I have been spending some time contemplating what makes returning to work as a new mum so damn hard. I have two kids, and four years in I’m embarrassed to say, I’M STILL STRUGGLING to figure out which work roles would suit me and help me grow as a person vs how much time I want to be at home with my kids watching them learn and grow. I know a lot of the issue is the cost of childcare, but the next big issue for me is around confidence.
A lot of the difficulty in returning to work, for me, now that I’m a mum is wrapped up in shaky confidence. Not only confidence in the traditional sense of, ‘am I good at this role anymore’, but confidence around making decisions that affect my family, confidence in initiating change, confidence in child-care options, confidence in my relationship with my children and conviction that my good relationships will be maintained once I add the pressure of work.
Whilst some may find motherhood is the making of them, I can honestly say that motherhood has made me question all my talents, attributes and personality flaws. There is no job more precious or important to me than raising my children, but with such a precious job I often find I set unattainably high goals which, of course, I am going to come up short – pretty much every single day. There is rarely a day that goes by where I don’t castigate myself for not doing something just a little different…just a little BETTER.
So, with a day to day inner monologue telling me I’m falling short, or that I should be enjoying motherhood more, or that other mothers are striving forwards in their careers whilst I go to a rhyme time and eat raisins off the floor….confidence is something I’ve been battling.
Let me break down the hurdles I have been facing as a mother trying to return to work, and maybe you’ll see similarities;
AM I GOOD AT THIS JOB? AM I WANTED AT THIS JOB?
Motherhood saps you of self-esteem and confidence. Your body changes, your relationships change, you often have to beg for a job because no one wants to pay you maternity leave or give you flexible working. You understand you are no longer the ‘ideal’ candidate. You are possibly unwilling to work every hour God sends and you know your potential employers see you have quite blatant and pressing ‘OTHER’ priorities (read as; kid). You are not quite as dependable as you once were, because frankly if your kid gets a cold/ flu/ chicken pox/ has an inset day at school/ has a nursery graduation/ childcare falls ill, as the mother, you are most likely to have to take a few days off work. That makes work tricky. Add to this, your questioning self-belief about whether you are any good at your job anymore. Time out to have a baby makes you wonder if you can remember your role, whether you’ll have enough energy for it, if your juniors have been promoted above you. If you’re contemplating a career change or new role it can be hard to reach into the depths of your self esteem and find enough golden nuggets of self courage to even apply. It’s not easy.
TOO MUCH CHOICE
These days, many of us have more choice than previous generations. What a wonderful thing choice is! But also how confusing it can be. We can be caught in a vortex of constantly weigh up our options against each other, we can forever change, or we can get stuck not making any choice because we’re paralysed with indecision. We have flexi-working (apparently it does exist!), work from home, we can re-train online, we can work remotely, we can start a business at the click of a button, build our own websites, record are own podcasts, design our own branding…great! But also endless decision-making and comparisons.
OUR HAPPINESS IS CONNECTED TO THE HAPPINESS OF OUR NEW FAMILY
All these questions feel so important became they are tied up with my family’s wellbeing. Sometimes I can feel so protective about my family’s wellbeing and happiness that it becomes a sacred, non negotiable. I will do anything AS LONG AS IT DOESN’T AFFECT MY FAMILY; which frankly is a bit nuts, because most of my decisions will either directly or indirectly affect my family. Do I have the confidence in my decision making when it comes to my family’s well being?
I simply hate the idea that any changes I make to my career would upset someone in my family. With all this mounting pressure I have often felt the easiest thing to do, is to DO NOTHING AT ALL. Be at service to my family at all time. Sacrifice myself for my family. I have found that so easy to do it’s absurd. I have also felt really proud of myself in the past for this. Now I see it as a glaring lack of confidence to make new decisions, to take risks, to open the door to new opportunity.
FAILURE IS PUBLIC
Failure in a new job role or business venture is public, because as a mother EVERYONE knows your business. Your kids constantly ask ‘what are you doing today, Mummy?’ Your husband asks why the kids need three days of nursery and why you’re now hunting for after-school care. Your mother in law asks why you’re not home when she wants to drop in and see the kids, your mum-friends wonder why you’re not at baby group. You are very visual as a mother. You might feel alone a lot of the time, but the irony is that when you go to find a job you realise everyone has been monitoring your presence. You can not quietly explore new job options or ‘trial’ a job without significant and obvious changes to your presence in the household. Whilst my family might be supportive of new job prospects, I know it’s going to happen on a public platform whether I like it or not.
CONFIDENCE IN MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MY KIDS
This is a pretty powerful factor for me, one of the biggest! When it comes to making decisions around work some of the inherent slowness of my desire to want to return to work has been the idea that if I work ‘a lot’, then I won’t see my kids, and my relationship with them will suffer. I honestly don’t know the answer to this one. I don’t know where the tipping point is. I don’t know if working 3 days a week is ok, but working 4 days a week is where you might start to loose some of that close relationship with your children. I don’t know if you work 7 days a week for a month and then take a month off, whether that is better or worse. Whether working five hours every day, or 8 hours three days a week is better/ worse. Of course I’m being a tad facetious, a bit melodramatic all just to make a point. Clearly there is no ‘right’ answer or ‘best’ option, even if you had the choice. It’s a very personal and individual decision. Motherhood is a marathon, not a race. Perhaps we can make compromises in the short term, for long term better positioning.
This is certainly something I’ve been mulling over though and if anyone has any opinions on this please let me know. Some of my possible career options might mean I don’t see my children Monday – Friday and so I really need to explore where my ‘limits’ are and for how long I could live like this. I love my close bond with my kids, having time to talk and sit and make sure they’re eating well, and having good baths, and exercising and meeting nice people. I like a lot of that, but it is hard to juggle the want for that with the desire to be a person in my own right.
WE GET A LOT OF SELF WORTH FROM OUR JOB.
Having spent thirty years of my life being pushed to achieve in academic learning and being told that good grades were a good thing, my self esteem is inextricably connected to my intellectual and career success. After university I continued working hard at my career and would feel good about myself with every promotion and pay rise. Once again I was connecting my self-esteem and self-worth to hard work, results and intellectual ability. Now that I have two kids some of my self-worth is of course connected to how happy my family is and what a good job I’m doing as a mother, but it doesn’t REPLACE some of boost I would get to my self-esteem that I got from work and academic success.
Can I reconfigure how I judge ‘success’ and rewire my brain when it comes to what I attach my self-esteem to? I have tried over the last four years. I really have. I realised that it would be much easier if I could attach my happiness ENTIRELY to the happiness of my family. I didn’t want to risk my family’s wellbeing or my good relationship with my children by going back to work. It would frankly be ideal if I could attach my self-esteem to how happy my family is, then I can bypass all that work ‘stuff’.
But I am realising life doesn’t work like that. Life knows it wants an equilibrium. I can’t lie to myself. A lot of these questions don’t have black and white answers. I’ve begun some trial and error with the work ‘stuff’. I have put our emails and calls to say I’m available and interested. I have started breaking down in my head what ‘prevents’ me for moving forwards with job roles.
A PROHOIBITIVE PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM MEANS YOU NEED CONFIDENCE OF STEEL TO MOVE FORWARDS
We are still fighting a very patriarchal system when it comes to mothers and their careers. We haven’t figured out childcare and we haven’t dealt with the assumption for a lot of families that the MOTHER, by virtue of having a vagina, will be the one to stay home if the kids are sick/ have an inset day. The assumption that the mother will work out how to manage and entertain those kids through ridiculously long holidays and all those afternoon collections at 3pm – which is absurd because they’ve only been at school a few hours! And I’m not joking when I say we are still fighting the movement into the 21st Century and reminding government that mothers are not Victorian ladies who just wait around at home doing the laundry and cooking until their kids require them and then they’re expected to be the taxi service, the maid and the chef. I am only half joking because this is the truth for the majority of households and it feeds into this issue around career confidence. You need confidence balls of steel to stand tall and say, YOU pick up the kids/ we’ll organise childcare. It takes some ballsy forward thinking to say that all this childcare might cost us in the short run, but in the long run I’ve opened up the possibility of better career paths, promotions and pay rises for our entire family.
My solutions for me and mothers with whom this resonates;
- I think we need to have more dialogue around these issues. Help women separate their guilt and their emotions from practical decisions that are good for them.
- We need to cheerlead mothers and help them with some of their shaky confidence issues. Verbally tell mothers ‘you’ve got this’, ‘take a risk’, ‘failure is ok’.
- We need to be ok with paying for childcare and knowing that our children are well looked after by fantastic professionals. Our children will learn that love comes in many forms and not just from their family – that is important for them developing healthy relationships later on in life. Your children will learn that people can be trusted and their are many different people in the world with different value systems.
- We need to open up childcare for men. It’s ok to see a dad at stay and play or taking their kid swimming or carrying them in a sling around Sainsburys picking up nappies. They’re not a wonder of the world, it’s not ‘cute’ or forward thinking; it needs to be normalised.
- We need to know that nannies and full-time childcare is not for posh women who don’t want to raise or love their children, or for people who don’t have a choice. All manner of childcare options is essential for women to work, build happy careers and feel satisfied.
- It’s hugely important to remind mothers that they can not give from an empty cup. It’s a lovely notion, the idea of being ‘in service’ to your children. I say ‘lovely’, but really it makes me shudder. It is only going to lead to dissatisfaction and resentment (this is more a note to myself! I might need to write it on a chalkboard in my bathroom). If you love being a stay at home mum that is something different and not to be contested, but if you are stay at home mum because you think you ‘should’, then I beg you to reassess. We have to be true to ourselves. What nourishes you? What makes you feel satisfied and fulfilled and valuable? Perhaps you can get some of those things from the work environment? Your family will benefit from your increased wellness and happiness.
- Just because we have a lot of choice, don’t make the choice that you think other people expect of you, or the choice the you think others think you should make. Make the choice that works for YOU. Make bold choices based on good self-worth and self-esteem.
- Remember that those who don’t support you often have unresolved issues themselves. Don’t take any notice if you sense their ‘advice’ comes from a place of jealousy or judgement.
- If you feel unsatisfied then slowly start to push your boundaries. Start with a day a week perhaps and then move on to two.
- Remember that choices can be unpicked if they don’t work for you or your family.
- Remember that you are the role model for your children, what do you want to model?
The people who have most helped me over the years are those who cheer lead me. I am where I am because people have said ‘I BELIEVE IN YOU’. And they said it with such intention that I actually believed them. And I need to hear it loads and loads and LOADS again. I still do. I can’t believe how much having kids batters your self-esteem. You don’t even realise your ‘norm’ is so way off centre. You need people around you to remind you of what you’ve achieved and what you could achieve. To give you confidence to take bigger and bolder steps, to take little risks which might lead to bigger and bolder and more exciting possibilities in your career. You need people to support you when things don’t go to plan and to remind you these are great learning experiences.
This has taken me four years of hard thinking to get to this place. To even question why I was feeling or acting a certain way has taken courage at times. I hope this helps others.
Being a mother and trying to juggle all our roles can be challenging, but hopefully it can be incredibly rewarding too. I know for sure that if you need someone proficient, forward thinking and quick thinking, you only need to find a mother! let’s raise each other, let’s keep on having the difficult talks, let’s keep pushing businesses to help mothers return to work and supporting mothers starting their own businesses, let’s help government talk about policy change in and around the childcare sector and let’s change social norms around gender divide.
Let me know your thoughts.