Exhaustion and the juggle

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

Beth* is a mother to two girls aged 9 and 6 and the primary earner in her family. She shares the struggle with changing careers when you’re burnt out and finding meaning amongst the juggle.

Quote: “It’s the constant weighing up of where your time and energy goes. That constant juggle and never feeling like you’re doing either particularly well.”

The broken rung

Lean In Org says the “broken rung” is the biggest obstacle women face in their career progression. It’s harder for women to step up, and they’re more likely to be sidelined due to the motherhood penalty. Beth feels these challenges.

“I work a 9-day fortnight which may as well be full time. Four years ago, a few weeks before lockdown, I decided to do a sideways pivot, and it’s been a chaotic 4 years; COVID, a new job, working remotely, moving house, kids starting school, my husband retraining and finding work, building a new community down here. Lots of things!”

She doesn’t feel strongly skilled for her not-so-new-now job and can’t see a clear pathway to something more fulfilling.

“I haven’t really enjoyed work for a long time. That’s due to many reasons around wanting to be a better mother, not feeling like I can do that with the time and energy I’ve got, not getting a huge amount of satisfaction from what I’m doing. It’s become a bit of a means to an end.”

Being trapped by exhaustion

Beth isn’t fulfilled but doesn’t have the energy to make a big change. She was confronted recently while talking to her girls about work though.

“They’ll say things to me now like, ‘Mum, do you not like your job?’. So they know. My daughter said, mum I don’t want a hard job like yours.”

But when I asked her why she’s sticking with it – she’s been at her company for 16 years – she talked about security and exhaustion.

She’s the primary breadwinner and feels the weight of that responsibility – without Beth’s income, they couldn’t afford the mortgage. But she’s not excited about work anymore. She likes the safety of working in a company that never has looming redundancies. But maybe most importantly,

“I’m not in the best headspace to be able to put myself out there, I’m exhausted and burnt out.”

She doesn’t feel like she has a superpower at work anymore, and says frankly,

“I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to get a new job at the moment.”

Fulfillment and motherhood

“I’ve always worked, and it’s always been an important part of my life.”

For Beth, the sweet spot was returning to work after her first child. She enjoyed the work, didn’t feel stretched too thin, and was kicking goals. But having two children felt exponentially more difficult.

“I wasn’t investing in myself, I was more and more run down with lots of tearyness. All of those things add to feelings of vulnerability because you’re not really in a state to put yourself out there.”

“It’s not directly related to kids but it’s a symptom of being a working parent. Now it just feels safer to stay where I am.”

But despite that, Beth has felt proud of going to work and taking an active parenting role.

“If you’re doing a job you enjoy then you’re happy, and being a happy person is a great thing for your kids.”

The constant juggle

The challenge of being a working parent, for Beth, is being pulled in different directions.

“It’s the constant weighing up of where your time and energy goes. That constant juggle and never feeling like you’re doing either particularly well. It’s very hard having a foot in each camp.”

“Today is my daughter’s swimming carnival and I couldn’t go. I had a little cry at drop off.”

She does have some flexibility to go to things at school but can’t make it to everything.

“Sometimes it just feels so squeezed. You’re so hemmed in. I do also think it’s good for them to do things without me sometimes. I’ve set them up and I know they’re going to be ok.”

True support and why it matters

Like so many of the women interviewed for Beyond the 9 to 5, Beth’s work doesn’t always apply policies effectively, and manager’s attitude has a big impact on individual experience.

“Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the [voiced] understanding and the actions that follow. My boss will make those tokenistic comments that I have a very busy life, but it’s not enough. There’s so much hidden work that goes on. You can’t quantify it, and it’s VERY hard to understand if you’re not in that position.”

Beth’s previous boss worked all hours and lived to work, so Beth was happy to have a new boss with a baby.

“I was excited that we might have a bit more equilibrium in the team and better understanding of working parents. But it turns out she’s an A type workaholic as well. She has one day off a week but still replies straight away, and is online at 10pm.”

This role models to the team that they should always be on, but as Beth says,

“I need to have delineation and not have work in my brain all the time, because there are other things that need to be in my brain!”

Imposter syndrome vs reality

Beth sees other women in Director positions who seem to be nailing it and can’t understand why she can’t keep up. This challenge is a common one and a huge driver behind Beyond the 9 to 5.

When we can’t see the systemic barriers around us, then we explain issues by focusing on our own personal deficiencies. But we just see the façade that other people are offering, and Beth has no idea how much in home support some of these successful Directors might have.

Sharing these stories in Beyond the 9 to 5 helps women see that their reality is a shared one. Everyone* feels stretched too thin, and everyone* wants to be an active, engaged parent while also performing at work in a meaningful way. And you’re not alone in the challenges you face trying to do it all.

*not everyone but so many.

*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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