Equality starts in the lounge room (and doesn’t always get to the board room)

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

Vanessa* works full time as an accountant in a mining consultancy business. She’s married with three kids age 6, 9, and 13. 

She’s working full time now after taking a step back for some years, and now she’s kicking goals. We talked about all the ways her life has hit stereotypes – time to recover earnings, the fatherhood pay bump, and separating being a mother and being a maid.

Working overtime for free

Vanessa believed that to be a good mother, she needed to work part time (we all have unfounded stories like this, don’t we). So, following her first parental leave, and after years of career success and lofty ambitions, she went back to her role leading a finance team in a four day work week. 

She ended up working full time – and more – for 80% pay, to make sure they still saw her as a high performer.

“I think particularly after having children we need to prove that we’re as good as we used to be or as good as our male counterpart. I must prove that I’m as good as my job.”

She was commuting 90 minutes each way every day, and the full responsibility of managing flexibility around daycare fell to her.

“It was up to me to change jobs even though I was in a better job than my husband. He would never have asked for flexibility because that would have been genuinely career limiting, and we thought let’s only wreck one career not two.”

After a year, Vanessa took a 50% pay cut and took a job with no commute. But it came at a cost.

“He most definitely bullied me, when I was in this really vulnerable position.”

She also commented on a theme that’s come through the range of stories in Beyond the 9 to 5:

“When I talk to other mums, they so often stay in these uninspiring and under valued jobs because they have the flexibility.”

Women often share that they prefer to stay where they know the flexibility can work for their family, even if it comes at a cost of lack of job satisfaction or progression opportunities, and very often working more than their contracted hours.

When taking a step back leaves you unfulfilled

A few years later, Vanessa moved back to Australia from the UK with her family. She searched for part time work but couldn’t find a role anywhere. Weighing up her options, she took a deliberate step back into a more junior role, hoping it would allow her time with her kids despite being full time. She found it entirely unsatisfactory.

“I remember leaving work one day and thinking I’d really like to get hit by a bus, and not necessarily to die but go into a coma for a couple of months just to rest. I was thinking, I chose the wrong profession, and maybe I shouldn’t have been a mother either. I remember driving home thinking, this is not good.”

Two weeks before COVID hit, she walked out with nothing to go to.

“I remember making the decision [to quit]. I was on a boat, and asked [myself], is this really making me happy? What am I doing? I was listening to an audio on radical responsibility, and I thought, ‘I’m in charge of this, I have the power to change it.”

Because of COVID, she ended up having seven months off, but Vanessa wasn’t willing to compromise on what she wanted.

“I was no longer going to be in a more junior role than I am capable of, but I was adamant I was going to be part time. I knew there is this huge amount of women who step out of the workforce or into more junior positions. They’re still burnt out, they’re still trying to prove who they are.”

She wasn’t willing anymore to work below her ability – especially if it meant she was going to be burnt out by it all anyway.

Recovering earnings a decade later

Mothers’ earnings are negatively impacted for up to a decade following having children. That was the case for Vanessa, who took a pay cut to go part-time initially, then a more junior role that was full-time but didn’t pay particularly well. Now, she’s back full-time in a senior role, and her increased earnings allow her to outsource more of the in-home labour.

“Over the space of a decade I probably earned half of what I earned when I was 28, but I was working as hard if not harder, and I didn’t have the funds to outsource. Now, I earn more than double what I did 18 months ago.”

The motherhood penalty sees women facing a decrease in their salary for every child that they have, with long term impacts. Conversely, men who have children receive a salary bump (as long as they remain full-time in the workforce). 

Vanessa always worked harder and earned significantly more than her husband before they has children. Even taking into account her now-doubled salary, he still earns $30k more than Vanessa at the moment, and she works much longer hours.

“The frustrating part is that I didn’t step out of the workforce! I held on, clinging on for dear life. And I’m lucky I ended up here – if I hadn’t, I’d still be earning way less and be frustrated about not using my abilities. That’s where so many women get stuck.”

Being a mother vs being a maid

One of the biggest frustrations in Vanessa’s life is the imbalance of domestic load and how mothers are expected to do all the drudgery in the home.

“I signed up to be a mum not a maid. Why does the running of the home, organising where kids need to be, the damn tooth fairy… why is it, as default, my job?”

She half-jokes an incredibly common frustration about husbands:

“They look after their own children and need a medal for it.”

Our culture devalues the work done by women, while simultaneously needing to reward and thank partners who step up and do the largely-invisible work in the home. 

With her increased earnings and job pressure, along with a realisation of her values and what’s important to her, Vanessa now has a nanny three days a week who does chores and childcare while Vanessa and her husband both work.  She emphatically stresses that she thinks women should be able to choose whatever approach works for them.

Equality starts in the lounge room

Despite her outsourcing, the mental load still firmly sits with Vanessa. This remains one of her biggest frustrations in life right now.

“Why is it on me? I’ve done a fair bit in outsourcing the execution of tasks, but the mental load very much sits with me. It feels like this constant hamster wheel of life feels really busy even though on the surface it looks in control.”

Tracey Spicer says, ‘Equality starts in the lounge room before it gets to the board room’. Without having an equitable distribution of the domestic load and caring duties, the person doing all the work in the home – which is almost always women – struggles to have a fulfilling career.

“That’s a huge part of why my career has been like it was – because I haven’t had the equality in my lounge room. I’ve got a good husband, who will do whatever is delegated to him, but there is no real ownership. We’ve been together from a young age and I guess we never really had the conversations about what it means to become parents.” 

“Even though I’d always been this fierce feminist, we just fell into these stereotypical circumstances and that feminist died for a decade. I couldn’t quite understand it.”

Vanessa thinks that ‘losing her feminist’ is a result of identity shifts that happen after having a baby.

“When we step out of the workforce for that fist maternity leave, our identify is wrapped up in our job and career. I no longer have my own money or any sense of doing a good job. I don’t get a performance appraisal at the end of the day saying, good job you kept that child alive.”

“Because of that, I just did more and more, and felt I must prove that I was a good wife, and a good mother. Prior to kids, he did all the cooking and most of that stuff. We had kids and it just completely switched. I took on all the doing, and he just waited for instructions.”

“Then when you go back to work, I’m working part time, so I should still continue to do all those things, because I’m earning less now.”

Are mums even happy

For Vanessa, finding the right balance in her life started with a true assessment of her values, and whether her life was aligned to them. She wants things to change so more mothers feel truly happy.

“What mums do you talk to… Are any of them actually genuinely happy? The people who are honest – and I think a lot more people are honest now – aren’t. I don’t know what the solution is, but I don’t think we’ve hit the mark.”

For Vanessa, the search continues and she is still asking the questions.

“But then, the answer is with us. It comes from within. If we know our values and we know what we want. It’s not just about kids, it’s the whole life that we live. But life is passing us by so quickly that we don’t even notice.”

If you feel like Vanessa, that life is passing you by so quickly that you look around and don’t even really know how you ended up here, get in touch.

*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the challenges of the juggle, 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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