When I became a mother, I expected to navigate the challenges of lack of sleep and dirty nappies. But I didn’t expect to deal with a constant nagging feeling that I was never quite doing enough… that I wasn’t quite enough.
If I was at home with my child being the ‘good mother’, I wasn’t honouring my professional needs and ambitions.
But if I was at work feeling like I was accomplishing my professional goals and being a ‘good worker’, it made me less of a mother.
And therein lies the pain for working mothers. Feeling guilty if we’re working and feeling guilty if we’re not entirely focussed on our work in the way we were before having children.
Most of us don’t realise (I know I didn’t) that when we have children, we get caught between two paradigms that can be painful as working mothers.
We are squeezed between the Ideal Worker and the Ideal Mother paradigm – and if we’re not careful, the result is a feeling that we’re failing.
But we are not failing – these two paradigms are failing us.
Ideal Worker Paradigm
For decades, society seems to have held the ‘Ideal Worker’ in high regard. Someone starts working in their early adulthood and continues full-time and full-force for 40 years straight. And let’s be clear the Ideal Worker has tended to be male. It’s a concept built on the breadwinner-homemaker model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution and seemed to function pretty well until the 1960s when women started entering the workforce in more significant numbers.
The paradigm of the Ideal Worker is that they can work long hours without allowing distractions outside of their paid work to interfere with their job. That’s great for companies but not great for the humans who work within them, not least for women who are still expected to deal with more responsibilities for their families and the domestic load.
Ideal Mother Paradigm
When we become mothers, we also enter the paradigm of motherhood. We enter a social role full of expectations, judgements, and stereotypes. The Ideal Mother is built on cultural beliefs, social arrangements, and social practices that are often unrealistic and outdated. The Ideal Mother dedicates every waking hour to her children and loves every moment. She always looks great, her house is immaculate, and she has life under control, but she won’t have sacrificed any time with her children to achieve these unrealistic expectations.
Goodwin and Huppatz (2010), who conducted a study of contemporary motherhood, state that this paradigm is:
“a formidable social construct placing pressure on women to conform to particular standards and ideals, against which they are judged and judge themselves.”
So we judge ourselves by these perfect rules of motherhood and can feel like we’re not good enough, and it leaves us feeling exhausted trying to keep up with this unobtainable myth of the Ideal Mother.
Even for stay-at-home mothers, the Ideal Mother paradigm is toxic. But if you add in trying to manage your career simultaneously, it becomes a deeply unhelpful paradigm.
As Amy Westervelt – author of Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood – And How To Fix It, states,
“We expect women to work as if they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”
When you see your experience as a working mother through the lens of these two opposing paradigms, hopefully, you can see why it can feel so difficult. It’s not because you’re doing it wrong. Or because you’re not good enough. It’s because these two paradigms weren’t set up for you to thrive.
So what can you do?
Firstly you can see it for what it is. Two problematic paradigms, neither of which help you as a working mother succeed.
Does that mean you just accept that you can’t be successful? Hell no!!
But hopefully, just this awareness helps you recognise that you can be kind and compassionate with yourself as you navigate these problematic paradigms.
The next step is breaking free of these paradigms and defining the paradigm you want to operate in as a working mother. What does that actually mean, I hear you say? Well, it’s about defining what success means to you and not what unhelpful and outdated paradigms dictate you should be doing to be successful.
In theory, defining what success looks like should be simple, but it’s not easy to let go of all the conditioning and messages we receive about what our lives should be like. It’s like peeling back the layers of the onion to find what you want at your core – before you were told what you should want.
It’s about allowing yourself to be fully human – to be whole. To be a good mother and to have a fulfilling career in whatever combination that looks like for you.
Once you have your own paradigm for success, this becomes like your North Star – guiding you to the life you want to live.
Now I’m not naïve enough to believe that this alone will make it happen. The data on mothers feeling supported by their employers is still heartbreakingly low. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that one in four mothers did not feel that their needs were supported willingly, rising to more than one in three for single mothers.
But as a realistic optimist, I believe that times are changing.
If there was ever a time to put to rest the old-fashioned notion of the ideal worker, it’s now. The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of the Ideal Worker. Before COVID, many parents kept their family responsibilities quiet or in the background. But the pandemic made it impossible to keep our professional and personal lives apart.
Post-pandemic, let’s reimagine workplace ideals, so they reflect people’s lives today—not half a century ago.
More companies are jumping onboard the flexible working paradigm. And the research is showing why it’s good for everyone when they do.
Morgan Stanley found that companies that don’t offer flexible working underperformed in the MSCI World Index, the common benchmark for world stock funds. And that gap increased over the period that they don’t provide it.
The Future Is Flexible
If organisations don’t proactively change their paradigm away from that of the Ideal Worker, then they are likely to be forced to/or face a talent shortage. The Future of Work report published by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2014 shared the startling statistic that ‘92% of Gen Y participants identify flexibility as a top priority when selecting a workplace.’
According to Deloitte, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025, so if organisations what to recruit the best people, they’ll be forced to implement flexible working policies that work for everyone (not just parents). If they don’t make this shift and redesign roles for flexibility, they’ll be left behind in the ‘war on talent.’
This change is unlikely to happen quickly and smoothly, mainly if the leadership in organisations is predominately occupied by men and older generations who don’t yet understand the need to change.
But before we can expect the systems, structures and policies to change to support us as working mothers, we have to allow ourselves to define what success looks, feels and sounds like to us as individuals.
And that means looking inwards first, self-sourcing our definition of what a happy, successful and fulfilling life is like. The chances are that this will look different for each of us, and we have to empower ourselves to stand in that truth so we can start to live it.
We’re genuine, like-minded women, just like you!
We’re a community, reinventing how we combine work and motherhood without sacrificing our sanity and wellbeing.