communicate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People in businesses started to feel pressures to work more hours to be there for clients. They are expected to be there at all hours and be connected,” says Mrs. Peskowitz.

If such expectations are not lowered, says Mrs. Peskowitz, American industries will feel the consequences.

“Working like this leads to burnout,” she says. “Within five years of getting my Ph.D., I had tenure and I had written two books, and I was absolutely burnt out. I put in for a leave of absence. I know many others who feel the same way.

“I don’t think it was good for my profession to demand this level. Workplaces and employers need to nurture people over the long run. If you don’t, you’re going to lose them,” Mrs. Peskowitz says.

The secret to breaking the cycle, says Mrs. Quinlan, is to take things one step at a time.

“Start with a remedial program,” she says. “Pick one night and say, ‘That’s the night I’m not going to answer my work cell phone after 6 p.m. and I’m not going to look at e-mail or my Blackberry [pager] after 6 p.m. I’m going to go cold turkey for one night.”

One of the ways many American mothers are juggling the desire to work is by starting small businesses, says Wendy Sachs, author of “How She Really Does It: The Secrets of Success From Stay-At-Work Moms.”

“These women go out on their own and they are the happiest women I’ve found because they have both ownership and flexibility,” she says. “These women are not working less, just differently.”

For other women, the solution may be as simple as taking expendable things off the to-do list, Mrs. Meade-Furro says.

“Multitasking and juggling is just getting old for a lot of women,” she says. “You don’t know where to cut back, but maybe you need to cut back everywhere. We don’t need to adhere to professional standards of performance and perfection when it comes to domestic skills. What are the stakes, really? Yes, make the beds and clean clutter, but do you really have to rid your home of microscopic debris?”

Still, she says, taking time away with no schedule is important and should be made a priority.

“You need time to remove the to do-list form right in front of you and take it away for a while. Yes, you can take a lot of things off that to do-list, but taking that list away is important.”

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