Somewhere along the line in recent years, the concept of redundancy has gotten a bad name. “Redundant” has come to mean “unnecessary” and hence “to be eliminated in the next thirty-five seconds.” Employees who are “made redundant” are fired.

This pursuit of efficiency in employment is very much in line with the “just-in-time” approach to inventory management. There are no parts stored in a warehouse. The parts are delivered to the factory just as they are needed on the assembly line. No money is lost having an investment in parts just sitting around gathering dust. On the other hand, there is absolutely no flexibility in a system with just-in-time inventory, or just-barely-enough-employees. A truck is delayed at the border and the assembly line has to shut down. A big order comes through and there are not enough employees to process it. A key person calls in sick and no one else can do the work. The other people with the same skills were redundant, so they were fired.

For a system to have flexibility and resilience – to be able to respond to challenge and change – you need some built-in redundancy. You need a little excess capacity, and more than one way to get the same thing done.

The lives of working mothers are very much the same way. Often it takes all of our time and energy just to get through our work day and then to do the bare minimum, however we define that, with our kids. We may be able to do that for short stretches of time, but if you are in that situation, I urge you to start thinking about creating a little redundancy in your system. What are your options if your child is too sick to go to daycare? You can take a day off work. Can your partner do the same thing? Have you talked to your partner about this? Can you trade days with relatives, neighbours or friends? The time to think this through and make arrangements is not at 6:30 in the morning on the day of an important presentation to a client.

If redundancy is under-rated, then I would argue that busy-ness is over-rated. When we fill up every moment of every day with commitments to our employer and to our children, there is no time left for us. No time to walk around the block, no time to read a novel, no time for coffee with a friend. We have all heard the oxygen-mask metaphor – if you faint from lack of oxygen, you won’t be able to help anyone, so put on your own mask first. We have all heard it because it contains a really important truth. I suppose there is the occasional mother who is so selfish that putting herself first would be bad and unnecessary advice. But really, the vast majority of mothers have to be coerced into doing less for their children and a little more for themselves. Sometimes our partners support us in doing more to take care of ourselves – but sometimes they don’t. After all, our free time often comes at the expense of their free time!

A little while ago I was having an attack of guilty conscience over some time I had spent curled up with a book, time not spent at my desk. As I thought about this, the image of a farm field came to me. And you know what? If you plant the same crop in a field year after year, the yield drops. Crop rotation helps, but sometimes a field just has to lie fallow. A field lying fallow looks as though nothing is happening. But in fact, earthworms are burrowing, organic material is decomposing and turning into nutrients, and the soil is returning to a productive state.

So go ahead, lie fallow for a bit. Do something for yourself – or do nothing at all. I know you could be doing laundry, but your teenage son can do it when he gets home from soccer practice. Working moms need time and space to regenerate. A little breathing room in your schedule is not inefficiency – it is just a necessary measure of redundancy that makes your life resilient – and ready to meet the next challenge.