This Mother’s Day, I have compiled a list of 20 questions that every working mom (or mom-to-be) can ask herself and revisit regularly, if she is struggling, as I have, with how to think through working motherhood. 

I recently had my fourth baby; my oldest child is seven years old. I’ve surprised myself by staying in the workforce all this time. I truly thought that at this point in my life, I’d be a stay-at-home mom, but because I’ve found the right job that has allowed me a lot of flexibility, I’ve continued working. 

Many mothers want answers to the questions: “How much should I work?” or “How will my work affect my kids?” I cannot give them those answers. In fact, no one really can. What working moms need isn’t so much a set of answers, but a set of questions that might guide them to better conclusions for their individual set of circumstances.

The list below makes some assumptions. It assumes a married household, and that for mom, working outside of the home is a choice. For many women, it is. But for many others, it is not. Women who are single mothers face a totally different (and more difficult) dilemma when it comes to work-life balance. However, I would still hope that some of these questions might be helpful as they consider various work-related decisions. 

  1. Have you prayed about this?

Not everyone believes in God or prayer. But if you do, pray about this decision. Any big decision is a chance to revisit your core values and beliefs. I’ve prayed a lot about my work decisions, and the answers haven’t always been clear. But I’ve never regretted spending time in prayer. 

  1. Are you and your spouse on the same page?

While men approach this topic differently, men will have a perspective about whether and how much their wives work, especially when kids start to come along. It’s much easier to make these choices together as a team, not in opposition. 

It’s also good to acknowledge from the beginning that, just as water flows downhill, the spouse with greater flexibility at work will often be expected to take advantage of that flexibility. You may want to work less to spend more time with your child or children, but you may not want to work less to become the family maid or home manager. I sympathize with this! But each home is different, and you should talk through your thoughts and feelings with your husband. 

  1. What women do you have as examples of the work-life balance you desire? 

Think about women (in your family or elsewhere) whom you admire and might emulate when it comes to these work-life choices, and seek advice from them along the way. 

  1. Who are the stakeholders in your decision to work and how much?

Obviously, you are a stakeholder. Your husband and your kids are, too. You may want to think about other people. For example, if your grandparents are aging and in need of care, will your decision to work make it harder for you to help them out? 

  1. What does your work mean to you?

Is your work a “job” or is it a “career”? Do you find your work to be enjoyable and life-giving, or draining? What is your theology of work in general? A great book on this subject is Tim Keller’s “Every Good Endeavor.” It’s a good time to think through the broader “why” behind work in the first place.

  1. What do you desire for your future, professionally? 

Do you have a specific vision for where you want to be, professionally, in future years? How do you think your choices today about how much to “lean out” will affect your long-term goals? You may be thinking about a particular job you want to have in the future, or, like me, that you just want to keep a “foot in the door” in the professional world. If you decide to leave the workforce altogether, you may want to consider what re-entry to the workforce could look like for you later. 

  1. What level of flexibility are you able to achieve in your profession?

This is an area where we are witnessing a fast rate of change. Personally, I’ve been surprised; when I thought I might need to leave my job because of a cross-country move, I got to keep it (and work remotely). Different professions and industries naturally have different workplace cultures, and some jobs simply cannot be done from home. But even for nurses, or others who have to do their jobs hands-on in a physical place, it’s worth figuring out how flexible your schedule could be, or what is on offer from various employers today. Don’t assume the flexibility you want isn’t attainable. You never know until you ask. 

  1. What are you willing to say no to? To say yes to?

In previous generations, women faced more of an all-or-nothing choice about work: To work or not to work? In recent years, however, innovations in technology and workplace flexibility have offered women the opportunity to work from home and split time between work and our families more evenly. I try not to see this as a curse; it’s really a blessing. But instead of one big choice about work, you may encounter hundreds or thousands of little choices. Will being a new mother change your willingness to travel for work? Will you need to prioritize being at home in the evenings? Will you have to say no ultimately to a new job or promotion because the responsibilities will simply be too much to handle given your responsibilities at home? Saying no to so many opportunities in the workplace may seem like a downer, but as we all understand ultimately: Saying no to certain things in life frees us up to say yes to other things. 

  1. How important are your earnings to your family’s budget?

This is a pretty simple question of math. Take a look at your monthly family income and your monthly family expenses. Could you cover the necessary expenses with just his income? Is there a certain dollar amount you would need to continue to bring in, to make up any difference? Keep in mind that your earnings aren’t static… they are dynamic. If you plan to downshift or leave the workforce, you may see it as forfeiting income in the present year, but your choices will likely have an effect on your earnings for years to come, even if you “lean in” again one day.

  1. What changes are you willing to make to your family’s budget/lifestyle?

Your budget may not necessarily be fixed. There may be certain commitments that are hard to change (for example, your mortgage or rent), but they aren’t impossible to change. You could move. You could make lifestyle changes. Maybe you don’t want to or need to. But don’t be a victim; you can make choices here. 

  1. Do you make enough money to justify the cost of child care you may need to work?

In some households, the second income comes with a great cost, and the net additional earnings aren’t as much as they may seem. This isn’t the only consideration, of course, but it’s one among many questions to think through. 

  1. What resources do you have available to you when it comes to child care?

If you are so lucky to have a local, healthy, retired, available, interested, and willing grandmother who will watch your children for a certain amount of time each week, I congratulate you. Your spouse may also be a great resource when it comes to spending time with the kids; it depends on his work schedule and other demands on him. Take stock of these “people” resources, as well as your budget for child care, to see what kind of weekly schedule you could design. In my experience, just as important as the “childcare budget” question is the question of what sources of child care you have that are trustworthy and high-quality and reasonably convenient for your family. Research what is out there before assuming that you won’t find what you prefer. 

  1. How many hours per week are you comfortable with having your child in the care of someone else?

Not surprisingly, surveys of moms often indicate that part-time work is highly appealing to this group. But rather than thinking about whether you want a part-time or full-time job, I encourage you to think about your childcare desires/tolerances first, and then decide if a job opportunity can be compatible with your childcare choices. In my personal experience, I set a number and said “I only want my kids in the care of someone else for XX number of hours per week.” And I plan my work schedule around that. 

  1. What else can you outsource?

I was super resistant to “outsourcing” the care of my children. I wanted (and want) to be their primary caregiver. I was hesitant to even call our nanny a nanny at first; I wanted her to be a “babysitter,” at least in my mind. But over time I have learned to look for and hire help with my whole household in mind—not just my kids. My kids are the last thing I want to outsource. But my kids’ laundry? Yeah, I can pay someone to do that. The dishes? Housekeeping? Take it. One of the upsides of working, for me, is having the resources (money) to outsource domestic work I care about much less than spending time with my kids. It took me a while to learn this lesson, but one day when I was folding clothes while our nanny watched our kids, it dawned on me that we could trade places. If you have the money for it, think through what tasks you want to pay someone else to do. You might be surprised at what the labor marketplace has to offer. 

  1. What boundaries can you enforce on your work life, to be able to focus on your family?

Time is just one resource we have to manage between our work and our family. Other resources, like physical and mental energy, are also finite. I can choose to be with my kids every day after school, but if I’m constantly reading work emails on my phone, am I really present with them? I’ve had to think about how to set “office hours”—and, just as hard, to stick to them—so that I am not constantly distracted. Can you set these limits in your own situation? Do you have the discipline to stick to them?

  1. What is the workplace culture like at your current/potential place of employment? 

Workplace policy isn’t everything. A lot depends on workplace culture. Do you feel free to say “Sorry for any background noise, guys, my two-year-old is sick today so she’s gonna join us for this conference call”? If your coworkers do stuff like this, it’s easier for you to do it too. 

  1. How will your work affect your ability to contribute to the larger community?

American society has suffered because, in previous generations, more stay-at-home moms took on more civic and community-oriented responsibilities. Now, many of us, like me, fill our non-family schedules with our jobs. It’s important to me to be able to make a meal for someone when they have surgery or a new baby, and I’ve had to make adjustments to my schedule at times to accommodate this kind of stuff.

  1. What plans can you put in place to keep margin in your life? For health, friendship, etc.?

Moms can be especially bad about “putting ourselves last,” but I’ve realized this approach doesn’t serve others well. It only leads to burnout and bad feelings. Unlike life before kids, I’ve realized that the activities I need to feel good (like exercising or socializing) don’t happen spontaneously. The solution, for me, was creating a schedule for regular workouts and date nights. 

  1. What plan can you put in place for an unexpected turn of events, or a crisis?

I, for one, never expected to live through a global pandemic. COVID and the related childcare and school closures led to the re-organizing of moms’ (and dads’) lives. But it doesn’t always take a global black swan event to cause upheaval. Individual families face unexpected changes too: You move. You get divorced. Your parent becomes ill. Your child becomes ill. Your school closes. Your school goes crazy (or your child stops thriving at school). Your nanny quits. Your spouse loses his job. Any of these exogenous changes may force a reevaluation of your choices around work, and may change the answers to the above 18 questions. I don’t encourage people to go through life constantly thinking about “what if”—many bridges can only be crossed when you get there. But there may be some big issues you want to think through in advance. For example, I have thought through where I’d send my kids to school if our current school was no longer an option. For me, having my kids in a good, healthy school environment is necessary if I’m going to work (as my working hours are largely during the school day).

  1. How often will you regularly revisit these questions, or otherwise check in to ensure that you and other stakeholders are satisfied with your choices?

“Decide, don’t slide,” into the work-life balance you want to have. Be intentional about designing it and maintaining it. Babies change quickly. Naptime last month is not naptime this month. Toddlers and young children continue to develop and change quickly as well. But as you try to figure out what works best, in terms of time spent on paid work, don’t rethink your choices every day. Set a cadence for yourself: Maybe every quarter or every six months, you can sit down, pray, and take stock of how you and your family are doing. If it seems impossible to get a moment to yourself to do this, that may be a sign that you’re overdoing it. Take time to ponder. Remember: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”