Career change: practical tips for life as a working mother
You may be reading this because you?ve had a full-time job and you?ve been building a career in an organisation. Sometimes this has meant working late, getting in early or travelling. Although you haven?t exactly relished those demands on you, you?ve been able to meet them with a degree of flexibility, maybe giving up some of the time you would have had with family or friends who are dear to you. Or maybe you?ve been running your own business. While you?ve had more choices about how you use your time, you?re still likely to have put in significant amounts of time and commitment beyond the confines of a conventional working day.
Suddenly your priorities get turned upside down. A new little being comes along who not only demands your attention urgently from one second to the next, but whose wellbeing is at least as meaningful to you as your career. And this little being is entirely dependent on you. While their dependency slowly diminishes as they grow, your commitment to them does no such thing. You?re having to make some difficult choices with practical implications: if you?ve gone back to work ? or you?re considering going back to work ? how are you going to juggle what are often conflicting demands on you? The boss needs the report done by first thing tomorrow morning, it?s 4 o?clock in the afternoon and you need to leave at 5 promptly to get to the childminder. Or maybe you?re working four days a week, and a key team meeting is going to happen on the day you?re not there. Or a client needs delivery of your product or service super-fast, within a timescale that conflicts with your time at work. Situations like these exert pressure and stress not only in the moment but also because of the implications for the development of your career or your own business.
Having It All is an unrealistic dream for any mother, but you can choose your compromises in a planned way, without feeling that you?re being wedged into a corner and giving away your integrity. Being clear on key issues so that you know ? and can claim ? who you are and what matters to you can help you manage the multiple tensions.
Know what?s important to you and manage your priorities: Each of us is driven by our values ? what is fundamental about the way we want to live and work, and how we expect other people to behave. If your life is out of line with your values, you may well feel stressed, frustrated or deeply unfulfilled. Suppose what matters to you includes autonomy, freedom to speak your mind, honesty and flexibility. You?ll feel fulfilled and satisfied working in an environment which encourages personal initiative, provides plenty of opportunity for you to give your opinion, in a working culture which is relaxed about you leaving 15 minutes early one day because you?re trusted to give back in some other way on another occasion. On the other hand, you?re likely to feel miserable if making your views felt is frowned upon ? whether implicitly or explicitly ? because there?s an expectation that you?ll toe the party line and going to the school concert at Christmas is a subject of muttering and resentment. Get clear on your top five values ? your non-negotiables – write them down in priority order, and think about how you can live them at work and at home (one way of identifying your values is to recall situations where you?ve been angry or frustrated: they?ll show you what matters to you). Does the culture of the organisation you?re in fit with what?s most important to you? If not, plan what you?re going to do about it.
Be clear on your boundaries: Knowing your values, what are you willing to compromise on? What are you prepared to tolerate and what would be completely intolerable? Being clear in advance on the sacrifices you?re prepared to make will mean that you?re less likely to wake up one day and find yourself in a situation that may have evolved gradually and which is demanding something of you that that you now resent giving. Take care to re-visit your boundaries every six months or so: as your child grows, as your family develops, as your finances change and as your career perspectives shift, be explicit about the changes in the deal – your willing sacrifices balanced against the gains. You may have some tough decision-making to do. Be honest about the impact of the options on you, your family, your career and your finances. If you make compromises, make them knowingly. Don?t open yourself up to being taken by surprise further down the line. Surprise can cause resentment and can lower morale. Clear expectations can be worked with: they give you a platform for asking for what you want assertively.
Know what you offer: Can you articulate your natural talents, your skills, your expertise and your knowledge? Do you know which skills you really enjoy using? Does your employer (or you if you run your own business) know what they are, and do they value you for them? Do you value you for them? Is your organisation stretching you, giving you opportunities to grow within the context of the hours you work, the role you hold, and the responsibilities you have, and is it preparing you for the next step of your career? Are you asking for those opportunities so that you?re constantly developing? Knowing what you bring, and the difference you make (whether you work part-time or full-time), and helping your organisation to use you to your best advantage will help ensure that you ? and they ? get what you each deserve.
Know what you want in this step of your career and in the next one: Develop a clear vision of the working life and the non-work life you want, in every respect, and in every detail ? in words, pictures, a mindmap or even a collage. Refer back constantly to your vision (at least every couple of weeks) so that you stay focused. The clearer and more detailed your concept is of the vision you?re working towards, the easier it will be achieve because the detail you visualise will have assumed its own reality. Feeling left behind or failing to tap in to your potential career-wise may reflect the fact that you haven?t planned, or come to terms with, what you want from your out-of-work life, your work and your career. It?s all too easy for a mother to be swayed this way and that by the demands and needs of other people and rarely holding out for what she wants or needs. Assess your current life against your vision: how does it match up? If the match isn?t good enough, consider what you could do about it, and then decide what you?re going to do.
Get support: In the rough and tumble of everyday life it?s very easy to simply respond in the moment, and to lose sight of the bigger picture represented by the kinds of issues this article has presented so far. Then suddenly life can get you down, the tensions become too much, and it feels like you?ve lost your way. Having a source of unconditional and independent support already in place can make a huge difference: working mothers who have a buddy, a support group, a coach or a mentor often find that this is how they can regain their balance and their sense of perspective, and their emotional and practical strength, and where they can let off steam in a safe context (family sometimes has too much of a vested interest in this kind of situation to give the independent support that?s needed, although the value of a supportive partner can?t be over-estimated).
Make time for yourself: The more calls there are on your attention and your energies, the more important it is to create time for yourself, a space in which you can reflect, draw breath, and reassess. Often working mothers find that they?re merely snatching moments here and there. Conversely, planning ? and taking – time every day, even as little as 20 minutes, to be alone with your thoughts, reflect on what matters, or savour something of beauty can help you get back in touch with yourself and find yourself again.
Be realistic and focused: Remember Superwoman only exists in the comics and cartoons. Maintain a sense of reality around what you aim for, whether you stay employed or you decide to start your own business. This is difficult in the competitive working world we live in, but working mothers (and others!) often get a greater sense of achievement by focusing on one goal at a time and making sure it?s reachable than by aiming to do everything well. In many ways being a working mum is like trying to live two people?s lives at the same time. It can?t be done absolutely perfectly. In my view it?s pretty much impossible to Have It All: a glittering full-time career and a totally dedicated life as a mother simply can?t be had simultaneously. But the good news is that you can Have A Lot Of It by being explicit and clear to yourself and others about what you want, the compromises you are ? and aren?t ? prepared to make, what you have to offer, facing the honest truth about the extent to which your current organisation can meet your needs, and by putting in place the support you need. And as the goalposts change, be sure you anticipate those changes and change with them. Above all create the conditions for enjoying both your work and your life outside work: possibilities and opportunities are there for you to create the best life you can, for you, your partner and your children.
Lindsay Wittenberg is an executive coach and career coach, working with executives and managers who want to re-focus their careers. She has grown-up twin sons.