The myth of part time work and burning out

Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.

April* has been married almost 20 years and has two children ages 16 and 14. April talks about gender fatigue and the challenges of combining working and parenting, and shares her story of making values-based career decisions.

Quote: “I thought, ‘Something’s wrong with me that I can’t make this work,’ instead of
looking at what was being asked of me.”

The myth of part time work

April started her career working in tax for one of the Big 4 accounting firms.

“I was ambitious. Little miss responsibility. I was the perfect employee in terms of compliance and working hard and doing extra hours.”

After a year on parental leave with her oldest child, April returned to work three days a week, and it was a shock to the system.

“My role didn’t change much, so I was essentially condensing full time into three days. I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this work, something’s wrong with me that I can’t make this work,’ instead of looking at what was being asked of me.”

This challenge of full time hours for part time pay, and internalising the struggle as their own issue rather than a problem within the workplace is so common among the women I’ve spoken with.

When everything unravels

For her second parental leave, April took ten months and returned to a new, more senior role. But it was hard.

“I cried a lot. My role involved a different type of work that wasn’t really my strength, and a lot of networking events and conferences that just meant I wasn’t at home more after hours. Something always popped up, and I just wanted to do my work and go home. I wanted to compartmentalise and I struggled with that.”

“My work ethic didn’t change, but my priorities did in terms of the conflict of wanting to be at home with my kids.”

Dealing with mum guilt

With a 1.5 year age gap between her children and a big job, April’s young kids were in daycare and being looked after by grandparents. Like many mums, April felt guilty not spending more time with them.

“At daycare they were the first kid to be dropped off and the last to be picked up. That’s hard and your priorities change. I decided I didn’t need to become partner [in the accounting firm].”

“I wanted to be a stay at home mum, but I was earning more than my husband, so I just made it work.”

Reaching breaking point

April was petrified, but she knew she needed a change. She was shoehorning a full time role into three days of work, and it got so bad she was sometimes working until four in the morning, then getting up at six am to start it all again.

“I just thought I couldn’t do the job and it was my failing, so I just have to work longer and harder to do it all. I had to take some time out, I was diagnosed with moderate generalised anxiety and depression, so I had three months out of work.”

When she gave her handover notes to her boss, April was told she was doing the equivalent of two full timer roles in her three days (plus ridiculous overtime).

“Because I thought it was just me, I hadn’t put my hand up to say I didn’t have capacity to take more on. I remember taking time one day and going into a quiet office, and just freezing. I didn’t know what to do or where to focus.”

Using values to drive decision making

“I had no idea what I was going to do afterwards. All I knew was, there were six months before my daughter started school and I just really wanted to spend time with her.”

April had always wanted to volunteer, so started as a crisis supporter with a not for profit. She was then offered a part time office role with the charity.

“I was drawn to it by the mission of the organisation. It meant a ridiculous pay drop, but my husband said we could make it work.”

After a period of full time and high demands, she’s dropped to two days a week and is more connected to why she wants to work.

“I enjoy working, keeping busy, the money, showing your kids that you can balance and giving them a reason to step up [in the home]. I enjoy working with my team. It’s another part of my life, and gives me a different purpose.”

She loves being able to get to school sports, and watch her kids getting awards, but says 12 months into her two days a week role, she’s wondering whether she wants to do more again.

Career off ramps and on ramps

This experience of April’s – shifting from full time to parental leave to part time to a NFP to full time to part time and now considering her next move – is a great example of a career on and off ramps.

Harvard Business Review reports that 43% of highly qualified women with children have voluntarily left work at some point during their careers. Those are the off ramps – things like children, caring responsibilities, burnout, and lack of meaningful work.

But when it comes to on-ramps, they are much harder to access. Only 40% of ‘off-ramped’ women return to work full time. This is due to a number of structural barriers that make it hard to regain traction.

Gender fatigue – haven’t we talked about this enough yet?

Gender fatigue is just what it says on the box – fatigue around the work and discussion to move towards gender equity, despite continued evidence that it still exists. And April has experienced exactly that.

“Some people get sick of hearing and talking about gender equality.”

She wants people and organisations to understand why it’s still important and shouldn’t be treated as a box-ticking exercise.

“Going back to work after having kids is a struggle, full stop. Regardless of flexible working and all that jazz it’s still a struggle.”

“Mums are lying awake at night thinking about how to manage the next day and what the week looks like. We’re doing our side, but what are organisations doing to support it? They’re doing some things, but I don’t know whether it’s enough.”

But despite the challenge to continually realign her life with her values, April says if she could speak to her younger self, she’d say;

“It’s going to be ok. Follow your heart.”

*Not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the fact that the state of women’s relationships directly affects the state of their lives and careers, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

If you would like to share your story, please send me a message!

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