Working Motherhood: A Myth?

Even before having kids, some of us had formed strong opinions of what our “after kids” work-life was going to look like, while others didn’t think much further than the birth.

Some parents engage in conversations about how parenthood is going to work for their careers, while others just focus on the wondrous birth process: how does a fully formed baby actually gets to leave your body, after all?

In the last decade the conversation around working motherhood has blown wide open. Parents are now preparing for their new arrivals, not just in terms of understanding parental leave schemes and surviving that super demanding first year. They increasingly seek to plan ahead towards integrating the new reality into their work and home lives, discussing issues such as flexibility earlier and earlier with their employers.

Despite this increase in preparation the landscape of working fatherhood has changed very little but for many women motherhood and corporate working still seem like an “either or”. One can’t help but wonder: are Moms being sold a myth of achieving a balanced working motherhood that just isn’t sustainable? And does practice make perfect? Do hardships ease-out as time goes by and Moms gain more experience?

In this new series of co-authored articles, “New Mom” Stella, founder of Project Mamager and “Experienced Mom” Rebekah founder of The Diversity Puzzle join blog-forces to discuss their Working Motherhood journeys.

Today’s open talk revolves around the experience of being a Mom and, at the same time, an active part of the Workforce.

Rebekah, how did your Working Mother Career Journey begin?

I had my first child 14 years ago in my mid 20’s; something that would be unbelievable for most corporate working women to contemplate now! My ex-husband and I made the decision because he has a deteriorating medical condition and we wanted him to be able to physically enjoy having kids while he still could. So, barely four years after completing my masters, I had my first child and there was no career plan.

My son was premature and I had terrible postnatal depression, so the first year was hard. I returned to work and focused on caring for my son and my partner while continuing to have some semblance of a corporate career. My daughter arrived four years later after several miscarriages, and our family was completed. I look back at those first five years of being a working mother, and I know I was just surviving.

Stella, I know you are just about to start your Working Motherhood journey. How did you approach deciding to be a Working Mother?

I never explored the option of not working, to be honest. On the one side, it’s the fulfillment I receive from work: it actually shapes my existence. I can’t imagine staying at home. I don’t judge women who do, but I am simply not cut out for it. On the other hand, raising a family with a single salary wouldn’t be a viable solution for us. So, it’s a little bit of both. The tough part wasn’t about deciding on work. It was about whether I could actually become a Mother!

You see, I have had one of my ovaries removed due to a large dermoid cyst. Meanwhile, the other ovary had entered perimenopause stage. My OBGyn told us that he believed we had a slim chance of having children, even with IVF. As expected, the possibility of not being able to have kids made me crave for one ever more! I was an emotional mess…

My husband has a realistic yet sunny viewpoint on things. Through opening up about what was and what could be, and with good planning for practicalities on the side, we both agreed that, if actually conceiving was the hard part, we would have what it takes to handle what would come next. And he was, more or less, right.

Rebekah, after your ticky early parenting years, have you now found that elusive balance all Working Parents seek?

The last seven years have felt very different from those early “surviving” years. I have been able to create a proper career for myself, while balancing being actively involved in my children’s lives. I think the catalyst was becoming a single parent: it really helped me focus on what I needed to do to sustain myself independently, and it allowed me to get more selfish.

I genuinely agree with Mary Portas when she says that when women become mothers, they wake up in the 1950’s trying to “make life happen as if by magic” for our partners and kids. We do this while also trying to be dazzling outliers at work. Similarly I agree with Michelle Obama when she said, “That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time”.

I feel like seven years ago I woke up and realised that I no longer wanted to perpetuate the myth of perfection and I wanted to be an agent for change, starting with me getting more selfish. Being more selfish has meant going on a journey to discover my own values and vision for both my career but also my life more generally. I now have a fiancé and we have a completely equal household where everyone, including the kids, pitch into the physical and mental load of home life. I have worked part-time for 14 years and now actively discuss how I work and how it works for me in the hope of providing a real model for others who are looking for flexibility within corporate careers.

I have also focused on getting better at saying “no” to non-promotable tasks at work, and delegating more to free up time for my own career progression. It has also meant finding my own view of success in a corporate world obsessed with status and income based around an unsustainable ideal worker model of working. I’ve also had some hard discussions with my kids about my availability and my need to focus on my own, as well as their needs.

Stella, you are just about to return to work, what is your greatest concern about being a Working Mother?

I will be shockingly blunt about this: I am a perfectionist. I feel comfortable when I am able to control a process. And that loss of witnessing every tiny detail of my baby’s day-to-day (which comes with my getting back to work) terrifies me. I feel this rising guilt of not spending as much time with him as I used to, while at the same time thinking that I will grow into a much better (and less of a control-freak) mother once I actually get back to the office!

My husband and I have built an amazing partnership from day one. Our contributions to our family are interchangeable. Anyone can do laundry, cook, clean or take care of the baby. There are no “mom-specific” or “dad-specific” tasks. And this makes things much more flexible, and alleviates much of the stress about dropping the ball. We also receive great support from the grandparents as well. But our biggest asset is how we talk things through, and how we take advantage of technology to simplify mundane tasks. Like our smart Grocery store list that syncs between our smartphones, our dashboard to monitor our family budget, and our joint calendar on all time-bound activities so we can plan around them.

Before motherhood I could put in (very) long hours at the office without much thought. My continued efforts along with my ability to be present have greatly contributed to my career progression. What happens now if I am not able to make that urgent Management meeting that kicks-off at 17:30, because I need to pick up my kid from somewhere? I honestly can’t say for sure.

I really don’t know how it will play out, but I will put my best self out there. I am lucky enough to work for a supportive organization. I was promoted to a supervisor role while on maternity leave, which speaks volumes about the leadership mindset. I also have great faith in my own abilities to juggle, refocus, prioritize and (if needed) multitask. Logic says that, unless my emotions of guilt get the best of me, it will play out. I have a work-from-home ability should I need it, and an extra day-off for childcare. I don’t want to speculate any more, though. Ask me again in a year’s time!

Rebekah you’ve been a mother for 14 years now. Are things easier now after so much practice?

Unfortunately, practice does not make things perfect when it comes to being a working Mother. Your children are not static human beings, though I keep telling my kids to stop growing as they will soon be taller than me! Every year is different, and comes with new challenges.

Your child of 2 is unrecognisable at 10 or 13, when they start to become increasingly independent human beings and hormones start to leak into their systems. My kids definitely don’t need me physically as much and soon my daughter will go to secondary, so my days of school pick-up will end.

The mental side is more difficult now, the issues they face and the choices that need to be made have much higher stakes. My mental to do list has grown exponentially as their physical needs have shrunk!

My son has significant ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia, and entering secondary school has been a challenge for all of us. He goes to a very large state school but I now know all teachers on a first name basis, and each day brings something new. My daughter was also diagnosed with a long-term health condition just after she turned 7, which will need significant management until she reaches puberty. Having children with health conditions can be a tricky balance when it comes to attending appointments and dealing with emergencies, so having an understanding and flexible employer is vital.

I am now faced with the additional issue of early natural menopause, which has led to both physical and mental symptoms. I’ve had to recalibrate yet again to prevent my mental health from getting out of control. I’ve been open with my kids about what I’m experiencing and, in turn, they have stepped up to do more around the house to alleviate both the physical and mental burden of parenting at this tricky time.

Stella what advice would you give someone just about to go on maternity leave?

Don’t overthink things. You can’t control how it will play out, so save yourself the preliminary stress: it’s unnecessary and counter-productive! But don’t avoid opening up about how becoming a Mother will come to affect you every step of your way, either. Because it will. Physically, emotionally, practically. The first few months are daunting and full of new stuff, so focus your energy on what matters, and make Agile your middle name, because that’s how life is going to look from now own: like a set of time boxed sprints!

Ask for help. You will need all the support you can get, and it’s going to take many forms, both practical and emotional. It may be as small as a good practice or tip, or as big as looking after your baby for an hour so that you can take a nap. In a number of cases, the help you need is not going to be available to you by default. People may not be able to empathize with what you are experiencing, so speak out. You don’t magically transform into a know-it-all Mom the minute you give birth. You gradually grow into the role. You learn by doing, and with the help of others who have gone down the same path. So reach out to other parents and build your support network. Think of it as a crucial strategic step towards your family’s sustainable well-being!

Oh, and do talk to your manager or leadership team about for your back-to-work scheme early-on. Explore and co-design flexibility schemes, even if they aren’t on the books. One thing is certain: there will be uncertainty. You need flexibility to come along, until you feel more comfortable with introducing work commitments back into your daily routine. Perhaps you need to shift your workday one hour earlier for the first few months. Maybe you can have a work-from-home arrangement. Or return to work part-time, and gradually increase hours to full-time as you get more comfortable in your new situation. But please don’t just go back to work taking for granted that you don’t have options. At least ask!

Finally, manage your own expectations and tailor your approach to what works for you and your family. Motherhood is not going to be an absolute mess, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park either. You will eventually figure it out, but don’t go sabotaging yourself wondering if you are pacing yourself too fast or too slow. There is no one way of doing things, so don’t compare yourself to others. It’s not a competition. It’s not a spring. It’s a marathon, and you got this!

So, how do we make Working Motherhood sustainable?

[Rebekah]

To make working motherhood more sustainable there are two things we need to do. 

The first is to distribute the parenthood “work penalty” more evenly among parents. Despite living in an era of having some of the most educated women in the world join the workforce, the automatic assumption remains solid for most corporate working families: women are expected to eventually “reduce” their career and aspirations! Even when enhanced paternity and shared parental leaves are offered, the uptake is limited. We need men to be willing to take equal risk with their careers knowing that, given a two income family, the risk is far lower nowadays compared to how it was for their counterparts decades ago.

One of the significant barriers to men taking up the parenthood penalty is lack of role models. If it is unclear to men whether (or how) the option of taking a parental leave could affect their future success, or if they feel they will be harshly judged by their fellow senior males for leaning into a paternity leave scheme, they will remain skeptical, thus, reluctant.

The second thing that needs to change it that those for whom the existing structures work so well for, need to get uncomfortable. Apartheid South Africa, where I grew up, did not fall because the business case for integration was so blindingly obvious, but because the existing structures became so unsustainable for the priveleged few, that a change *had* to happen.

I feel we aren’t in a place where those in privilege feel genuinely uncomfortable in the corporate workplace. There exist some radical options, such as quotas and forced diversification, which could work in the short term but, in reality, for sustainable change to happen, we need those in influential positions to genuinely commit to ground up Allyship. This would mean taking risks to reprogram themselves, to see through the bias and structural inequalities happening in their own workplaces, and to get uncomfortable with that state on a personal level. They need to find their “why” for changing their existing workplace structures, and take action!

[Stella]

Before becoming a Mom, I honestly thought that we had progressed enough to no longer need to discuss gender equality in the workplace. Thankfully I have not experienced discrimination first hand, but many of my coachees or mothers I talk to have! And if there’s one thing I’ve learned while discussing this topic for the past year or so, is that it’s one huge taboo area waiting to explode!

It’s a taboo to admit difficulty in adjusting to your new role as a working mother. It’s a taboo to ask for help and not have judgement come along with it. It’s a taboo to expose employers who discriminate against applying mothers. It’s a taboo to even discuss how parenting has come to reshape perspective, priorities, needs and interests! Well, if there’s one thing to be done, one place to start, is bringing down this taboo!

If we have to start from someplace, it’s our here and now: speak loudly and consistently about Parenting and Work. Open the topic. Bring up all aspects. Keep it open. I feel we are in the midst of a global momentum acknowledging the need to turn our attention towards diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Modern corporations can not afford to ignore its phenomenal importance any longer. Gartner predicts that over three-quarters of larger enterprises will define their diversity and inclusion goals for a 2020-2022 timeline. In 2019 we are already beginning to have more men involved in gender initiative programs, and AI assisting the elimination unconscious bias powered by insightful data analytics. There certainly are ways around this. We simply need to empower our will to act, and keep it up!


If you enjoyed this open talk, make sure you check out Rebekah’s blog The Diversity Puzzle. You can also have a look at some of my other articles on women participation in the workforce, and the crucial role Maternity Leave schemes play to both us and the society!


Featured Photo: Rawpixel (Pexels)

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