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Why Gen X women get the worst of both worlds, according to a work-life balance expert who experienced ‘doing it all’ firsthand

Gen X women have been conditioned to "do it all."
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Three years ago, I found myself in a standoff with my husband. The argument at hand? Who would pick the kids up from school.
My argument: I’ll lose the opportunity to meet with a major client if I don’t finish this presentation now, potentially costing us thousands. I was the one who packed the kids’ lunches, gathered backpacks, and hurried them out the door that morning. I was also the one who used my five-minute breaks to schedule a dentist appointment for my youngest daughter and to email the choir director about my autistic daughter’s nerves. Scott’s perspective: Traffic would be crazy if he left his physical therapy office right now to collect them. It would be a huge inconvenience. I picked up the kids. I was angry but stewed silently. And I felt the disrespect and the mental load sit heavily on my shoulders. My husband is not an outlier. I am not a pushover. I’m a seasoned, Stanford-trained physician who’s written three books on work-life integration for moms. When we argued that day, we’d both read and knew exactly how to treat our marriage like the business partnership it was–at least in theory. I knew all the strategies and practical suggestions out there for dismantling gender discrimination personally and professionally, and yet it still existed in my own home–and in my workplace, too.
The more I talked to other experts in my field, the more I saw I wasn’t alone that day. There’s a difference between understanding strategies and implementing them. And, as it turns out, most of us want equity more than almost anything, but we can’t get it to save our lives. Our pay is still lower than our male counterparts. We left in droves during the COVID pandemic to shoulder our family’s childcare needs. Our corporate loyalty is questioned when we advocate for remote work and flexible hours. Our partners still expect us to be on pick-up duty–even when it makes no practical sense. Why don’t we have more equity? Why do we constantly feel like failures–stretched too thin by our professional and personal demands, at our edge with nothing more to give–even when we feel like we’re never giving enough? What more can we do? Maybe, ironically, it starts with allowing ourselves to do less.

Believe me, I’m all for addressing structural issues that hold working moms back, like educating men about the mental load women carry, developing more supportive workplace policies, and teaching practical strategies à la Fair Play. However, when we isolate our efforts to this systems-based approach, we miss an important, foundational step for the women who exist within them. We can teach career-driven women work-life integration strategies until we’re blue in the face, but telling moms more and more ways to fix their lives with how-tos isn’t the full answer.

Gen X women were raised to do two things simultaneously: operate according to traditional gender roles and be independent, career-focused businesswomen. These women still take on most of the household duties while leaning into work every day. We were raised, quite literally, to do it all. We’re hard-wired to over-function. It’s the reason scheduling rest feels laughable. Taking care of our own needs if it inconveniences someone else? So selfish. It’s why I found myself those years ago saying, “I’ll just go get them,” instead of making a fairer school pick-up plan with my own husband. My ingrained belief that his time mattered more than mine is what held me back–not a knowledge gap or a lack of tools in my parenting or partnership toolbox.

No wonder we’re not fixing the work and home equity issues women face fast enough. It’s not just because we have work to do at a systemic or strategic level but it’s also because we haven’t addressed a core issue: the why behind the way these women operate. If we want to really make strides in empowering career-focused women, we first have to show them how to see themselves as they are: worthy of just as much purpose, alignment, and free time as the men who work and parent alongside them. We have to show working moms that their own priorities and peace matter more than any to-do list.

That school pick-up conversation would look a lot different if my husband and I had it today–not because I’ve learned anything more over the years about dividing and conquering, but because I’ve learned so much more about myself. When working women understand how they’ve been conditioned from birth to over-function and when they build an unshakable foundation built on honoring themselves and protecting their own peace–that’s when they step into their power. That’s when we become the professionals, the parents, and the people we’re meant to be–no matter the circumstances. And it’s when women finally command the respect they deserve.

Whitney Casares, M.D., MPH, FAAP, is the author of .

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