How having a baby has actually helped - not hindered - my career
For the first time in a year, I took a deep breath and tentatively stepped onto a cramped train. Steeling myself for the rush of commuters and having my freshly made-up face uncomfortably close a stranger, after a year in my maternity leave bubble, I realised the time had truly come to embrace my ‘new normal’ – and title of ‘working mum’. Everything will be ok, I repeated silently to myself, trying to ignore a briefcase digging into my side. But that small, nagging doubt, that I hadn’t been able to shake, crept in too: won’t it?
The world of being a full-time mum – which saw endless emails replaced with endless laundry and burning the midnight oil to soothe a nocturnal baby – had been so all-consuming, initially I hadn’t really allowed myself to think about my return to work. But as the date edged ever closer, I began having doubts about how all the pieces of my life would fit together.
My dilemma read like a battle of two loves. My old flame: a career as a management consultant I'd worked my socks off for. We had history, with tough lows but amazing highs. My new and abiding love: my role as a mum. It was demanding but rewarding in an entirely different way. They both deserved my attention and I worried about balancing it all, alongside a desire to keep growing in my career too.
That fear was compounded by the fact that I now belonged to a minority group in my industry, that of the ‘career mother’. In a male dominated field, where the percentage of women in leadership positions paled in comparison at the best of times, fellow mothers were scarce. I – and everyone I worked with – would now have to accept that I couldn’t work in the same way I did a year previously. Staying in the office until 8pm now required a week’s notice, and travelling was an unequivocal no-no.
Yet, despite feeling like I was alone in this, the data about working parents shows otherwise: a study by Working Families found that 41% of mothers feel being a parent is holding them back from a promotion, while 38% said the people who work the longest hours are the most respected by senior leaders in their organisation. This also comes coupled with the pressures of the pandemic, which saw mothers 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have lost, or quit their jobs due to insufficient support with childcare, and the latest survey from the charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that 62% of parents' childcare costs are the same as their rent or mortgage. One in four are now having to cut down on food, heating or clothing to afford childcare.
In short: the idea of being a working mother wasn’t exactly filling me with hope, as I stepped off that packed tube carriage and back into my own office a year on. One question in particular kept plaguing my mind... is it ever possible for family life and a thriving career exist in perfect harmony?
Mum guilt in the workplace
After guzzling her third cup of coffee (at 11am) in an attempt to shake off the drowsiness that had been haunting her since her 5am start, Henrietta Owusu, a Risk Analyst at Fidelity International, realised that balancing motherhood and a career was not for the faint-hearted.
“Returning to work following my maternity leave, my colleagues automatically assumed that I could work the same patterns as them. In reality, my toddler was still waking up for feeds most nights,” she explains, recalling that caffeine-laden moment a year ago. “I wasn’t getting much sleep but had to be up early for meetings, so my anxiety levels increased.
“There was a period during the pandemic when my daughter was unwell, and I was torn over whether to skip my meetings, to give her my full focus, or to just ‘multitask it’. In the end I chose the latter as I couldn’t neglect my work responsibilities, which was a difficult decision that came with a deep feeling of mum guilt. I'd put so much pressure on myself to prove I was still able to do what I was doing before my 'mummy' title, even though it was causing me a great deal of stress.”
But while it may feel isolating, it only takes a couple of conversations with other working mums to see that we all go through similar challenges.
“The process of returning to work post-baby is a major change, it can cause stress adjusting from our previous selves and the sudden limitations our new normal brings,” agrees Genevieve Boakye, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who specialises in Perinatal Mental Health. “As humans, we feel anxious when we’re uncertain about the future and how things will work out. Returning to work can bring on a lot of uncertainty around how to manage the demands of life, but this is all very common. We need to normalise these experiences; mums require a period of adjustment, without undue pressure.”
I remember several rushed trips to the bathroom during my first month back in the office, crying silent tears because of the heavy guilt I felt over my choice to return to work – and my inability to completely focus in meetings. I felt like I was failing at everything. But as the months crept on, and I settled into my new rhythm, I started to view things differently. Perhaps this new part of my identity, and the skills that came with it, could actually be the thing that helped me to get further ahead?
It's an outlook that Charlene Prempeh, a mother, and founder of digital agency, A Vibe Called Tech, agrees with. “There’s a line in a book I once read which said: ‘Being a mother is a crushing responsibility’. People sometimes associate this responsibility with needing to be there physically for the child and providing for them, but there’s also a responsibility to become someone who they respect,” she explains, citing how having her son lit an extra fire within her to be bold in her decisions and become the best role model possible.
“You want your job and everything you’re putting out into the world to be something they’ll be proud of,” Charlene expands, saying her journey into motherhood was a huge motivator in starting her business (which has a vision of telling better stories about the Black community). “Making a real contribution to the changing the narrative about the Black community became even more important to me.”
The softer skills we acquire as parents are equally as important too. For me personally, motherhood has enabled me to tap into my ability to empathise. Parents have to quickly learn to hear the unspoken, analyse body language and read between the lines in conversations.
Those skills begin developing from the very first time you try to understand why your baby is crying and are equally useful when trying to suss out why a colleague is consistently late to every meeting. I've learnt to listen intently to my child when they need to talk, while giving them that room to express what they’re thinking. This has transcended to the workplace, where I'm more aware of the importance of listening without jumping to judgement.
It’s true that you can't spell ‘mother’ without patience – a virtue I didn’t possess a lot of previously, having spent the past 6 years in a career that demanded results no matter the cost. But I’ve now come to appreciate that behind every action, there’s a reason; the action is simply the symptom of the root cause.
These days, I'll try to uncover what lies beneath the missed deadlines or lateness to meetings. So, when a colleague was suddenly slacking at work and appeared disconnected from the team, I was naturally inclined to find out if everything was okay and initiate a conversation; it turned out he was having issues in his personal life and felt trapped in the rat race. This opened the door for a deeper dialogue that saw us create a resolution that, ultimately, helped to solve some of his problems.
As I sent my final email and packed up my laptop following my first day back at work, it hit me that being a working mum demands sacrifice – and that sacrifice must pay off, or it's simply not worth it. Fast forward to two years later, I now work harder, smarter and give my absolute best in the time afforded to me, because let’s face it, on most days, I’ll be turning my laptop off at 6pm sharp to switch my attentions to my children. And that's okay.
The reality is that you can probably never go back to how you were pre-baby. But I don’t think you’re supposed to either. “Sometimes the expectations we place on ourselves as mothers are unrealistic and the constant strive to meet them, can cause burnout, emotional fatigue and stress,” Boakye agree. So why not try to embrace the changes instead?
When you’re newly back to work after welcoming a child in the world, I won’t sugar-coat it: yes, it can be scary. Yes, you do have additional responsibilities and you may feel more vulnerable, but with that also comes a whole host of superpowers. Without even consciously realising, you’ve likely become a pro at multitasking on a new level; you can juggle eleven things and a screaming baby all at the same time. It might not be easy, but there’s a lot to be embraced. And in all honesty, companies can’t afford to not have mothers and the skills we bring to the workplace (although that doesn't stop some placing unrealistic expectations on us, leaving some struggling to hold it all together behind closed doors).
The truth is, becoming a parent shapes you in many ways. It can take a minute to adjust to the ‘new you’ and process the good, the not so great and the daunting, but with that comes beautiful new talents too. You get comfortable with the uncomfortable – because you no longer have a choice. Not everything is solely about you anymore, so you take strides even when every step feels heavy. You have no time for ridiculous office politics and so bring your true, authentic self to work.
It shouldn't all be on us though, Britain is one of the most expensive countries in the world to raise children and childcare costs hit single parents and their careers the hardest. But I wanted to share the positive side of the story too, the side we don't often hear as the question of whether we can ‘have it all’ still swirls. And while we likely won’t ever land on a definitive answer, I think we can all agree that mothers are certainly inching closer with each brave move.
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