Since my childhood I have wanted to write. About sports. Travel. People. I wrote diaries. Pages. Chapters. Pretending to be a journalist, I wrote articles and started to draft my first book. As you grow older, your actions naturally yet unfortunately are more and more determined by rational reasoning and no longer by the things that you are actually passionate about and I asked myself, who was ever going to read the amateur attempts of a book from somebody that nobody has ever heard of? I stopped wondering. And I stopped writing. Now I am 32, still don’t generate more than a handful of Google hits and chances are that I am not going to become the new star on the YouTube horizon, either. Instead, I transformed into this ordinary working mum that I am today. Bobi’s mum. My new identity. And yet again I feel the urge to write. And share. Not about “How to do” things – how would I know – but about “how I do things”. And about being yourself. With all ups and downs. At home and at work.
Workmumbalance – what does that mean?
If I wanted to be political I would define this term as post-emancipation phenomenon that evolved from women’s aspiration to prioritise a career over founding a family. I am not a hypocrite nor do I support or engage in any feminism grounded acts or campaigns to prove equal stand in society for women just because I happened to be born as one. All I am intending to do is to find a word that best describes my daily challenge that I bet most of you can relate to. It is about how to equally balance and satisfy the needs of your kids and the demands of your boss. And not to forget – yourself!
Work means self-actualisation
Beside my secrete passion for writing, as a child and adolescent I found my greatest calling in table tennis. To be number one was the clear and only goal. Despite of how many times my parents told me that nobody can be number 1 all the time. What did they know? As it turned out, a lot more than I did. I wanted to coach and train elite players. Maybe to compensate for my own failed sports career? I suppose to an extent this is why I find myself today in the HR profession. Self-actualisation. Finding those high-fliers, make them fly even higher and place them where they could fly highest – simple but probably quite comparable to the vision of any football coach who managed to lead his teams to become world champion. Work pays bills. For me it is self-fulfilment. Whenever I feel stressed, complain about unmanageable and unreasonable workload my husband tells me that I have got nobody but myself to blame. And I hate it when he is right. Striving to be that one person that is critical to the organisation. Right or wrong, I am convinced this is the only way forward – if forward is the way you want to move. Even though the company will of course never collapse without you, no matter how much you would like that it would.
Career and family – impossible!
At least so I thought. Besides, for me babies were nothing but dull, noisy and smelly – and worst of all, the most severe career killer. And a man that would put his own career plans aside to support mine – existent but personally not the type of man that I could envisage spending my life with. Then I met my husband. 1 year later I was married. Another year later we welcomed Bobi into our lives. And if I wanted or not, I learned what it is like to be a mum.
All mothers, working or not, know that being a mum is nothing less than a 24 hours job. This adds a new dimension to the “full-time” definition if you wanted to place this in an employment context. Of course having a “full-time” job is also no longer a 9-5 business, at least if you decided that forward is the way you want to move. Now you signed your life away and you are just as much at your managers’ and colleagues ‘disposal as you are at Bobi´s – 24/7, thanks to Whatsapp & Co. If you are anything like my husband you can of course argue that nobody but yourself is to blame for the daily struggle of balancing the demands of your child, your boss, your colleagues and in my case, yourself.
But if you are anything like me, you will keep going, constantly trying to overcome that inner conflict that you face from the day that your little Bobi was born – I am not saying this for the records, but because it is a fact. If you were in a monogamic relation with your job until now, put aside the occasional intermezzos with your husband – well, that’s the end of it. You owe this gorgeous – and yet, I stick with the noisy and smelly – little creature all the love and dedication that you have. This little thing is so helpless and needs you, really does – not like your boss needs you to finish this statistics “by yesterday, please” (that probably nobody will ever even look at). But trust me, from now on, you will find yourself on a constant guilt trip – you should be cherishing every single moment with your little Bobi so shame on you for mentally moving the clock forward until it is finally time for his noon nap and your “lunch break”.
Admittingly, when I was on maternity leave this was the favourite part of my day – trying to catch a 10 minutes snooze to compensate for the missing 10 hours of sleep that you lack from the past 3 days. But most days, this never happened as time had to be organised rigidly: preparing Bobis lunch – 10 minutes, tidying away toys, books, cds or other stuff that has been pulled out of draws and shelves – 20 minutes, cleaning the bathroom – 15 minutes, washing up – 15 minutes, laundry – 20 minutes. “Maaaaaaammmmmaaaaa”, there goes the Bobi alarm and it would go for 15 minutes, if you didn’t stop it.
If a candidate tries to sell me his time management skills in a job interview I am always visualising these “lunch breaks” and found the answers mostly insufficient.
To my own surprise parenting and being successful (at work) can work.
But it is very hard work. Your daily routine is turned upside down. The hectic every morning is the same though. Bobi alarm, (no chance of snoozing that one), I get up, Bobi follows, to the shower, to the toilet, everywhere. Dressing, feeding, changing diapers, dressing, dragging my husband out of bed. Sprinting to the bus. 1 hour later reaching the office. Standing in the lift, looking in the mirror and realising that you have a diaper hanging out of your handbag. You have chocolate on your cheek and most of your coat. Thinking that since you left the house you sat in bus and train, passing several hundred people in the morning rushhour – it gets of course worse if what you discover on your clothes, is not chocolate – the day can only get better.
On the days that I now get to spend with Bobi, I am mostly equally longing for my “lunch break” as I did when I was on maternity leave – and of course feeling even more guilty about it. I should be cherishing every single moment with him but I catch myself getting nervous about these emails coming in. Of course nowadays anyone who sends an email will expect nothing less than an immediate response – what was the company thinking bringing in someone so unflexible?
But for many mothers are out of the game.
Some of your colleagues will most probably not actually perceive you as a threat. For them you are simply out of the game. At times, I may have been one of those people. Being in the HR profession, you are to some extent an enabler or disabler for career progression. Mothers simply did not fit into the standard succession and development processes, they did not tick the box of the stereotypical global mobility citerium. To be completely honest, I never even knew if they were mobile or not. I didn’t ask. I assumed and judged. Wow, I was ignorant, naïve and could not understand how women that spent years of studying and working their way up into managerial positions could throw all this away for a child. At least, in my eyes, that’s what they did.
Today’s managers need to be flexible and always in reach. It is not because your manager explicitly demands this from you or because this is defined in some internal policies, it is an underlying expectation. Workmumbalance – the story of my life and true meaning of worklifebalance for working mothers. No time to strive for anything else beyond your daily pursuit of being good at your job and being even better at being a mum – or vice versa?
If I think that companies actually and truly address this controversy? A few might. Others just spend time and resources to develop PR campaigns, to position themselves to the public as family-friendly employer. I haven’t thoroughly researched in to this area to back up this statement but I am naturally sceptical and suspicious. Having said that, I would like to give some organisations, the benefit of the doubt, and believe in their true intent of being family-friendly. And if these companies have managed to fool me until now they have lost far more critical things than my trust. A great amount of educated, ambitious and truly efficient professionals. Work-life-balance is nowadays one of the prime motivators that employees look for and that will determine how engaged and loyal they will be – and this I did research. If you ask me about my personal definition of work-life-balance and how I could see this being integrated in an organizational context, I have to admit that I also didn’t yet have this lightbulb moment, where a striking concept that is ready for practical implementation presented itself to me. I believe that the problem does not merely lie with organisational leaders that do not put focus on this topic area but starts with the mindset of its employees.
Meetings requests after 5pm are standard.
So how do you get out of this? Sometimes, I catch myself coming up with made-up excuses. “I can’t take part in the meeting because I have to pick up my son from the nursery” is probably not the answer that will assist you in getting a better positioning in the company. The more time you spend at work, be it with procrastinating time or complaining for 2 hours about your excessive workload, your colleagues and also some managers will respect and regard you as the workaholic that the company needs. This is reality for most organisations even if this culture is of course not overtly advocated. With this in mind “I am sorry, but I already have a meeting at 7pm, but I can fit 30 minutes in my schedule at 4pm” is clearly the better choice here. Such a betrayal isnt it? “Job enrichment XXL” is the reality of the 21st century, no doubt about that but shouldn’t precisely this be the reason to support and be honest to each other? – To our colleagues, our managers and ourselves. Instead, we judge or lie, to be accepted and recognised. When people start understanding that not the time that you spend in the office matters, but only what you achieve during this time, we are on a good track. Like what you can in your “lunch break” during Bobi’s noon nap. So a striking concept alone probably won’t do the job, education might lay some groundwork though.
I recall a situation where one of my bosses made the suggestion of arranging a board room with toy blocks so that I can bring my son to the office when I have some organisational commitments. Those of you who met Bobi or also have or had a 2 year old child at home, will know that this will of course never work. However, it is the thought that counts and that I truly valued in this moment. And that could be the foundation for the beginning of true organizational mind change.
It was different for generation X.
Maybe not easier, but different. I don’t need to discuss my “first world” dilemma with my parents or grandparents, as honestly, they had other problems. My grandmother was working full-time whilst raising four children. She did not have another choice. “What the hell is workmumbalance supposed to mean”, she would say, if I asked her. My mother-in-law was a General Manager whilst taking care of three children. Despite the fact that these two women are undoubtedly the two strongest women that I have ever known, this is totally unthinkable nowadays – even though I thought we advanced since then? In earlier days, many women did not have any other choice but work, if you take this decision now, be it for financial reasons or not, you will be judged, again– by society, by peers, most probably by other mothers or even your own family. Quite possibly, you were also judged 50 years ago, but the difference is that women like my grandmother were so strong, had to be so strong to not give a damn about someone else´s opinion. We have become too susceptible for other people´s opinions and I often wish to free myself from this burden.
My personal conclusion.
Not one day passes where I don’t ask myself if it is right that Bobi spends the whole day with kids of parents that I don’t even know. Do I owe it to him that I just drop my own goals and entirely dedicate my life to my one and only but yet smelly and noisy Bobi? Or should I go for the compromise and work part-time, knowing that this will most likely disclude me from any future development initiatives, because I now openly carry the “not flexible label”?
I don’t have the answer for what is right and what is wrong. Personally, I go with what feels right. Bobi is so happy every day my husband drops him at the nanny, should this change, I will need to consider change, too. Until then, I will probably have to continue living with that constant pressure of proving more than any not-working mother, that I too can be a good mother even though I didn’t spend one week to sew Bobi’s first carneval costume when he was 6 months old and didn’t understand what the hell carneval was anyway. Believe it or not, I love my Bobi more than anything else in this world and cherish every moment that I get to spend with him, maybe even more than I would, if I actually did spend the whole day with him. And I will prove even more to my managers and colleagues, that I too, am capable, determined and taking efficiency to another level, even though I may not be able to participate in every networking event or proactively request international business trips. But hey, I am not asking for reimbursements of expensive and sometimes rather questionable “business lunches” and don’t master the art of procrastination – that has got to count for something.
(originally written in July 2015)
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