There’s a widely held belief that if you’re a mother you shouldn’t pursue a career as it will be damaging to your family. I disagree. We have inherited a story in our society on which we have then built strong social expectations and standards as to what it means to be a good mother - usually giving a large helping of judgement to everyone involved!
It's time to change the story for working mums
Some women have re-written this story and are successful working women who are also mothers. Moreover, they are not risking it all to succeed, nor are they trying to do it all.
If you are already successful and want a family or if you already have a family but want a career then the story we are told can feel scary and discouraging. I regularly see the impact it has on women’s beliefs about whether or not they can have both and it’s time to change the story.
3 myths for working women
I have found there are three common myths when it comes to pursuing your career as a woman
- You have to establish your career before you have kids
- You have to settle when you have had kids
- You must try and do it all
If I reflect on my own career, I can see that I stepped away from my career when I was expecting my first daughter. I had spent time establishing my position, I considered myself successful and I loved my job. I didn’t mean to step, I thought I was doing the right thing - I wanted to focus on my family, a newfound process for me, and I wanted to make sure I left everything clear so that my projects could be continued seamlessly, whilst I was gone and then I would pick them up again.
When she arrived she was (and is, along with her sisters) my entire world. I didn’t realise how much I wanted to be a mum and how much it would change me. I was all consumed by being the best parent I could be. Now I was a mum, I couldn’t see how I could ever go back to being my old ‘successful’ self. I didn’t want that life anymore. I settled. I did the bare minimum in order to get back to her every day but the guilt was heavy and I was exhausted.
It wasn’t until number 2 came along that I realised that I also needed to be ‘me’, not just someone’s mum. I wanted something more, I hadn’t lost that ambition to move up the career ladder. I had pushed it down but now I wanted something for me. I wanted to be a good role model for my daughters and I could make that happen with a bit of planning and a lot of motivation. I set up my own business and added another baby.
It's all about balance
There is no one size fits all for women in this situation. We all need to acknowledge that every woman is different when it comes to her career needs and her family balance - just as is true for anyone on that planet - we all have to balance our lives and careers, regardless of our situations.
What’s critical is ensuring that we remove the shame and guilt about balancing motherhood with a successful career. No one has got time for that! You need to find a balance that works for you as an individual but also as a family. You need to be clear and open about the boundaries you need to set in order to make sure that your role as a mother and as a leader are complementing each other. If they aren’t, you won’t feel successful. In fact, you’re probably going to be stressed out and resentful, trying to do it all.
You may want to focus on your career, or you may want to maintain a focus on your family. Both of these things are acceptable and it’s likely that you will have moments where you swing between the two depending on where you are in your motherhood journey, your goals and your family demands. It’s OK to adjust if circumstances or goals change.
Developing leadership skills as a mum
The good news is that as a mum you will find new skills that you can add to your toolbox, some particularly suited to leadership.
One of the frustratingly beautiful things about parenthood is the unpredictability of it all, combined with the lack of an instruction manual! You can prepare for how you want things to go but more often than not you will need to deviate from the plan and adapt - often on and in the spur of the moment! You might have had an idea of the mum you wanted to be and you do all you can to stay on track but there will be many days where you have to accept the detours and lessons along the well. You will no doubt have tried alternative strategies to cope before finally hacking a solution that involves a snack and CBeebies on repeat!
These same traits make you a strong leader: the ability to set the plan and modify as needed, recognising when and where to compromise or to change the course entirely!
One of the most difficult areas for me, both in developing my leadership skills and raising my children, has been delegation. I have deep-rooted control tendencies that I am constantly working on! My first instinct is often to complete a task myself because I know what I want and it’ll be quicker/easier/insert belief in here to get it done myself. However, that isn’t always true and it doesn’t always give the best results.
I have had to learn (the hard way) to lean on others. To do this I surround myself with amazing people who can help me out. From friends watching the kids for an hour or two in the holidays whilst I do some work to communicating really clearly what I need to my partner. The kids benefit from different parenting styles and I get some peace and quiet to crack on with what I need to do. As a business owner, I hire amazing people who I can trust to get the job done.
Unconditional positive regard
The skill I have strengthened most since becoming a parent is unconditional positive regard. I changed profoundly when I became a mum. I was already compassionate and empathetic but I opened up my ability to nurture and develop others. I became less critical and judgemental of others and of myself. There is so much guilt passed around with motherhood and I realised I didn’t want that. I wanted to support myself, my kids and other parents with kindness and understanding.
I am now better able to consider the circumstances behind the actions, just as I do with my own kids. When my children are ‘misbehaving’ I have learned to get curious - are they tired? Hungry? - the two most common culprits!
This is true for my clients - what’s going on? What's happened to them? As I hold my clients in unconditional positive regard it makes me a better coach and leader and gives them a safe space to write and tell their stories.
You can have a career and be a mum
The story of motherhood is based on historical perceptions and established bias (aka the maternal wall - which, incidentally can also face women who are not mothers). Recognise the boundaries as they might come up in your own career or that of one of your team. No matter what you choose regarding motherhood, and remember there is no one right/wrong choice - you can continue to grow, thrive and lead in your career once you become a mother. You get to write your own story.
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