Pushed To The Brink
The Mom-To-Life-Coach Pipeline Exists For A Reason
American parents have been pushed to their breaking point, and a cottage industry has sprung up to help them cope.
I’m on the phone with my friend Kate*, and she’s telling me about why, earlier this year, she chose to work with a life coach. “It was during a time when I was really self-critical,” she tells me. “It’s so easy to fall into a trap of negative self-talk.” Her voice catches — I can sense her trying to compose herself on the other end of the line. When everyone around you is also having a hard year, it can be hard to know when you need to ask for help. “We’re all waiting for permission to take a break,” Kate says, after a moment. “Putting yourself first is a big part of coaching work, I think.”
Kate goes on to explain to me how working with a coach ultimately led to her making some major life changes. Her coach gave her the confidence she was lacking to acknowledge some frustrating and painful patterns in her life. “I had seen a therapist before, but I wasn’t thinking about starting therapy again,” she says. “I just randomly learned about this life coach while I was listening to a webinar one day while working from home. She just had this wit and seemed really sharp. I liked her sense of humor. I thought, why not?”
Not to belabor the tiresome “busy moms” trope here, but nothing in a mother’s life exists in a vacuum. A late night with friends will be paid for the next morning in a cascade of large and small irritations. If you neglect email on the weekend, you’ll suffer a soul death on Monday morning. Lots of screen time for the kids while you’re rushing to finish a project? They’ll be needy, emotional wrecks afterward. No action within the household occurs without an equal and opposite reaction, and mothers typically absorb the impact of both.
For many people, and mothers in particular, a defined period of problem-solving with an attentive listener makes way more sense than an open-ended engagement that might range far into your past. Enter the life coach.
Mothers often come to a coach with a specific problem they’re looking for help with, says Daily Lambert, a Manhattan-based life coach. Maybe it’s a professional issue, or a problem with their partner, or a parenting challenge. Usually, though, “they’re really coming to me for all of it,” she says.
Michelle* found her life coach on Instagram. She had a young child, a new job during the pandemic, and was struggling in multiple overlapping ways. “I think life coaching can get a bad rap — it can sound silly or indulgent. But getting into it, it’s like, Wow this is really helpful,” she says.
Whatever their given focus, life coaches typically try to help people get “unstuck” in a specific way. While therapists might focus on the past, and offer expertise for helping people understand themselves, life coaches tend to focus on the future — goals, outcomes, progress. It might be tempting to think of life coaches as self-taught counselors, but coaches would tell you that being peers with their clients, rather than experts who possess training and information that their clients don’t, is part of the whole point.
Based on what I found while browsing Noomii, an online coaches directory, there are thousands of coaches who focus specifically on mothers. In fact, there are niches nested within the coaching-for-moms genre: coaching for new moms, working moms, SAHMs, millennial moms, moms who struggle with anger, and moms trying to parent “holistically.”
Mom-coaches and the moms they coach want the same thing: to make a sane life outside the confines of the nonstop professional workweek. Coaches tend to come to the profession as a second (or third) career, as an alternative to looming burnout. The mom-coach niche is unique in this way; clients and providers usually have a shared experience of feeling unfulfilled or stressed beyond any reasonable point by their work and caregiving routines. Perhaps because of this shared purpose, moms who seek out coaching sometimes become… you guessed it, coaches themselves.
Mom-coaches and the moms they coach want the same thing: to make a sane life outside the confines of the nonstop professional workweek.
It’s no wonder the life coaching industry is booming — that is, if you trust coaches themselves. And you kind of have to, since there is no independent body that reports on, or regulates, the industry. There were an estimated 71,000 coach practitioners worldwide in 2019, according to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which offers the main international accreditation program for life coaches. That represents a 33% increase over the number of coaches identified in a 2015 survey. Perhaps even more indicative is the increased revenue reported by coaches, which was around $2.8 billion in 2019, up 21% from 2015.
Want to become a life coach? All you really have to do is start calling yourself one. Of course, there are plenty of training programs, for a price. Ranging from more established, institutional options like California’s Co-Active Training Institute to the much wackier, mysterious “Quantum Coaching Method” that people seem to attend workshops for around the world, but especially in Australia (I admit that, after extensive web searching, the Quantum Method remains a mystery to me).
You can invest in expensive workshops (the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching offers courses that cost up to $10,000), or you can just wing it and develop your own style of coaching. The International Coaching Federation offers “certification,” but it’s not a requirement for the field; anyone can put up a website and call themselves a coach. This is a sore point for the many coaches, including those included in this article, who have worked hard to develop their expertise through training and certification programs. As in so many industries, the fly-by-nighters can make the entire field look like a joke.
Everyone has challenges, but not everyone is interested in, as a friend of mine so vividly puts it, “licking the eternal wound.”
And yes, it’s tempting to take cheap shots at the coaching industry. The websites for certification classes all seem to let you scroll forever, which is a sure sign you’re reading the same thing repackaged in different colors over and over again. The language can be mushy and manipulative — a hypnotic repetition of words like potential, action, alignment, and goals. But objecting to the aesthetics of coaching is missing the point.
In the circles I’ve always moved in, people talk about their therapists all the time. My mother was in Jungian psychoanalysis for nearly 30 years. Whatever that cost her in time and money, and it was a mint in both, she considered it a justifiable expense. My family considered seeking therapy to be a mark of intelligence, even a necessary part of a creative life. Coaching, to me, has always seemed lightweight by comparison. But having spoken to coaches and their clients, I’ve started to rethink my bias.
Everyone has challenges, but not everyone is interested in, as a friend of mine so vividly puts it, “licking the eternal wound.” My mother was a wonderful woman, but not everyone has that kind of appetite — not to mention money — for talking about your dreams. Not everyone has time and energy for that, and why should they?
Part of my initial aversion to life coaching was around the implications of the name itself: Didn’t life coaching imply the existence of a life sport? Very few of us want a life that feels like a sport, where we’re competing and continuously assessing our performance. Take Michelle, for example, a mother of a young child living in New York City and working in media. The coach she saw billed herself as a maternal wellness expert and career coach. There were times when it felt a little bit like therapy — this coach had a master’s degree in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. But to Michelle, their relationship was much more pragmatic than it would be with a therapist. “Coaching is about developing strategies,” she says. “There would be homework. I had to describe what a perfect day would be at my job, and not use any negatives. We talked about writing a resignation letter. About negotiating a salary. That’s not what a therapist would do.”
What I’ve come to accept is that for many people like Michelle — parents especially, and moms even more so — life is a sport, and many of us are athletes who didn’t realize we’d been drafted. It’s no wonder that life coaching, as both a vocation and a service, is becoming increasingly popular among mothers.
In the face of overwhelming responsibilities and with little structural support, women seek out self-improvement.
Before we get carried away about the transformational potential in this trend, though, let’s remember that life coaching is not a radical practice. It’s a transaction, and it doesn’t necessarily create stronger community bonds or even, in some macro sense, make the world a better place. But there’s something about moms coaching moms, and coached moms becoming coaches, and all of these women sharing a fundamental grievance that the center of their lives isn’t holding, that reminds me of the way women have always started the process of negotiating changes for themselves, throughout history: by sharing their grievances in private. In the face of overwhelming responsibilities and with little structural support, women seek out self-improvement.
“People come to me when they’re thinking about changing their careers — and I have realigned a lot of people toward coaching,” says Vienna Blum, a coach and experiential learning designer based in Montreal. “What I love about coaching programs is that you build on what you already have. To be a psychologist, you need years of training. If you’re a mother who already had another career, when you go back to school to become a coach, you build on your existing skills.”
Many mothers are already informal coaches for other women in their communities, and in many cases, becoming a coach is part of undergoing the changes that can come with becoming a mother. Moms who become coaches often feel that they’re not the same person they were before they had kids. They don’t want to go back to the routine and set of concerns they had previously, and coaching gives them a chance to try something new.
Ellen Crafts, a Connecticut-based life coach, specializes in helping mothers navigate change. “When I went for my official certification in life coaching, there were quite a few women in that class who were making that transition of being home with the kids and then reentering the workforce,” she says. To these women, coaching felt natural, and they wanted to help other women who were figuring out how to go back to work after kids.
“I’m trying to help people hear their own voice,” Lambert, the Manhattan-based coach, says. Many of her clients feel inundated with advice and information, to the point of paralysis. Helping clients identify their core values is the first thing Lambert does with her clients, before moving on to help them figure out how to approach specific problems with a plan built out from those values. Is career advancement your number-one priority? Then you plan your weekly schedule with that priority in mind, and know you are making intentional choices rather than feeling guilty about it.
I like the peer-to-peer aspect of coaching; it feels like it offers potential for actual empowerment, as opposed to empowerment as incitement-to-consume, or empowerment as incitement-to-compete. I like the thought that there is a growing number of mothers working to help other mothers find day-to-day peace.
Although it’s worth asking what kind of mothers have the privilege of seeking said peace. Due to the time commitment and the cost, coaching is mostly for the privileged. The International Coaching Federation doesn’t publish data about the racial makeup of their members, but a quick browse of the Noomii directory betrays that coaching is a predominantly white profession. As a life coach/mother and woman of color, Vesna Antwan is concerned that both the profession and its services are only accessible to a limited group, and, like Lambert and many others, she offers a sliding scale for services.
So while the growth in mom-coaches is good for individual mothers, it doesn’t help moms as an exhausted collective.
“For every lawyer that’s hiring me, I want to be able to work with a young Black or Indigenous person,” says Antwan. With the lawyers and executives, she usually discusses how to balance their work schedule with their sanity. With her younger clientele, many of whom are social justice activists, Antwan is more likely to provide them with a time to process some of their feelings of frustration and confusion that come from navigating oppressive social structures. Together, they will figure out a practical, day-to-day plan to help the client cope.
So while the growth in mom-coaches is good for individual mothers, it doesn’t help moms as an exhausted collective. Coaches are helping to acquaint their clients with ways of living that are more easeful, more “aligned,” as the industry parlance puts it. As Antwan remarks, it has always been a privilege to seek this kind of ease.
What does it mean to live a more easeful life, a life defined by satisfaction, calm, and self-acceptance? Coaches will tell you that the answer is already inside you; it’s just a matter of listening to your inner voice. So if we all have an inner wisdom, and the capacity to feel well, then perhaps what’s holding us back isn’t just ourselves but the conditions we’re living in — capitalism that keeps us in competition despite being burned out, patriarchy that keeps us responsible for keeping house while trying to maintain a career, racism that keeps people of color fighting to be heard.
For now, the rise in moms who coach is both a symptom of, and a treatment for, a system that exploits their labor (domestic and professional) without equal compensation. People wouldn’t need coaches if they felt more at ease with their progression through life. Therapy helps people cope with the challenge of living with a human mind, but coaching helps people cope with the challenge of living in a human-made world of inequality, competition, and alienation. Like it always does, capitalism has made an entrepreneurial opportunity out of surviving its very ravages.