We are all ‘working mothers’ – whether it is in the corporate or less conventional sense. We also need to learn to support one another and shake off negative self-beliefs and judgement – whether the latter is coming from ourselves or externally. Working motherhood is a constant juggling act – just as one fire is put out, another one starts burning up.
Days of perceived control are juxtaposed by the following day of sheer chaos, which leads to negative self-doubt and reflection upon whether you will ever reach that pinnacle of working motherhood virtue – ‘work, life, balance’ offset by a balanced awareness and acceptance of life long guilt: ‘dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t’.
I can’t address every aspect of my experience of being a mother in this article – but as a mum who worked through all 4 pregnancies – I can relate to many fears, perceptions, judgements (including a few snide comments from Heads of HR) and negative self-talk. These are some of the beliefs that haunted / continue to haunt me:
- I am a terrible mother for wanting to work – what will others think of me? Trust me non-working mums are judged just as much as working mums – no one is safe from judgement; there is always someone out there with an opinion who is either with or against you.
- I should be with my children 24/7, what if something happens?
- FOMO – I might miss a concert, PTA, mothers' coffee morning, lunch etc.
- The children won’t recognise me as mum – they will bond with the amah, carer, etc.
- My skill set has depleted, become outdated, etc.
- Is it okay to off/on ramp my career? What will other professionals think?
- I have put on weight. I look different and don’t feel the part.
- I won’t have any time for me… I feel guilty even thinking that I want me-time.
- Jealousy, envy of SAH (stay-at-home) mums – how does she do it or afford it, etc.
Since I became a mother for the first time 11 years ago – these beliefs (and more) whether real or unfounded, exist in my mental universe. The difference is that I have progressively become better at managing my negative self-talk and also on occasion, the bias of others. Some of this awareness is thanks to my own mother – thanks mum (just in time for Mother’s Day!) and the rest is due to years of trial and error, trying to balance my professional and personal life.
Social media is not your ally – no one puts up a crappy mothering photo. If you want to work / continue working, then go for it! Face each fear; think of the worst, most outrageous scenario and then back pedal – because I guarantee that it probably will not happen. This is the same, if you want to work at some point down the line.
However, do some things to protect yourself too. Career advice, beauty, fashion, communication tips, self-love, time-out, health, priorities...I learnt that the following helped me:
- Think of the key quadrants: family, you, spiritual, work. Try to incorporate all – it won’t always work, but be aware of what you need.
- Have a schedule – that includes your time e.g. am or pm workout a few times a week, breakfast /dinner with the family (when possible – as a working mum, there will be times when you miss this), family day. e.g. Sunday’s are movie and popcorn, etc.
- Communicate with your family if you are going to be late, have a call, or are feeling stressed.
- Ask if your employer provides flexible working arrangements. If they do – continue to deliver and honour the agreement. If they don’t, then when possible - leave at 6pm. If this is not possible – then try to commit to leaving on time at least a couple of times each week.
- Take your holiday entitlement (don’t be a martyr)- digital detox whilst on holiday, be present with your family.
- Working mums have the habit of undervaluing ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, our manager or boss won’t either. You have great skills and have built up great experience. There is nothing wrong with earning your worth! Earning good money is all about the value you can add to the organisation, not the number of hours you sit behind your desk.
- If your child / you are sick – stay home; do NOT be a martyr and be miserable at work.
- Keep your private life private. Do not share personal, family stories with everyone at work. Do not labor the fact that you are a ‘working mum’ – everyone has their personal rationale for being at work. Try to blend in with the norm as much as possible – without highlighting that you are a working parent ad nauseum.
- Modernise your wardrobe. Have a read: ‘The Fold Report – Workwear Matters, 2018’. 90% of businesswomen admit that what they wear to work impacts their confidence and productivity.
- Nothing beats a bit of pampering – but as a mum, you probably feel guilty about taking time to do this. So, try to be like a car going in for your service and get everything done at once. I try to time hair, mani, pedi and an eye mask (much to my hair dressers horror) at the same time. Voila!
When I was a teenager my mother read a self-help book called ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’, by Susan Jeffers. This remains one of the biggest selling literature of it’s genre to date. The book sums up a no-nonsense ethos that can be applied to anything – and is particularly helpful with life changing, role changing or impacting dilemmas. The initial intention for the book was to provide advice for the lovelorn; however, the guidance provided was interpreted in a far broader light. My mother – fell in to the latter group and as a bored, suburban housewife of 2 teenagers - she was inspired.
The basic premise of the book is that anything new in life is scary, and no one is immune. The only way to get through the road block of fear is to do it anyway.
After reading this book my newly empowered mother, decided to enter the corporate world at the ripe age of 49. This was literally to everyone’s amazement, surprise and in some cases, harsh judgement. Amidst some positive reactions and support; she was the recipient of quite a few direct responses – including that she would be ‘neglecting the children’; she was ‘an abomination to her role as a wife and mother’ and even that my father would leave her – because ‘independent women’ made a mockery of the male’s role to provide. I am sure she had moments of self-doubt and agonized over the negative speculation. Regardless, she felt the fear and embarked on an executive assistant course and promptly joined the workforce.
Mum is now an 80 year old widower; she is also a geriatric swimming instructor at her retirement village; in 2018, she completed her first APAC cruise – visiting five countries solo and; a student of mahjong and Mandarin.
And last but not least, three times a week she walks the 5km each way to the local school to assist with teaching children with development needs. It would be fair to say that she has overcome her self-limiting beliefs in regards to independence, perceptions and bias, etc. She also admits to learning to block out negative self-talk and that only she, has the holistic oversight to know whether what she is doing was right for her and her family.
Neurological studies show that many of the limiting beliefs we carry with us for life, were implanted in our subconscious minds from an early age (about 6 years). From an evolutionary perspective, your subconscious mind wraps itself around limiting beliefs as a form of autopilot reflex designed to protect you from “threats”. But in practice, when left unchecked they can go wild with power and undermine your confidence – in your personal and professional life.
Thanks to my mum, I learnt to identify (not overcome) limiting self-beliefs and disrupt negative patterns by pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. In my case, that meant knowing that being a working mother was right for myself and my children – regardless of the perception of others. It is also okay to switch camps when life/circumstances negate it – take time off if you need it or find a company that empowers working mums. I did.
“Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”
This piece was kindly contributed by Elizabeth Alam, a full time working mother of four girls who "occasionally masters the illusion of work-life balance." Elizabeth's last role was Regional Head of Talent Development Asia Pacific at State Street and held previous positions at other HR positions in the financial services industry. She currently resides in Hong Kong.
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