A change of perspective; motherhood and work
I wrote this originally on January 19th 2018, and posted it as an article on LinkedIn, but after a 'live' in the Anteroom (the closed Facebook group) last night, and some discussion around the full cultural gamut that hinders women as they approach their births, I though it would bear re-posting. Let me know what you think
…if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it’s power that needs to be redefined rather than women?
Mary Beard, Women & Power, Profile Books
I can confidently say that I’ve had an interesting week. Not least because the piece I was going to write is not the piece I’ve ended up writing. I got my typing groove on after an interview unexpectedly focused my frustration about the dynamics of my motherhood and my work.
I’ll put it out there. I’ve got 3 children. And I'm about to talk about mothering those children on a business networking service. I worked in a marketing agency for the last time exactly two weeks before my middle child was born, 4 years ago. Up to that moment I had been on a consistently upward trajectory; I worked with well-known brands, my team operated profitably, our business grew, I had good relationships with clients & partners, and frankly all was good. I met my partner. We chose to start a family. The plan was always that I would go back to my career. The children came. Around the pregnancies, infants & toddlers, around breastfeeding, nappies & minor ailments, around weaning & learning to walk , groups, Forest School, pre-school, I studied, took part-time work, kept my hand in where I could.
So, now I am ‘returning to work’. And I have discovered that I need to do more than just talk about my successful experience. I need to be considered about how I present myself. I must say I’m a mother (how else to explain the 4 years absence) but without sounding too ‘mumsy’, without inadvertently implying it has blunted my abilities. Simultaneously, obliquely, I try to reassure that mothering will not impinge on my work in any way. I’ve learned how to frame the low-pay, low-status, flexible paid work I've woven between mothering, as entrepreneurial. I can deftly parry questions about the length of my commute, and the sort of work my husband does (actually a reasonable question to ask parents; but I wonder whether any man has been seriously asked what his wife does, while interviewing for a senior level position, other than as polite small talk).
As I traveled home from that last interview, I thought more about what I needed to do to position myself as the candidate of choice. How else could I demonstrate that my spirit, determination & bloody-mindedness haven’t been blunted by mothering? And all the while, the words of my friend Ruth rang in my ears; of course, they don’t need to buy my defense of 4 years away from their world, or value my achievements won during that time, because right behind me is someone who isn’t having to explain away anything at all. I’m a risk.
By the time I was home, I wondered how other women navigated the complex mesh of work and motherhood. So I made a quick survey that I posted in a local women's FaceBook group and on LinkedIn. I got 188 responses in a little under 24 hours. Here are some of the highlights (in no way statistically viable);
62% of respondents returned to the same job they left. 17% returned to a different role in the same organisation, 14% returned to a different role in the same industry and 7% re-trained entirely
51% of respondents returned to work because they needed to.
Yet 87% of respondents reported that their paid work was important to them as an individual.
The answers that stood out to my most, though, were in response to the question “If you consider that the skills you learnt as a mother are skills you can apply to your paid work, can you tell me what these are?”. Everyone took the time to respond to this question, and their responses were strikingly consistent;
Time management - multi-tasking - patience - empathy - perspective - stress management - prioritization - team building - flexibility - positive perspective - negotiation skills - productivity / effectiveness - commitment - compromise - resilience - improved confidence - clarity in decision making - diplomacy
(On a slight tangent, a response that caught my attention was; “My husband stays at home with the kids (interesting the reception THAT gets!)…I’ve found there’s nothing quite as efficient as a working mum.”)
I mean, look at those answers! Every business blog, article, diversity statement, HR department, coach, funky new start-up, and growing concern is citing each and every one of those skills as being vitally important in successful business.
And that’s the article I had intended to write. For goodness sake! Wake up, employers, allow the scales to fall from your eyes, and see what mothers bring to their work. It’s in plain sight, people! This quote, attributed to Richard Farson, pretty much summed it up for me;
The best ideas aren't hidden in shadowy recesses. They're right in front of us, hidden in plain sight. Innovation seldom depends on discovering obscure or subtle elements but in seeing the obvious with fresh eyes. This is easier said than done because nothing is as hard to see as what's right before our eyes. We overlook what we take for granted. Billions of tea drinkers observed the force of steam escaping from water boiling in a kettle before James Watt realized that this vapor could be converted into energy.
And then, while I’m gathering responses from my trifling survey, my friend Helen, pings this article to a group of us. In Vela Magazine, Rufi Thorpe writes about the inherent dissonances in mothering, and there, right in the middle she says;
I get annoyed when women’s magazines try to edit my motherhood out of my work. I get depressed when they won’t run a piece unless I take out any mention of my having children. I firmly believe that having children has made me smarter and better and more interesting, and fuck you to any women’s mag that doesn’t think so too.
That’s it, I thought! The cause of my unease. I’ve been allowing my motherhood to be written out of my workhood. I shouldn’t be apologising for it! I should be triumphant about how motherhood has augmented me! I should march into those interviews and say; not only does my CV show you what a knock-out account handler I can be, but in 7 short years I’ve also learnt a whole new vocabulary! An entirely new way of being! I mastered my fear and achieved an enormous physical feat– three times! From the quicksand of my children’s demands and needs, I have taken action, and here I am. Check me out! Mothers, I should say, are endlessly adaptable, agile and self-determining. You need this one on board right now.
Finally, as the universe conspired to send me spinning in a direction I hadn’t anticipated, Jordan B. Peterson piped up to give us his views on the 9% gender pay gap in the UK. Interviewed by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 he tells us that this gap is a multi-varied equation. It is, in part, he opines, because women are too agreeable. WOMEN ARE TOO AGREEABLE. I’m fairly bristling at this point, as I suspect many others are. But bear with him because, despite his patronising delivery, he makes, inadvertently, an interesting point. The gender pay gap isn’t simply about an active conspiracy to pay women less than their male counterparts, but is instead the collision between conditioning and orthodoxy. A hangover of history, perhaps.
It is true that women are less likely to aim high, to take a risk on a job they aren't sure they can do, & are less direct than men in salary negotiations (to give an anecdotal example, I have a friend, senior in her position in a multi-national company, who literally takes notes from her husband into salary negotiations). This may or may not be an innate trait. It is certainly a result of gender conditioning. Practically, maternity leave does mean that, while women are learning a new language and a new identity, while their bodies ebb & flow to accommodate pregnancy, birth & breastfeeding, while their personal needs are subverted and they bear the mental-load, their male counterparts are in the office, having the conversations, making the connections, refining their skills and, frankly, being promoted & accepting the accompanying pay rise. The choices still seem to be; a) stay at home with your children at don't return to work, b) return to work and do your parenting in the evenings and at weekends or c) take a job with more flexibility required to be present, but to do this you have to accept lower pay (pro rata) and lower status. Never mind women, where's the balance in this for parents overall?
So what’s the point of this piece? Nothing I say here is new. If you are a mother, have a mother, are married to a mother, or are the parent of a mother, you will have heard this before. And yet I do want to say three things;
Firstly, I want to state my hypothesis; culturally, we do not adequately celebrate the strength of character, competence & determination required to mother. Right from the get-go pregnancy, birth & motherhood is polarised into either doom-laden horror stories or honeyed sentimentality. This is not the lived experience of most of the women I know. As with all things in life, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that, and it strikes me that mothers tend to be diminished not by the essential nature of motherhood itself, but by contextual limitations on their ability to experience motherhood uniquely, according to their own character (and there is far more to written about maternal loneliness, and the absence of support for Early Years).
Secondly, I want to advocate action. My friends sister-in-law, when asked in job interviews about experiences that demonstrate her determination and ability to overcome obstacles, references her breastfeeding years. And why not? How many other events in life require you to navigate such physical, emotional and intellectual challenges? And yet I so rarely hear of mothering attributes celebrated as achievements of the whole person. Why should this power, this achievement, be kept in the shadows? The orthodoxy is that being a mother hinders your career, but it’s not the motherhood that’s the problem, it’s the prevailing attitude to it.
As long as we collude in this orthodoxy, by politely tucking away our truth about maternal grit, resilience, patience & agility of mind, the longer this orthodoxy will continue. We – women – could all stop and consider how much of womanhood we are conditioned to hide away & keep secret, to perceive as ‘other’. Would it not be marvellous for women – and for the overwhelmingly white, middle class, middle aged captains of industry – if these attributes were respected and acknowledged as valuable? As the slogan goes, the patriarchy won’t smash itself. It’s incumbent on us to talk honestly about where mothering has made us stronger, not to hide it away for shame.
You cannot easily fit woman into a structure that is coded as male; you have to change the structure.
Mary Beard, Women & Power,
Finally, it’s a declaration of intent, to follow my heart and my passion. All this leads me back to birth coaching. Not because I think labours should start spontaneously, or that vaginal birth is a goal (there, I said it. VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!), or that you should do it drug-free or whatever (frankly, my judgement is irrelevant to you, right?). I return to this because I do not think that mothering & working are disconnected. They are part and parcel of the full human individual, and to suggest they are separate, or ‘less-than’, is to denigrate the different choices that people make (including, by the way, the choice not to mother, which is overshadowed by its own stench of judgement). Worse than that, it prevents women from experiencing birth and mothering uniquely & positively. It fetishes birth, diminishing it until it becomes a physical event to be suffered and endured. I want to be part of the movement that releases women from this fear and shame, and opens them up to celebrate their brilliance, whatever it's source.
I placed the phrase ‘returning to work’ in italics in my opening paragraph, because it suggests that I have not somehow been working for a time. It suggests that what I havebeen doing is not relevant to paid work. That it has no bearing on me as an economically useful member of society.
I wrote in paragraph #2 that it seemed reasonable to ask parents about the context of their lives. I have subsequently had an interesting conversation with someone regarding the employment of the whole person. So I edit that statement, in favour of asking all employees about the context of their lives, and what they need to nourish themselves as individuals.