Navigating Life as a Working, Traveling Mom: “We are Masters of Our Work, Not The Other Way Around”


January 9, 2019

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All moms work, whether it’s paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time, inside the home or at the office. This article is part of a series of interviews we are conducting with moms who are in various types of professional roles. Making room for both motherhood and a job can be a difficult balance, so we’re inviting you to share how you make it work in service of your family.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do? How many children do you have? 

I’m Katie Prejean McGrady. I’m wife to Tommy, a teacher and youth minister and outdoorsman, and mom to Rose, our ever-curious and music-loving 16-month-old.

I’m also a full time international Catholic speaker, traveling over 150,000 miles a year to speak at various events, from women’s retreats to youth conferences to teacher in-services. I write for a few different outlets: America Media, Blessed is She, Life Teen, Epic Pew, and Grotto Network, and I have 3 published books with Ave Maria Press, the most recent coming out in January 2018.

Before I began traveling and writing full time, I was a freshman theology teacher and youth minister, which is kind of how this all came about. I was “in the trenches” of a classroom and parish and was speaking from time to time on the weekends, and I kept getting invited to speak more and more, for both big and small events, and was invited to write on different topics at different outlets, and my husband and I discerned I’d do this full time once Rose arrived.

There’s no real way to “apply” for this kind of self-employment – itinerant speaking and freelance writing – so it’s definitely been a “learn on the job” (especially this year), but I’m super grateful to be doing it and really having a great time.

How did you change after becoming a mother?

Becoming a mom stretched me out of a narrow self-centeredness I didn’t know I was stuck in. I think everyone is selfish, in some ways. It’s often small, and while marriage did a lot to teach me to be attentive to the needs of another person, a lot more of my selfishness was stripped away when Rose was born.

All in an instant, and then slowly over the first few months of her life, I realized that my wants (and even needs) were entirely secondary to hers – and I was okay with it.

Obviously, there’s a measure of self-care that’s necessary for mothers to maintain, and we shouldn’t abandon our basic needs simply because we have children…but there was a lot that I thought I “needed” that I learned were not only luxuries, but selfish luxuries, I’d indulged in. And motherhood took those from me and stretched me beyond those comfort or selfish desires to make me far more attentive to the needs and wants of others.

There was this one night, my husband was coming home from work and asked if I wanted him to pick anything up for me. Rose was about 6 weeks old and not sleeping at night, and I was at my wit’s end, and I hadn’t eaten all day. So, I asked him to pick me up some Chick-Fil-A. I’d been craving it and I just wanted those waffle fries.

He got home around 8:30. I was trying to rock Rose to sleep in the nursery and put her down so I could eat what he was bringing home. But, as soon as he came in, the dog started going crazy, barking at the door, and startled Rose awake, and I had to start the entire “night-time” process all over again. It was 10 o’clock before we could get her settled again, and by then, the food was cold and not even worth eating.

All I’d wanted, all day, was that Chick-Fil-A, and I didn’t get to enjoy it, at all. The waffle fries were so soggy, the chicken was cold…totally wasted.

Non-mom-Katie would’ve been furious, enraged someone took what was rightfully mine. But mom-Katie didn’t even think twice about it. As soon as she settled down again, I took a few bites, shrugged it off, threw the cold food away, and climbed in bed to try and rest before she woke up again.

Motherhood has made me look outside myself, to specifically pay attention to what my child needs. But it’s also made me more aware of others – the stranger in front of me at the grocery store or the gate agent taking my boarding pass or my husband who had a rough day at work – and has challenged me to ask “What can I do for them in this moment?”

What do you find most rewarding about being a mother? 

I was a teacher for five years, and my favorite moments as an educator were when my students would start to “get it.” When they’d explain the proofs of God’s existence by Aquinas correctly for the first time, and their faces would light up because they realized they’d finally grasped the concept – those were the most rewarding days as a teacher. And I get to watch those “light bulbs” go off in Rose’s little mind every day.

The other day she used a fork correctly for the first time. She successfully speared a piece of her scrambled eggs and brought it up to her mouth and took the bite, and the moment she realized she’d finally done it, the biggest smile broke out across her faith. I started clapping for her, and she immediately dropped the fork and began clapping too. Getting to witness all those little moments of learning and recognition – seeing the lights come on day after day – is such a gift.

What is one way that you’re making your job work for you as a mom? 

I have a weird and unique job. I travel in pretty concentrated amounts of time, a few days at a time, and then I’m home for a few days. So, while it’s probably between 40 and 50 hours of full time work a week (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on my schedule of gigs), I’m gone when I’m working, and then I’m home.

It can sometimes be very segmented, and finding balance with that was absolutely essential. So, we have some boundaries. When “I’m home” then “I’m home.” If it’s a home day, I try to only answer emails or write or work when Rose is napping. It’s not that I don’t want her to know I work, or that I don’t think I can juggle it – but I want to make sure she knows I’m paying attention to her and that I’m “with” her.

In the same vein, when I’m on the road, I try to get a lot of the administrative side of my work done all at once and fit in any of the interviews I need to do, editing of podcast episodes, writing of articles, etc.

By establishing those boundaries, we’ve been able to maintain a good sense of balance and ensure that I’m not too distracted when I’m fulfilling any of the roles I have.

We also learned fairly quickly that the only way we could make this “traveling full time” thing work was if we were unafraid to ask for help, and could admit when we needed our family and friends to help us pick up slack. I rely a lot on my mom to watch Rose when I’m on the road during the week, and Tommy calls on my parents to help around the house on the weekends when he’s juggling things on his own.

We have a great “team of sitters” as we like to call them – some former students who are now in college, some friends in town, and a fairly regular nanny – who watch Rose on days my mom is unable to (especially during Tax season, since she’s a CPA with her own firm).

We often ask for prayers when we’re in a particularly busy stretch, to ensure that we’re more patient with one another and more forgiving of our shortcomings when things are more chaotic than normal.

And, ultimately, we make sure that people know we don’t always “have it all together,” so there’s no illusion that we’re perfect, and therefore don’t’ need help. Those support systems are key for us to keep things moving along.

Making room for motherhood is important but can sometimes be a challenge. What advice do you have for other mothers balancing a job outside the home too?

We are masters of our work, not the other way around, and so when we become slaves to our work, we lose the freedom for which we’re made. I know that sounds all high and mighty, but I really do believe that. Deep down, if we allow our work to control us, then the joy of our work (or at least the joy that work can bring) is lost.

So, when Tommy and I were discerning if I would continue to work after our daughter was born (and we figured I’d have to, in some capacity, to make finances work), we also both decided that it needed to be a job that was both life-giving and fulfilling, and that could accommodate “mom life.”

I think every mother needs to regularly evaluate how work is influencing everything within their life – and try to find ways to make sure that work, home, spirituality, social life (all of it, really) is well integrated.

And, if there’s a massive red flag when it comes to the work part of life, as in, it’s a constant source of stress, you really dislike what you’re doing (or your co-workers), it isn’t providing financial stability or freedom, then perhaps it’s time to make a change and re-evaluate what you’re doing.

I know that maybe sounds easier said than done, but the only way to ensure a career is life-giving is to make sure that it actually gives life rather than drains your life, and actually fits into your life, not the other way around.

In your opinion, what are some of the values and qualities that a couple should strive to cultivate while balancing work, family, marriage, and everything in between? 

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details and minutia of the daily hum-drum of life. Meals have to be cooked. Dishes have to be done. Laundry has to be put away. Bills have to be paid. Floors have to be vacuumed. Lawns have to be mowed. Rinse and Repeat, day after day, week after week…and before you know it, you look up and the kids are grown, you’re 15 years into the mortgage, the stains on the Subaru’s seats never got cleaned out, and life has passed by.

But that, I think is beautiful. That life has passed by, and you’ve lived it, with another person who was there, in that day to day “boredom,” helping you find moments of joy and fostering beautiful memories in all of that minutia.

Those meals were cooked and eaten together, the dishes were washed, dried, and put away while music was playing in the kitchen. The laundry sat in piles, which eventually became part of the pillow fort in the living room. The bills were paid, maybe a few days late because y’all blew a few bucks on ice cream after dinner one night, and the floors were vacuumed only after they were dirtied from shoes covered in mud because y’all played in puddles outside during a thunderstorm.

Life is lived, and we get to live it, and I think as a couple, the only way to live life well is to enjoy all those small, tiny moments and find beauty and joy in what would normally seem boring or repetitive. Cultivating that sense of wonder, when doing the most basic tasks, and finding fun in the midst of normalcy is what I think makes marriage fun, and a real gift.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, prayer is key. Talking to the Lord, together, is essential to ensuring that you’re on the same page. Lifting hearts together, and unloading worries, giving praise, saying thank you, and petitioning the Lord alongside one another is a great way to both grow in intimacy and holiness, which is the entire point of marriage.

Anything else that you’d like to share? 

Motherhood surprised me. I legitimately didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I do. Maybe it’s because Rose is a champion sleeper or just so easy-going, so I got lucky with a fairly amenable and delightful little girl, but I also think it’s because I’ve just had so much fun getting to know this tiny human that’s half me and half my husband.

Watching her personality develop and her mind sharpen – the simple things like learning how to hold a marker or figuring out what block goes in what hole in the shape sorter – it’s just so much fun to see it all, and help her learn. My husband and I often just sit back and high five one another and say “we did good,” because we’re enjoying ourselves so much.

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