The pressures on working professional mothers come from many sides, but Calgary resident Karen Dawson has learned that a busy career doesn't have to make anyone less of a parent; in fact, it can make you a better one.

Last year, Dawson wrote about her struggle to balance her children's needs against her own ambitions in an essay that won her the $10,000 grand prize in the TD & Rotman Women @ Work Essay Competition.

In that piece, Dawson wrote that while she worked as a teacher after she married, she always dreamed of going back to school to do more. But at 34, she found herself suddenly widowed with an eight-year-old and a four-year-old at home, and those dreams came to a halt.

Even as a single mother though, Dawson decided she still needed to fulfill her promises to herself. She found ways to juggle child care and put herself through graduate school, earning a PhD and beginning a new and busy career in leadership development and executive coaching.

Dawson told she knows the discussion about women who choose both motherhood and full careers is still emotionally fraught. But she says it gives her hope when she sees professional couples talking honestly about sharing responsibilities if one of them gets an opportunity in a new city or needs to take time off to tend to a sick child.

"For a lot of generations, there wasn't that talk because it was given: the narrative already dictated who would be staying home with the sick kid," she said.

After reflecting on her own career and parenting choices, here's some of the advice she would offer young parents trying to balance work and home:


A lot of parents -- mothers especially -- are still subtly made to feel as though their careers should always take a backseat to home life, Dawson says. She remembers hearing that messaging when she was readying to go back to work after her children were born.

"People would just jump to the assumption: 'Oh, that must be so hard for you. You must find it so hard to leave those little kids at home.' And what I wanted to be able to say was: 'Actually I'm really excited to be able to go back to work'," she says.

Rather than internalizing that imposed guilt, Dawson says she reminded herself that feeling fulfilled in her professional life and challenging herself to live the fullest life she could are actually what make her a better parent.

"I love working. And I'm a better person because of work" she says.


Dawson's work has always meant lots of travel and nights away from home, so when her kids were younger, she made it a point to hold regular "family conferences" to check in on how they were feeling.

She remembers once telling her son, then 12, that she felt sick to her stomach that she wouldn't be at one of his upcoming basketball games because she'd be out of town.

"And he said, 'Do you really think I play basketball to please you? I don't enjoy myself any less if you're not there'," she remembers.

Dawson realized she was unwittingly projecting her own guilt onto her son. She also realized those family meetings were helping to reassure her that she wasn't neglecting her children's needs and making the right choices with their blessing.


It can be easy in our hectic day-to-day lives to not spend too much time wondering if we're at the best place we can be right now, but Dawson says her biggest piece of advice would be to constantly re-evaluate where you are headed.

"Don't be afraid to ask yourself tough questions: What does it mean to lead a fulfilling life? What is a meaningful, full life to me? And don't confine your answers to what your parents or your grandparents or your neighbours think. Talk about this at work, with friends, and at home."

Know that it's also okay to want more out of life, she advises. And know, as well, that's it's equally okay to want a little less, to want off the hamster wheel of work, to open some breathing space or to shift focus.

"Because there is no right way to do this," she says.