Speak with any mum and you’ll often hear them talk about feelings of inadequacy.  Add into the mix being a working mum and these feelings can take on a whole new level.  These feelings often peak at the point when we return back to work after maternity leave.

In my experience as an executive and maternity coach, the most profound work I often do is linked to self-esteem.  Not only is this critical when we first return back, but to be frank, it’s one of the most important things we can focus on at any point in our mothering journey.

Most people will probably expect that their self-confidence will be impacted after taking time out to have a child.  We might feel a bit rusty after being out of the day-to-day cut and thrust of working life.  We might feel nervous and apprehensive about our ability to integrate our work and motherhood. If we’ve had someone covering our maternity leave we might feel worried that they’ve done a better job than us and we’re no longer wanted.  Just as BBC 1 presenter Alex Jones has honestly shared in her new book about experiencing ‘maternity leave paranoia’.

The list can go on in terms of the things that worry us and can impact our confidence as a working mum. 

Now, logic might tell us that if we focus on our confidence and find tools and strategies to support us, we can help minimise the impact of these things.  That logic is useful, but in my experience it doesn’t have the biggest impact.  That’s because it doesn’t focus on the root cause.

Instead of focussing on self-confidence, I find that working with women on their self-esteem can have a bigger positive impact.  In my experience less attention is paid to self-esteem and even less is known about what we can do to help with this.

I think it is probably important to start by defining what I mean by these two terms…. which are often mistakenly used interchangeably.

Self-confidence is linked to how we experience ourselves in our external world.  It is how we experience ourselves in relation to other people, situations and circumstances.  Our self-confidence is situation specific; for example I feel confident as an Executive Coach but put me on stage to perform in an opera and I wouldn’t feel confident.   At its most simplistic level self-confidence is linked to what we do – our behaviour.  As a result confidence is like a skill, we can learn to become more confident at something.  The more we do something the more our confidence grows. 

Self-esteem is linked to how we experience ourselves in our internal world.  It is based on our inner sense of value and self-worth and is less directly linked to our external situation or circumstances. It’s based more on a subjective general emotional evaluation of our sense of worth.  At its most simplistic level self-esteem is linked to who we are.  This becomes a more fixed concept in our mind that forms our identity.  That’s why parents are encouraged to link criticism to a child at a behavioural level not an identity level;  “what you’ve done is naughty” rather than “you are a naughty child”. 

When working with someone on self-esteem there is a model that I hold in my mind.  I developed this model when reading a book that was originally written in the 1960s by a plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  In his book Psycho-Cybernetics Malz describes the psychological impact he witnessed in his patients when he changed facial disfigurements. He often experienced his patients having sudden changes in personality and character by changing their physical appearance.   His book is focussed on the concept of self-image which he describes as

“each one of us carries with us a mental blueprint or picture of ourselves.”

What I’ve come to understand and believe in my work is that a person’s self-esteem is influenced by two key concepts:


A person’s self-image is the internal image they hold about themselves and the person they believe themselves to be.  It’s rarely an actual reflection of reality.  This is due to it being influenced by many factors over their life-time.  Our self-image is made up of various factors including:

  • Physical description of who we are; e.g. I’m a woman, I’m short, I have blue eyes etc
  • Social roles we have in life; e.g. I’m a manager, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’m a yoga teacher etc
  • Personal traits; e.g. I’m a worrier, I’m driven, I’m conscientious, I’m lazy


2. Self-ideal

A person’s self-ideal is made up of the beliefs, standards and expectations which form a perception of how they would like to be.  This perception could be a loose image of who they aspire to be based on their goals and values or it could be a carefully constructed image by which they hold themselves to high standards.

The closer together (i.e. similar or consistent) these two concepts are the higher a person’s self-esteem is likely to be.  However the further apart and the larger the gap between a person’s self-image and self-ideal the lower their self-esteem is likely to be.

So what’s the gap like between your self-image and your self-ideal?

Unfortunately most women tend to hold an out-of-date and minimised self-image, especially when returning to work after having a child.  They discount all the brilliant things they’ve gained as a result of their maternity leave.  The strength of character, resilience and skills they’ve learnt and used having a child.  They often don’t acknowledge their strengths and achievements. And let’s be honest, society doesn’t do us any favours as there are some really unhelpful misconceptions out there about this transition……That we’re less committed! That we have baby-brain! This can leave our self-image in a weakened place. 

If you’re an achievement orientated and ambitious woman I’d like to take a guess that you’re also someone who holds themselves to high standards.  As a result you’re likely to have unrealistic and often unachievable expectations of yourself.  It’s almost like trying to chase a rainbow.  The closer you get towards your self-ideal the further away it becomes.  This leaves many of us in that all too familiar place that Annabel Crabb describes:

“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, whilst raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.”

So with a weakened self-image and unrealistic self-ideals the gap between the two becomes larger.  When this happens our self-esteem is eroded and this impacts our self-confidence.

I would encourage you to reframe your self-image after becoming a mum.  Start focussing on the things you can do instead of discounting them.  Focus on your strengths (and not your weaknesses).  If you struggle to do this, ask a friend, partner or colleague as others can often see them better than we can.

I would also encourage you to look at the standards and expectations you put on yourself as a working mum.  Honestly ask yourself how appropriate, how reasonable and how helpful they are.  Find ways to let go of the things that aren’t supporting you.

As a working mum we have to ‘mind the gap’ between these two areas.  By recalibrating our self-image and our self-ideal they can become more aligned. As a result we can update your internal blueprint. The more attention we can pay to this, the stronger our self-esteem will be….and as a result our self-confidence.

In my humble opinion this can go a long way to help ease the journey of being a working mum.


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