‘Beeeeep beep beep. . .’ goes my alarm clock. It is 5 am on Monday. After hitting the snooze button multiple times, I force myself to wake up and, in a daze, go through the motions of my morning ritual. I check off items on my to-pack list, lock my bags, and get dressed in semi-corporate attire that is also airport comfy. I hear a car pull up on the driveway, I grab my luggage, give my husband who is still in dreamland a goodbye kiss, and zip out of the house to be chauffeured to the airport to catch my 6:30 am flight. What I just described is the typical Monday morning of a management consultant. As a consultant, the joys are many – the work is challenging and meaningful. No two days are the same.
However, as with most jobs, it is not perfect. I would go so far as to describe it as demanding and consuming. Working on projects with remote clients may mean interstate travel and be away from home five days a week. The hours are long when there is a looming deadline. Assignments to projects are often down to the luck of the draw meaning that you could be traveling with only a week’s notice for a period of three months through the cold winter season.
Now try picturing holding down a job like that while juggling motherhood.
My Personal story
“So just in case you were wondering, I haven’t just been gorging myself lately – I’m actually having a baby!”
That was how I broke the news to my colleagues at our annual Christmas get-together. I kept my pregnancy a secret for five months; unsure about the reaction my workmates would have towards my news, dreading the questions that would follow, or the potential prejudices that I might have to endure.
Let me give you a narrative of the thoughts that raced through my mind when I first found out about the baby:
Will I be treated differently after I tell my bosses about the baby?
Will they question my drive and motivation at the workplace?
Will I be given fewer opportunities to work on interesting projects?
Will I be passed over for work opportunities and promotions?
How will my workmates react to the news?
How will I balance work and motherhood when I return from maternity leave?
As a management consultant in a small consulting firm, women in leadership positions are few and far between. Only 20% of the senior leadership team are women, none of whom are mothers. Out of 35 employees, only two are working mothers, and both work part-time clocking in just three days per week. Partnering with these working mums has made me acutely aware of the impact motherhood has on work. While this may not be representative of all working mothers, there have been times where the part-time hours – having to leave work early at 4 pm to pick up children or missing out on crucial meetings on off days – have impacted the quality of work delivered to the client. These experiences have made me dubious as to whether or not women can really do it all – have a successful, thriving career and be committed mothers.
Read More: Why We Don’t See Women As Leaders | Leaderonomics
What’s your personal narrative?
A workmate shared this story with me: “Before the baby arrived, my wife planned to return to work after eight months of maternity leave. At the sixth month, she called work to resign instead and ended up taking eight years off to be a full-time mum.” I couldn’t help but wonder, will this happen to me as well? I know deep inside now that being a stay-at-home mum is not for me, it is simply not in my nature, but what’s to say that I won’t change my mind after the baby comes? Why do women feel obligated to stay at home with their kids? Perhaps it is these narratives that are driving more and more women to be full-time mums.
It’s too hard
There is no shortage of people who have called out my ignorance and reassured me that raising a baby is much harder than going to work each day. The sleep deprivation, the loss of freedom for an independent woman, the vomit on your clothes that you don’t notice until you turn up for an important appointment, the never-ending clutter in your home.
“Your life will change forever,” they all chime in unison as if performing a choreographed ditty straight out of a Broadway musical. Add a stressful job to the mix and it is little wonder that so many women decide to leave their workplaces.
I feel guilty
Think of the bawling baby left under the charge of a nanny or distant relative crying out for you while you leave for work. Imagine the regret of missing your baby’s first smile, first words, first steps, first time eating solids, and other life-changing milestones. Picture receiving a call from the childcare center explaining every detail of your little one’s mishap: “Oh, it’s nothing really, she fell and hit her chin on the corner of the table, she cried and there was blood but it’s stopped.” They reassure you that she is fine but all you want to do is drive over as fast as you can and give her a cuddle; instead, you are stuck at a client presentation, distracted, no longer on your maternal ‘A’ game.
That night as you put her to bed, feeling guilty as hell you wonder: do we really need the extra money? Isn’t it better if I stay at home and make sure this never happens again?
It’s what women do
Traditionalist culture, society expectations, and a woman’s physical body dictate the roles of a male and female. The male as the hunter-gatherer is responsible for looking for food while the female cares for the offspring through breastfeeding, nurture, and love. Consider the role reversal option where the woman provides for the family. A quick Google search on this topic will result in tons of articles, research, books and even movies (think: The Intern) dedicated to this topic.
There is a wealth of advice out there that if we want, we can spend hours researching, swinging from one end of the spectrum to another. The risk of emasculating the man and drawing resentment from the woman is just too high. It may even break your relationship. You may end up divorced. Isn’t that worse?
The key to balancing work and motherhood
There will always be a book, a hospital childbirth class, an experienced parent, or even a stranger on the street who can’t wait to dish out advice about the right way to birth, raise and discipline your child. At seven months pregnant I have already received more advice than I know what to do with. Having a natural birth is better because the hormones released – endorphins and oxytocins – are transferred to your baby, making them more likely to breastfeed. Don’t take drugs because it reduces those happy hormones. Breastfeeding is better than formula milk. The list goes on.
Don’t get me wrong, as a first-time mum I welcome it because knowledge is wisdom, right? However, every woman goes through labour, breastfeeding, and mothering differently. Experiences are vastly different for each child. Enforcing a certain way of life may be helpful for some, but may bring on unnecessary guilt or even postnatal depression for others if it doesn’t go well.
Be it the right time to return to our careers, or never at all, we as women have to make the decision to do what is right by us each step of the way. We must have the confidence to choose what is best for us, our child, our lifestyle and our priorities.
We must remember that there is no right or wrong answer, no matter what others say or what society dictates. We have to trust our motherly instincts. We must stand strong and be willing to make mistakes, then learn from them, because there is more at stake if we don’t. We could be sacrificing the happiness, satisfaction, and wellbeing of not just ourselves, but our children and partners as well.
Lim Kwan-Ann is a business consultant and mother-to-be who has worked on many large-scale organisational change programmes. She is passionate about inspiring others to live life to their fullest potential.
Check out the video below to find out the story of Raja Teh Maimunah, the former Managing Director & CEO of Hong Leong Islamic Bank on how she has achieved success as one of the most influential women in Malaysia's banking industry.