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Office mother takes on more than she can handle


Janet's sister is trying to steal her husband. Roger's wife left him for another woman. Sheila's oldest son is a drug abuser. Laurie's mother is suicidal. Frank has a mysterious disease. Patricia's former boyfriend is making her life miserable.

If you feel as if you're living the days of your life on the set of "General Hospital," as if all your children are perpetually in trouble and you have an acute need for a guiding light, you're probably the office mother.

"I want my staffers to feel free to come to me at any time. I want to be a caring, compassionate person. But if one more person comes into my office with a personal problem, I'm going to go berserk!" said a usually kind, soft-spoken friend.

"I hardly have time to work at all some days, I'm so busy listening to tales of woe and giving free advice. . . ." "I find myself working late a lot, largely because I've used up so much of my regular workday listening to people talk about non-work matters," said she, "and by the time I get home, I'm too tired and drained from taking care of everyone else's emotional needs to give as much as I should to my husband and children."

The irony is that the very qualities that make this woman a hands-on manager for whom her staff will happily slave away -- her kindness, compassion, patience and understanding attitude -- also are the reasons she finds herself mother confessor, and often mother, to the entire office.

It's true that women are more likely than men to find themselves in this predicament. It's also true that if we mask our concern for others -- and our ability to deal with conversational topics not having to do with work, sports or the weather -- we deny the very qualities that make us very good managers.

How can we keep the qualities that make us good managers -- our compassion, patience and willingness to talk about feelings instead of just the weather -- when our office door might just as well have "Peanuts' " pal Lucy's sign on it offering psychiatric advice for 5 cents?

We can start by reminding ourselves (again) that when we don't have a clear set of priorities and a clear sense of what we can and cannot do for others, we may end up being of no real use to anyone.

We can remind ourselves, as well, that it's hardly a coincidence that working women are far more likely than working men to suffer from both emotional and physical burnout.

We're more likely to hold jobs that require an emotional connection (nursing, social work, service jobs), for one thing. We add full-time jobs to the ones we have at home as wives, mothers, housekeepers, chauffeurs, cooks, hostesses, errand-runners, laundresses and, in many cases, caretakers of elderly parents, for another -- then wonder why we're exhausted.

So when we find ourselves adding the role of office mother to our already too-long list of roles and responsibilities, let's remember that we not only have a right, but an obligation, to use the word "No" more often than we do.

As in: "No, I don't have time right now," and "No, I can't help you with this," and "No, I don't want to be interrupted now," and "No, I can't take time from my work today."

Let's remember that being assertive and setting limits requires the use of the word "I" as well. As in: "I need this from you," and "I want that from you," and "I'm busy!" and "I don't have time now," and "I care about you, but I can't help you with your problems right now; I have work to do!"

Finally, let's remind ourselves every day that even the best mothers, in or out of the office, have to take care of themselves first. If they don't, they soon find themselves unable to take care of anyone at all.

Questions and comments for Niki Scott should be addressed Working Woman, Features Department, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.

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