I have come back to work recently from my maternity leave in a large, generally women friendly, multinational corporation. Friends and colleagues often commented my transition from maternity into working mum looked pretty effortlessly. While I appreciated the compliments, I have sometimes felt in those early weeks that I am trying to juggle the impossible. 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.
Our mothers and grandmothers changed the world. They campaigned, they marched, and they fought for women’s rights, including also the equal right to earn a living for their families. In many ways, they were successful. Women now make up almost half of the workforce. As the next generation, we reap the benefit of the doors that they opened. We’ve been raised to believe that we can do anything we want to – that we can in fact have it all. And so we try. We’re graduating and getting professional degrees in greater numbers than ever before. But even as we breakthrough new barriers in the business and professional world, we find that we are still on average bearing a disproportionate responsibility for the child care and household tasks.
Manage the cooking, the cleaning, the schedules, the appointments, the shopping, the to-do list, the social calendar. Exercise regularly, foster your relationship with your partner, and, of course, make time for ‘’me” time. Nobody wants to be accused of being a boring mommy, we all need a hobby too. We have so many balls in the air, it feels like any small gust of wind will send the whole thing crashing down. We’re often one unexpected sick day away from complete disaster.
On the other side, have a fulfilling career, and do not let your responsibilities as a mother affect your work life. Work harder than ever to demonstrate that you are just as ambitious as you were before children. Sounds familiar? I thought so.
Having it all, it turns out, is not all it was cracked up to be. In reality, having it all seems to mean doing it all.
In popular lifestyle magazines, with women as main audience target, we often see a successful woman on the cover that we should all aspire to be. She has a perfect blow dry, exercises regularly, does not eat carbs, runs a company and has two children. Tells us that it is all a matter of getting yourself organized and delicately suggests that if you can’t manage it all it might mean you are procrastinating. At least just a little bit. Everyone can do it – have two kids and manage international corporation – and still be in time to read a bed time story.
In the past weeks, I talked informally to many mums friends of mine. Some are mums of one, some are mums of three or even four. Some have school age children, some have still crawling toddlers. Some live in traditional countries like Poland (with the staggering geneder pay gap), some live in big international municipalities of London, Paris or Brussels. And some live in quiet countryside in remote countries up north. Some work full time in international corporations, public administration or EU institutions, while others juggle freelancing with motherhood. While they are all different, they all say the same thing – this puzzle just does not add up. So how is the successful woman from a magazine cover managing her time so well, while other working mums don’t have time to remember to drink their coffee while warm? What do we do wrong?
Answer might be easier than we think. In my (recent) experience, something has to give. I personally came to accept that my professional ambitions may have to be put on the back-burner for the time being. Some interesting projects I have worked in the past were distributed to other colleagues and hopes of for instance leading a team are currently on hold. I am also often sidelined from last minute social office events – I need much longer notice than most of my colleagues. The same goes for any business travels.
No matter the place you work, when are back from your maternity leave, you may find yourself unexpectedly at the end of the race, left with difficult choices to make. Choose to “lean in” to a demanding professional career, and delegate most of the childcare and household responsibilities. Brace yourself for being judged as a bad mother. Choose to step back and accept that your professional ambitions may have to be put on the back-burner for the time being. You might be called unambitious. Choose self-employment, knowing that working for yourself makes it incredibly difficult to get true breaks. Or choose to stay home, recognizing that you’re giving up years of earning that can be impossible to make up later. All are equally valid choices. None is an easy choice to make.
The mythical cover woman from the magazine (or any successful professional) still has 24 hours at her disposal. What is rarely mentioned are all the backstage roles in their lives. The parents who are willing to help with grandchildren on a regular basis, full time nannies, husbands who decide to put their career on hold and be a stay home dad. The story could look very different for a single woman, undergoing separation from her partner or with little family support and little financial means. Your success is a success of all the people that enabled you to get there in the first place. Unfortunately this rarely gets to magazine cover.
Choose what’s most important to you in the given moment, and let the rest go. We compare ourselves to the ideal in every category, and it’s simply an impossible standard to meet. You can have it all, just not everything at once if you also want to retain some portion of mental health. Make choices based on what works for you at any given moment and not under societal pressure of being a perfect prototype of a working mother. Once in a while also have carbs.