Today I wanted to talk about my experience of motherhood, career and identity. And I would love you to do the same. If you have written a post about the cross-roads of career and identity, please feel free to link up below (your post needn’t be motherhood related).
This is my first ever blog link-up and I’ll be honest:
I really hope I don’t stand here with a full bowl of pretzels and no guests.
I went to the kind of high school that told its students “girls can do anything.” And we believed it. There was nothing in the way of our dreams, least of all our gender. All career paths were wide open. The war had been won and equality surely assured. Our mothers may have faced discrimination and difficulty but we would walk easily on the road they paved for us.
I chose a degree in IT & Law. My law classes were filled with ambitious young women and my IT classes were filled with men. I don’t believe being female has ever been a liability in my career. Having a love of coding, coupled with a love of a language and an ability to translate complicated concepts into simple terms has always served me well. If anything, the things that women are perceived to be good at helped me stand out amongst my peers. Opportunities came my way and I happily took them up. I was proud of being a successful career woman in a field full of men. I had no intention of letting an imagined glass ceiling get in my way.
The motherhood happened. It was not until I became a mother that I truly understood what drives a wedge between women and their careers.
I naively thought this was what happened to a woman’s career after children:
When I first went on maternity leave, I was convinced I would be back within six months, itching to be back in the office and thoroughly bored of looking after baby. I thought I would be perfectly fine leaving my child in care or with a nanny, because that’s what successful career women did. My expectation did not meet with my experience. Six months seemed impossibly early to return to work. I wasn’t comfortable with another person looking after my baby for so many hours per week. So, like many women before me, I extended my leave. I started to wonder if this was what happened to a woman’s career after children:
- Return to work full time, try to leave motherhood at the door each morning and place your child in other person’s care (if you are lucky, that person is your partner or a relative).
- Return to work part time, try to leave motherhood at the door on the days you work, take a career hit (hopefully a temporary one) but have more time with your children.
- Leave your career, stay at home to look after children and hope like heck that you will find a re-entry point in a few years’ time.
- Leave your chosen career, find a less demanding (and lower paying) job that offers the flexibility you need to achieve the balance you want.
- Start your own business or freelance, in the hopes that self-employment will allow you more time with your children.
I do not believe motherhood is a barrier to career success – I know many mothers with stellar career paths. BUT the demands of a full time career are a barrier to the flexibility many mothers crave. The reality is that a full time career remains the primary way to get ahead. The reality is that if you have children, someone needs to look after them. Work places are very slowly figuring out how seniority can work in part-time positions. But, in all fairness, there are so many senior roles (particularly leadership ones) that demand full time attention. Meaning that if you want to continue to climb the career ladder as a mother you are welcome to it, but you have to play by the old rules. I have never found any philosophical or cultural barriers to career success as a woman but there are plenty of practical barriers to career success as a mother. Barriers that both workplaces and mothers themselves have constructed.
There is also the shift in identity and purpose that makes previously held values not quite as important. The primary role in my life is mother. My primary role prior to my children was career woman. That is how I saw myself and how I valued myself. I would fight tooth and nail for my career. Now, that kind of passion belongs to my kids. I still value my career. I still want to contribute my skills in a meaningful way, but the fire in my belly does not burn as strongly as it once did. I imagine my twenty-five year old self, shaking her fist at me in desperation. Angry that I am squandering all her hard work.
I am currently running my own business and I am scared of failing. Not necessarily the monetary cost of failure: that’s the kind of wolf-at-the-door fear that spurs me into action. But rather the fear that I am going to disappoint that twenty-five year old version of me. That is a very different kind of fear, the paralysing kind that helps the fear realise itself. But that twenty-five year old doesn’t know what I know now. She doesn’t know what it’s like to pick up her son from school and have him hug her fiercely. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be there when her son takes his first steps. She doesn’t know what it feels like to be separated from her children. She doesn’t know the preciousness of a newborn baby or the unbearable weight of loss. Her life is different, as are her values. I am not that woman anymore. And I need to let get go of her judgement.
Note: I realise that I am writing this from a place of privilege. I have a choice about working that not all mothers have. I know that there are plenty of women in jobs they do not enjoy and wishing they were spending the time with their kids. But I can only write from my experience and what I see happening amongst my friends who have similar career paths to myself. I would love you to share your experience in the comments section.
Do you sometimes find yourself in the shadow of your previous self? Have you ever found yourself at the cross-roads of career and identity?
You are invited to my very first link-up party!
Career & Identity Link Up