Returning to work after I had my oldest son was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I thought I was prepared, but within just a couple of months, I was struggling. Hard.

Every single day felt like a sprint. My commute flat-out sucked. I raced out the door after work to jump on an hour long train ride. Then I sat in traffic for 30 minutes on the way to daycare. Then I’d gather up my baby and all of his empty bottles and dirty clothes, and get back in the car for another 30-minute drive home.

Once we finally got home, I’d race through my son’s dinner, bath and bedtime so I could jump back online to finish up work as I grunted a hello to my husband. I ended my night by tidying up the house, and preparing all of our things for the next day. Then I’d collapse into bed just in time for my son to wake up for his first of many middle of the night feedings.

It only took me a couple of months to feel like a crazy-person. But at the time, I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter. My job was important to me. More than that, doing well at my job had always been incredibly high on my list of values. Being well-respected and a sought-after resource in my career were things I had spent my entire adult life developing, and I wasn’t about to let my reputation go down the drain just because I had a baby.

But I was dying inside.

My whole life was a grind. I never got to see my family, and when I did I was distracted and drained. My health was failing fast. And honestly, I wasn’t all that effective at work because I was exhausted and foggy most of the day.

Something had to give.

It’s Not About Time Management

There’s a lot of hype around time management and productivity to streamline the life of a working parent. But I’ve discovered that clarifying my values, and then orienting all of my choices and actions around those values, are fundamental to a balanced life when you’re juggling so much.

But what does “clarifying your values” even mean? The concept of values can be fairly vague and abstract. Also, people often conflate values with priorities, and they’re really very different. So let’s break it down.

There are a lot of different definitions for the terms values and priorities, but here’s how I keep it straight for myself:

My values are my core life principles, what’s most important to me.

My priorities are the actions I take in my daily life that reflect my deepest values.

As Dr. John DeMartini describes in his book The Values Factor: The Secret to Creating an Inspired and Fulfilling Life, “people who live extraordinary lives have aligned their goals with their highest values.”

I’ve been supporting the mental and emotional well-being of working parents for many years now, and there are two observations I’ve made among the people who struggle the most:

1 | They have outdated values that no longer fit for their current lifestyle or circumstances;

2 | Their priorities are not in alignment with their values.

In those early years of parenthood, I realized I needed to tap back into my own values before I was ever going to find peace. I went through the process of clarifying my values, and then updating my life circumstances to reflect those values, after my oldest son was born nearly six years ago. And then I found I needed to go through this process again after my youngest son was born two years ago. As we grow and change as individuals and as a family, my husband and I have found it’s important to keep a pulse on our current values, and update our lives to reflect those values periodically.

Here are my top five current values. This is why these five in particular are so important to me at this stage in my life, and how they’re playing out in my daily life as a working mom of two little boys today.

FAMILY | My sons are growing up so fast, and it’s become critically important for me to soak up as much time with them as I can. Valuing my family today means being present and engaged with both of my kids as much as possible. I want to listen to them and make them feel like they’re worth my time and attention. I want to show up as my best self so I can give them the support and guidance they need as they grow into the human beings they’re supposed to be. This also means building a solid marriage as the foundation of our family unit.

AUTHENTICITY | There’s a lot of pressure to wear masks in our daily lives. Especially as a working mom, I’ve felt like I couldn’t acknowledge different sides of myself. As a professional in the legal field, admitting that anything other than my job is a priority (such as my children, my marriage, or my health) was highly discouraged. And as a mom, it’s hard to share that I’m still an ambitious woman who likes to work. So for many years, I concealed my true values, beliefs, and emotions to please the people around me. But denying fundamental parts of who I am makes me feel fractured and exhausted. I’m done sacrificing precious energy in my life to please everyone around me. The deepest connections I have with others and the best life experiences have come from showing up as my whole self, in all situations. I want to model self-acceptance and humility for my boys, and I can’t do that if I’m putting on a facade. So these days, I value being honest about who I am… and engaging with others who do the same.

FLOW | We live in a society that values hard work. Our current “hustle and grind” culture touts the benefits of grit, perseverance, and stamina to succeed. We’ve been told things that come too easy aren’t valuable pursuits. But I challenge the common myth of “no pain, no gain.” I believe life is meant to be an adventure. Life isn’t meant to be endured. So I’ve given up the martyr mentality in favor of a life I actually enjoy. Accomplishment can come from ease and joy, and being in the flow embodies both of those things to me. I want to feel light yet stimulated in the activities I engage in. I’m not always able to stay in this flow state, but striving toward it certainly creates that experience more often than not. Everything I choose to do takes into account this desire to be in a “flow state.”

GROWTH | Raising two smart and precocious kids, running a business, and attempting to stay connected to my loved ones in our fast-paced world highlights on a daily basis just how much I have to learn. I’m never done growing, and I love that. For most of my life, I had a severe phobia of failure. But today I try to see my life as an experiment. I open myself to the feedback that come with trying, and at times failing, at something new. Instead of relying on my perfectionist tendencies, I try to extract the lessons from everything that happens… good or bad. My purpose in life is to become the best version of myself, and I want to open myself to that process of evolution as much as possible.

FREEDOM | Freedom is really what it’s all about for me. After two decades in the demanding legal field where personal autonomy was restricted, “success” has come to mean having the freedom to do what I want, when I want, with whomever I want. Today I value expanding my freedom to make choices that are right for my family and me. I value having an impact on my own circumstances, and that can’t come if I feel chained or manipulated or coerced by others. I have this one life to live, and arranging my life to support a high level of freedom is how I can make the most of it.

There are dozens of Fundamental Human Values you could choose from to guide your daily life. I’ve narrowed it down to these five values for myself because when I break it down, I can’t live without these five values. If any one of them are forgotten or dishonored, I feel the negative effects immediately. And the more I focus my time, energy and attention to support these values, the more fulfilled I feel.

Making conscious choices about how I invest my time and energy is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a working parent. Identifying my current values though has simplified the process and provided a North Star I can always refer to.

What are your core values?

If you would like to identify your own personal values and learn how to orient your priorities around your values, check out the Values and Priorities exercise in our free Deliberate Life Challenge. You can access it immediately in our Library.