• Sharon Peake

Career and family – can you have it all?

I’m about to go into a client meeting when my daughter’s nursery calls to say she has a temperature and needs to be fetched. For the next week my husband and I operate a work–sleep rota that revolves around our sick child, broken sleep and trying to maintain the function of work and daily life. Recently, my daughter has been in childcare six days a week, sometimes has a sandwich dinner and has more screen time than my pre-parenting-self vowed I would allow.

The reality is that parenting is messy. We all have an image of what we want to achieve: a successful career, happy marriage and well-adjusted children. But it’s the gritty in-between of juggling work diaries with home commitments, or meetings with sick children, that becomes the reality of most working mothers. Some seem to do it effortlessly, a brood of kids, a high-flying career, an unfazed brow and latte in hand. But how do we rise the ranks with kids in tow?

1. It’s not a ladder to success

The first thing to understand is that the corporate ladder is not an ever-upward, rung-by-rung, progression. Sometimes you move upwards, but other times you may choose to move laterally and broaden your skill-set or stay at your current level and allow yourself to focus on a different set of priorities.

My friends Rupert Angel and Will Jodrell of The Greenhouse Project describe how the career trajectories of top executives follow a common pattern. Your 20s are spent building the expertise required to demonstrate you can be trusted to run something at scale. Then your 30s are spent learning how to run something at scale and showing you can deliver in different contexts. These experiences help line up the upward progression to becoming a senior executive.

By understanding where we are in our career phase, and what is going to be expected of us, we can try counterbalance the off-ramp of motherhood, or the on-ramp of return to work. For example, making your aspirations known and putting your hand up to undertake high-profile projects – either before or after maternity leave – will help ensure you don’t miss out on those critical career progression experiences.

2. There is a give

Achieving in both our personal and professional lives means some things will, at times, have to give. We might decide to pass on a promotion or project lead in order to spend more time at home if we’ve reasonably assessed the opportunity will come round again. Or, we might negotiate that our partner takes on the role of primary carer if the opportunity is critical to our next career phase. Knowing that there’s a ‘give’ allows us to empower our choices and decide where it will come from.

Given that we can now expect to live longer lives and retire later, we can still make significant headway in our careers through our fifties, sixties and even seventies. The late honourable Ruth Bader Ginsburg told of how her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 – when she was 60 – raised questions about her age. She went on to serve the Supreme Court for 27 fruitful years.

By recognising that there may be times in your life when you will choose to ‘dial up’ your career contrasted by times when you choose to ‘dial it down’ as other priorities take centre stage, will help maintain a healthy perspective and balance.

3. Guilt and reconciliation

An acquaintance of mine is an icon of having it all. She has a high-flying career, a great marriage, three thriving children and a beautiful home. But when I speak to her about having it all she is quick to remind me of the importance of reconciling guilt:

“My biggest piece of advice is to recognise early on that there will be guilt about something in your life – sometimes I miss one of the kid’s parent–teacher interviews or a sporting event because of work – other times I have to decide to miss an important work meeting because I’ve committed to one of the kid’s school performances, and I know there are judgements made about how committed I am”.

For some, the guilt and reconciliation is harder. I have colleagues and friends who have missed out on motherhood entirely by prioritising their careers and ‘running out of time’, as was very nearly the case for me. Others have had families but have had to go down the stressful route of IVF, single parenting or surrogacy. In the end, combining motherhood with a demanding career may mean making difficult choices.

4. It takes a village to raise a child

We’d be wise to heed the advice of the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. These days ‘villages’ can come in the form of au pairs, nannies, babysitters, nurseries, obliging family members or even friends.

But it’s not just about outsourcing childcare, getting a cleaner or hiring a tutor. Fundamentally, the way we approach the shared responsibilities of a career and parenting is critical. A lot of women today are juggling demanding careers, are the primary carer to their children, the informal carer to their parents and are expected to run an efficient household with nutritionally balanced meals for their offspring. It’s led to the urban satire that for the modern women ‘having it all, means doing it all’. This unrealistic double burden impacts women’s career progression so it’s important to set boundaries and as a friend of mine sagely said “let a few balls drop along the way”.

On balance

More than anything else, finding the balance that works for you will make the difference. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Share the load at home: Given that working mothers are generally putting in at least twice the amount of domestic and care time compared to their male counterparts, the single most important thing you can do is to enlist the support of your partner in sharing more of the load. And in a year where gender equality has suffered a blow in so many ways – with the UN recently predicting coronavirus could wipe out 25 years of gender equality gains - sharing the domestic load is now more important than ever. [1]

  • Reconcile the guilt: Most working mothers I know feel guilt – either about their work or their parenting, or both. The guilt goes back to expectations, whether led by society, our work culture or ourselves. As for my concessions to extra screen time and the occasional sandwich dinner, I’ve come to accept that sometimes 80% is good enough.

  • Be clear on your boundaries at work: Identify the things you are not prepared to compromise on – whether it’s doing the school run or making sure you’re there to read the bedtime story – and then look at ways of enabling it. It could mean being there for the bedtime routine but logging on afterwards to check your emails. If your team and your boss know where you are prepared to flex and what your boundaries are, you are more likely to get support from them.

  • Invest in your identity outside of work. This is even more important for women who may be dialling down their career focus. Investing in your interests outside of work will help maintain a sense of balance in your life and remind you that you are more than just your job title.

  • Prioritise your physical and mental well-being. Balance is not just about scheduling time for a daily run or mediation, nor is it about taking the occasional work-free weekend away although that can help. Too often our stress comes from daily mental overspill – we’re with our family but thinking about work, or vice versa. By mentally immersing and being fully present in what we’re doing we’re more likely to be productive in the job at hand, whether it’s parenting time or work time. And by increasing our productivity and the quality of time spent we can reduce crossover stress and mental fatigue.

So, can we have it all? Personally I believe we can, but generally not all at once. In the words of Gillian Anderson:

“We have been striving to have it all and we can indeed have it all, but once we do, we realise that it can be at the expense of quite a lot, including our sanity”.

For me, it’s about making deliberate choices of where we spend our time and about engaging others to support us in these choices. Rather than striving to have it all at once, let’s recognise the value of having it all over time, for our health, wellbeing and sanity.

Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of accelerating more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.

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  1. Coronavirus and gender: More chores for women set back gains in equality https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-55016842 (26 November 2020).