Work that works? What families need is a working life which offers peace, balance and stability (not to mention enough money to keep you and your children in shoes) without being detrimental to your mental health. Ultimately, we’re searching for the reassurance that we’re not abandoning our children if we need, or want, to work: that we’re doing our best for them, and ourselves – that we’re doing a good enough job. We need to soften our opinion on “perfection” and look instead to find that elusive balance – be fully true to yourself and what you believe is the right thing for you to do, as a mum, and as you – in whatever way we can.
The working mother is modern life’s ultimate plate spinner. Each morning she rushes to various childcare drop offs while simultaneously applying lipstick and making dentist appointments. She kisses her kids goodbye, swallowing the anguish of her toddler but wearing it like a heavy coat all day. She’s constantly aware of an all-pervasive pressure to be the perfect parent in the tiny window she has before the working day. Rush, rush, rush. Help! Is this all there is to life?
The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job. Annabel Crabb, political journalist
Career is the arena where we are most in danger of falling into a supermum pothole. “Supercareer women” often become affected by the quest to be a “perfect” mum – it’s just like a career shift applying the same skillset, ambitions and energy in a different way – albeit with more glitter and more volatile colleagues. So when the time comes where we need to combine both of our “careers”, this can lead to a real car crash for our wellbeing. A constant wrestle between two heavyweights: guilt vs ambition/identity. We’re expected to excel equally at both working and motherhood, but this expectation can be like spreading too little butter on too much toast.
The pressure for us to succeed on all fronts is making us wring ourselves out in an effort not to let either side down. This superhero striving for perfection at home and work means the bar is set unrealistically high. In this environment the two big arch-enemies to good-enough motherhood, guilt and anxiety, have free rein to run amok in our vulnerable minds.
Women’s place in the professional world has been transformed over the last 50 years: we now potentially can achieve all that men can. It may seem like there has never been a better time for women in terms of opportunity and freedom, but this freedom brings with it huge pressure, and feels like a huge wrench when we have to relinquish it once children come along. What we haven’t managed so well is to transfer responsibility for some of the more “traditional women’s roles”. And this means while we might excel at work, we’ll usually pile the pressure on at home too – and that can lead to major supermum stress.
Until this is need is fully realized and facilitated by workplaces – and until the Marissa Meyers (former CEO of Yahoo) of the corporate world set a less supermum example by taking more than 2 weeks’ maternity leave themselves, working mums will continue to be the great travesty of untapped talent falling by the wayside, as a sustainable working–family balance is so hard to find. Too often women trade flexibility for work that falls far below their skills and experience. So we need to continue to shout about the fact that we want to work and we want to mother, and find ways of doing it without losing our sh*t.
Perhaps when you returned to work after having your first baby the meaty parts of your role had been sidelined “because we know you have to get back to the baby”, maybe work simply doesn’t have the same interest for you that it did before, or your confidence is trailing behind you like a recalcitrant toddler and imposter syndrome plays heavily in your mindset.
You may overcome all those hurdles and settle into a workable routine and – whisper it – not always miss the daily grind of motherhood but instead rediscover your love of lipstick, work clothes and a relaxed latte. But the arrival of any more children often marks the point when working full-time stops making as much financial, logistical or emotional sense, and instead begins to deplete us of all emotional and physical resources.
We want to be there for our children enough to feel like we’re being a good enough mum (and to soften any guilt) and still have a job that doesn’t leave us in financial deficit after paying for childcare, travel (and all the things that spark joy). In a recent article the Sunday Times revealed that a mother with two children at nursery needs to earn at least £40,000 a year to make any profit from going to work (assuming that the childcare comes solely out of her salary, which is another equality matter for discussion). A salary of £60,000 would leave her with £36 a day after deductions (childcare, travel, pension). The average woman in a full-time job earns £24,202. And yet part-time jobs don’t really exist yet in our culture without us stepping down from our previous level of clout/ability/cash. We want a job that’s interesting, challenging and gives us a sense of self, separate from family life, in order to be there more fully when we are in family life…but we also need to pay bills. Is this an unreal utopia?
I’ve accepted a full-time job offer, after curating my working life around my children since 2011. They have offered me some flex – one day working from home, and one half day, and a flexible start time so that I can still do the school run in the morning. I had to ask for all of this, and these types of negotiations are never without awkwardness and take pluck and confidence which is so easily spooked away – but these terms means that I’ll still be part present. I feel huge sadness at the potential future absences … the fact that I won’t be there for every pick up for Freddie, having been as present as I could for all of Maurice’s for these first 4 years of his school life. There may well be concerts, assemblies and “memorable events” that I’ll have to miss, and this honestly makes my heart weep. I feel nervous about the culture shock of going from freelance life to employed life, where decisions about my children won’t always be the first unchallenged port of call for work commitments. But I’m really excited too… excited about a new challenge, a new office gregarious aspect to my working life having worked almost exclusively at home alone for the past 8 years. Excited about regular, solid, reliable income – now, that is a utopia. I’m reassuring myself within the anxiety that nothing is set in stone forever, all decisions can be mulled over and recalibrated according to life’s balance.
What about your working story? How do you make motherhood and work work? Does flex appeal? I’d love to know…..
The Supermum Myth
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