Can working mums have their cake and eat it?
Balancing priorities isn’t easy for working mums.
Today I’m asking if it’s possible to ‘have it all’ as a mum maintaining a career
There are some phrases which stick with us in life and work.
‘You can’t have it all’ is one of mine.
This came from a female manager, who’d no doubt had to make her own choices as a working mum.
They went right to the heart of the dilemma I was facing at the time, and still am, centred on the Holy Grail of being a good mum, and maintaining a career.
With two decades of professional experience under my belt I didn’t, and don’t, actually want to need to make a choice between one and the other.
Why can’t I have it all, and what is ‘all’, when it’s at home?
The only answer I’ve managed to come up with, so far, is that it’s different for every mum.
For some working mums I’ve met, it means working a conventional five-day week, but leaving on time each day, so that they can fit in family time ‘around the edges’. For others, who have the financial means to do so, it’s saying goodbye to work altogether.
For me, it’s maintaining my career in a less conventional, less 9-5 way which allows me to be a great mum, too. I want to excel, but also be there for the loves, the laughs, the tears and the achievements, for more than a couple of hours a night.
I’ve personally found that impossible in conventional roles, and so have opted for self-employment.
So what is ‘all’, and why are mums in particular precluded from having it? Is it that, actually, the word ‘all’ should be substituted for ‘anything’ in this phrase? Because actually, in the traditional world of work it seems so often the case that once you become a mum you can’t have ‘anything’. Or at least not much of what you had before giving birth to another human being. That is, unless your ‘all’ is exactly what you had before, in which case you might as well substitute the word ‘all’ for ‘anything’ again. After all, what’s the point?
It seems to me that returning to a pre-pregnancy role too often requires the ultimate sacrifice. You must become a part-time mum in order to go back to being a successful career woman. The more experienced or senior you are, the less likely it is you’ll be allowed to flex your role around family life. Forget the idea of condensed hours, job sharing or remote working – in most jobs it’s frowned on even to stick to the hours you’re paid for – with many UK employers routinely expecting 25% more as a hallmark of dedication.
Choose to prioritise the mum in you equally, and it seems you can’t have much of what you had before, in terms of professional status, career or income. It’s a sad fact of modern working life, that part-time or flexible working barely exists in Britain at skilled or managerial levels.
Why does this matter, you might ask? After all, you don’t become a mum unless you plan to change your life.
The reason it matters, in my opinion, is that mums have so much more to give, if they want to. The worst thing is our willingness to accept ‘nothing’. So many women I have met since leaving conventional corporate life, have resigned themselves to becoming less of a person, career-wise, because they are a mum. They readily accept doing comparatively menial tasks for much lower income, because ‘that’s the way it is’.
Of course that’s fine if that’s what they genuinely want. Yet it is possible to be an amazing mum and still do outstanding work, albeit maybe in a less traditional way. Proof of this is the modern ‘Resistance’ movement of successful mum entrepreneurs who, resigned to finding another way, harness their creativity and skill as bloggers, saleswomen, childcare providers, the list is endless.
However, imagine that this talent could be positively harnessed, instead, by companies. What if the quote was changed to ‘you CAN have it all’, and political rhetoric about getting women back into work was backed up with real, practical solutions and a change of attitudes to actually make it possible?
It strikes me that there are elements of both fear and conventionalism behind comments like the one I experienced. An assumption that career women who are also mums will underperform, or that allowing them the leeway to balance home and work life will result in abject chaos across an organisation. Worse still, they’re often considered ‘weird’ for even wanting to try to make it work.
The reality though, as most actual mums know, is that cutting them some slack results in a more committed seam of the workforce. Employees who appreciate the respite from their most challenging job of all, and give their all in return. It can also bring a creative non-conformity which can be a breath of fresh air to any business. Women everywhere are doing exactly that when left with no choice but to leave corporate life behind, so why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to operate that way ‘at work’.
In these days of high-tech connectivity and global, 24-7 interaction, it should be more possible than ever to have it all. If more women believe in themselves and demand more, eventually, hopefully, the working culture in the UK will start to change. Maybe, just maybe, flexible working and better work-life balance will become the norm for everyone, not just mums. Wouldn’t that be a turn-up for the books?
I’d love to hear from other mums who believe they have it all, what this means to you and how you do it. Perhaps you’ve had to make a really tough choice yourself that you’d like to share. Or maybe you’re an employer and have discovered a great way of enabling mums to get back to work. Add your comments below and I’ll feature some of your stories in the weeks ahead, as part of my new ‘Having it All series’