Combining motherhood and working life can be challenging. What may have seemed self-evident before becoming a parent, is suddenly nowhere near the truth. It’s difficult to even fully realize what parenting does to us on all fronts. There is so much beauty and bliss in being a parent, but it also defines us in ways we may not have anticipated. And it may not always work in our favor.
“A baby changes everything.” An almost worn out cliché but yet such a truth. When we become parents, being a mom or dad defines us. To which extent, I would love to say is up to us, but it’s not. For mothers, from the moment you get pregnant, everything changes, especially in working life.
It’s called Life
I don’t know how things are in the rest of the world, but for example in Finland, it’s officially none of your employer’s business if you have a family or not. A future employer is not allowed to ask you at an interview if you plan on having children, etc. Ok, in all honesty, it is to some extent unfair towards your employer if you’re applying for a new job that requires extensive training and introduction, and you’re planning on having kids in the near future and possibly staying at home for the first years. Recruitment and introduction processes can be time-consuming and expensive. Finding suitable temporary replacement for while you’re absent on maternity leave can be a genuine hassle.
Then again, the new intriguing job you’ve just landed might not have been right for you. You could be leaving the company for some other reason. Perhaps for another company. Or you could love the job and be perfect for it, but end up in a massive accident and be on sick leave for months. Or maybe, you just weren’t a right fit for the company, and they decided to let you go. There are a million reasons for why you might leave. Regardless of the reason, your employer would be in the exact same position – they need to find someone else. It’s called life.
Parenting doesn’t define men like it defines women
If you place an equally qualified man and woman next to each other, both state that they are planning on having a child within the next year, who do you think parenthood will affect the most in regards to working life? Which one will get the job? In Finland, maternity leave is four months, after which technically either parent can choose to stay at home for the next six months with the baby. (For a bit more details on the Finnish system, check out my post on appreciating stay at home mothers.) All in all the parental leave is around ten months. I may be old-fashioned, but out of experience, I’m going to state that the father-to-be isn’t labeled in the same way as a mother-to-be is.
Parenting simply doesn’t define men, like it defines women. The world is full of amazing, committed fathers, but parenthood, in the eyes of an employer, simply does not affect men nearly as much as it affects women. The impact is not the same.
Motherhood does not diminish you
Don’t get me wrong here, there are physiological differences between men and women. Biologically, men cannot carry babies. Men do not become pregnant. Men do not breastfeed babies. And all of that is normal, completely acceptable and not up for debate right here. What I do question, is diminishing a mothers capabilities to work. Not all mothers choose to stay at home after having a baby. Women may return to work promptly after delivering a baby for various reasons. Some want to get back to work quickly. Some don’t have a choice and must get back to work in a matter of weeks. Others, like myself, choose to stay at home for the first years. Whichever way, when motherhood comes a long, it should not be used against anyone.
Motherhood and professional resumes
I updated my CV into a more modern format a while ago. I spoke to recruiters, HR professionals, head hunters and scoured the internet. “Do not mention your marital status or that you have kids on your CV.” “But, you shouldn’t have gaps in your CV! If you’ve been on maternity leave or stayed at home with children in between jobs, you need to write it down.” There has to be a legit reason for being gone from working life.
My new CV doesn’t state directly that I’m married with three kids. My hyphened double name is however a bit of a give-away in regards to marital status. Four years as a stay-at-home-parent also points to more than one child. The details are still there. They’re in a different format than what was encouraged 10-20 years ago, but they’re still there.
The career setbacks created by being a stay-at-home-parent
I was at a recruitment fair last fall, and received some honest, genuine feedback from recruiters: “Oh, you’ve been at home for so many years, it’s going to be difficult to get back in to the field again.” “Hmm, combining working life and young children is a challenge.” Really. I’ve been at home for several years, point. What did I do during that time? Lay on the couch and watch the hours tick by? Not in my wildest dreams. In addition to bringing up my children, gaining immense patience, multitasking skills, and mastering time management, I also kept educating myself. And even if I wouldn’t have studied at the same time, I would’ve been learning from parenting. A waste of time? Not in my opinion.
As said, combining working life and family can be a definite challenge. It’s not always easy, and can be exhausting at times. The tough years, the busy years, will however eventually pass. Again though, being a mother should not be thought of as a weakness! Parents may be tired and juggling a lot of things, but that says nothing about the level of commitment or passion a mother could have towards her work. Or father for that matter.
In all honesty, kids and working life have a massive impact on each other. Personally, I have never hidden or denied the fact that I have children and my husband lives on another continent. I am a mother, most of the year a single parent, and they are defining characteristics of my being. I am brutally honest about my current situation, because just as I am flexible and adaptive, I also need an understanding employer. Even when my employer knows I will commit, jump hoops and go the extra mile, there will still be times when my kids fall sick and I cannot arrange for someone else to look after them.
I take pride in being a parent, and motherhood defines me – just as being a sustainability enthusiast and aviation professional define me, only in a different way. The latter defining characteristics just don’t have the same all-too-often diminishing impact on my ability to perform and commit to work. The way being a parent is perceived by employers is not up to me. Whether they choose to see the pros or cons in parenting, it’s not my choice.
Motherhood in working life
I’m currently working as a substitute teacher and after school activities instructor. Being a mother has a positive impact on my work at school. Parenthood is considered a valuable and appreciated strength for the job. But then the downside. In the middle of my working day yesterday, I received a message that one of my daughters has an eye infection. She could stay at daycare for the day, but we agreed I would keep the kids at home on Friday. Suddenly my role as a parent, worked against me. I had to stay home from work, even though I knew I was needed there. My employer didn’t mind. Everyone understood, but I felt guilty and bad because I had to stay home on a “sick day”. I wasn’t sick, I was healthy as can be, but my child wasn’t. My job as a mother outweighed my job as a teacher that day.
Motherhood as a strength
How much understanding and compassion an employer has is individual. Simply put, employers are people, just like any of us. Be it a large multinational corporation or small family run business, in the end, we’re facing people. We can’t change people, if they don’t want to change. Attitudes are persistent, but you can educate people and yourself. For your own well-being as a parent, as a mother, I hope you have an understanding employer. I hope your integrity or commitment are never questioned when you have to stay home to tend to an ill child. Even more so, for the sake of everyone, I hope those sick days are limited. Motherhood is a strength. Mothers have patience, negotiating skills and are experienced in leadership. Mothers are committed, devoted and used to working in hectic, constantly changing environments. Don’t forget that.
If you dare, take the chance, and be open about your life situation. It may work against you, and probably will on multiple occasions, but I genuinely believe that employers also appreciate honesty. An employment contract is a relationship just as any other. It works two ways, you give and you get.
Mother, mother by the wall, lift your chin and stand up tall
Work should provide us with fulfillment and meaning. After all, work plays a major role for forty-fifty, if not more, years of our life. You should strive to find a job that excites you. A job that you really want. A job that you can shine at by being yourself. I hope that you can choose to which extent being a parent defines you, that it may one day be a personal choice. That being a mother will not automatically lessen your chances of creating a successful career for yourself, instead will provide you leverage.
I encourage you to be brave, to be proud that you are a mother. Don’t stay by the wall, shy away from the spotlight, instead lift your chin and stand up tall. Because you are a mother, you are not less, the contrary, you are more. If you want motherhood to define you, let it be your strength. Make your own choices and define your own future based on the things that matter to you. Be who you want to be.