Beyond the flex ceiling: the motherhood penalty, burnout and finding your values

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

Karoline* was supposed to be on leave the week we chatted but had spent each day online chasing things from her leadership team to meet a deadline. It’s not the first time she’s worked beyond her contracted hours, and with a six year old daughter and two year old son, she’s reconsidering her priorities in work and life.

Quote: "I deserve to at least have some chance of feeling like a human outside of it all."

Full time hours on a part time pay check

So many women interviewed for Beyond the 9 to 5 to work well beyond their part time hours, and Karoline is in the same boat. Her role was supposed to be a manageable workload in 3.5 days. But the team Karoline supports is relatively new and has high needs. In her mind, poor job design means the work required doesn’t fit into even a full time position.

“I regularly work at night, I work most nights of the week. I’ve been putting my son into extra days of child care to keep on top of the work. That’s pretty exhausting.”

Manager roulette: when the wheel lands on ‘lose’

Manager roulette happens when workplaces don’t apply policies consistently – so your experience, and what you’re allowed in terms of flex and other benefits, depend on your direct manager.

Because she’s been doing so much overtime, Karoline has requested to return to full time hours in a compressed week (5 days in 4). She has faced a lot of resistance from her boss, despite other people at her same level already working compressed weeks. But as she says,

“I am no longer going to donate my time to a giant organisation.”

“I’ve been telling him how many extra hours I worked each week. I am one of those annoying people who constantly reminds people I work part time and the timelines are different for me.”

“I’m very vocal and transparent about the fact I work flexibly and it’s because I have young children.”

The motherhood penalty and missing out on opportunities

The motherhood penalty has women face a pay reduction for up to a decade after having children, while also being seen as less ambitious and committed. Karoline has lost out on opportunities during her career, including a promotion opportunity while she was on parental leave.

“The entire process was undertaken before I was even told about it. My team had been restructured and I had a new boss, and I found out after the whole process.”

Despite all her peers applying for the promotion, Karoline was told, ‘Oh we didn’t think you’d be interested in that’. Still a bit angry about it now, she shares,

The restructure ended up meaning she returned from parental leave without a role to go into – a shocking outcome that happens way more often than it should (which is never). In fact, Karoline experienced this with both her pregnancies, in two different organisations.

When your job disappears on maternity leave

“They removed my role from the structure when I went on leave, then put it back in and permanently filled it. Then when that person didn’t work out, they rang but I said, ‘no thanks’. After all that you need to find me a new role.”

A lack of business organisation saw Karoline having weekly conversations trying to arrange a role and ensure she would even have IT system access from 12 weeks before her planned return to work date.

“You lose all IT access when you go on unpaid leave. It makes you feel like you are no longer part of the organisation. You’re no longer trusted because you’re on unpaid leave and having a child.”

A friend within the workplace eventually said there was a temporary role available in their team, so Karoline could at least transition back to work and then look for the right role.

“It was a pretty distressing process. They even suggested at one point that I delay my return so they could have more time to work it out. But I said they’ve known about this for ages, I’ve been adjusting my kids to daycare and school, I’ve done all the things on my end, now you need to hold up your end of the bargain.”

Fighting for flexibility (and not just for mums)

While trying to work out what her next internal opportunity was going to be, Karoline bumped into the maternal wall again. Asking a hiring manager what would need to change in a role for her to be able to do it in 3.5 days a week, and the manager abruptly said,

“Oh I didn’t know you wanted to work part time, this role has to be full time,”

and hung up!

As Karoline shared, we need to consider flexibility not just for mothers, but for retirees that we want to keep in the workforce, or millennials who want portfolio careers. As the workforce changes, and peoples’ goals and desired change, job design need to change with it.

“Having flex for one diverse group increases the opportunity for other diverse groups.”

And despite her challenges with finding accommodating roles and working part time, Karoline is firm;

“Flexibility can work. Just because everyone doesn’t have a great experience with it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. We need to keep trying, and being vocal and giving feedback to find a way to make it work.”

What do you wish more people understood about the experience of being a working mother?

“That we ask a lot of our families and our children to make it work, and we don’t always ask as much from our organisations to make it work. We put our kids in long day care, before and after school care, and they deal with the tired you at the end of the day, but you don’t always get the support and flexibility from the organisation. We just expect our families and kids to absorb it.”

Karoline refers to this neoliberal approach where it’s up to the individual to change and make things work, not organisations to be supportive and flexible – because we need women in the workforce, and we need kids to grow up well adjusted to participate in the workforce as adults.

“I wish that more working mums, myself included, asked more from organisations and had the courage to push back to create arrangements that works for everyone.”

The Burnout pandemic

Many, many women interviewed for Beyond the 9 to 5 have also reported some level of burnout. For Karoline, it depends a bit on the day but she’s not thriving.

“I feel like burnt out is a bit of a spectrum. I’m not at complete burnout but I’m certainly not at the wellness end of the spectrum. I’ve had days recently where I was sitting at my desk crying, I’m so tired, I can’t see my screen, and just thought, ok this is not a good sign.”

Karoline knew that was a sign to look after herself, and has taken a broad approach

  • Going to bed earlier to get more sleep (which she admits is not always easy with a non-sleeping child)
  • Eating better, because we don’t make the best choices when we’re tired and busy
  • Socialising, although it can be hard to find the time
  • She’s made it clear she won’t collect her kids after 5pm, which means leaving the office by 4:15

“That’s non-negotiable. On the flip side I will log in at night and finish things if I haven’t completed them during the day.”

“I need to remind myself that I’m not saving babies, it’s just a job. Squeezing in one more meeting isn’t going to make me a better employee”

“I deserve to at least have some chance of feeling like a human outside of it all.”

Returning to your values and reclaiming yourself

With increasing work pressures, two children, a husband who got an injury that left him unable to participate in household tasks for a long period, and ending up completely burnt out, now Karoline is looking at what really matters to her.

“So much of my identify before having kids was tied up in work. I derived a lot of my value from doing a good job and being perceived as being a good worker. When that gets tangled up with being a good worker and a good mother you set yourself up to fail. Both of those scenarios are impossible on their own, let alone together.”

“I’ve done a lot of work over the last two years to really connect back with what’s important to me and what makes me, me and I wish I’d spent more time doing that before I had kids. I wish I’d thought about what’s more important to me and made more values based decisions earlier on rather than what was expected of me.”  

“I work because I enjoy it and I enjoy the person I am when I’m working, and I want to find that right mix between work and being present with my kids. It’s a continual experiment.”

You don’t have to work it all out alone

When we don’t see the structural barriers around us, we end up thinking that the things we struggle with are our own personal deficiency.

If you have been feeling that you just need to work harder or try harder, as though you’re not doing enough and that’s why you’re not where you want to be, get in touch, I can help.

*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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