Mental health, exercise and shared care

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

Philippa* has two small girls, aged 4.5 and 2. She works full time in an organisational development role in financial services.

We talk mental load, exercising for mental health, and why the shared care model is so important.

How shared care impacts gender equality

After having her second daughter, Philippa returned to work part time at six months. Her husband spread his parental leave over a number of months, taking off the days that Philippa was back at work. He also took time off when they were in the USA and the daycare shut for summer break. 

This shared care model, where both parents are active in the lives of their very young children, leads to higher rates of workforce participation, better economic security for women, and improvements in child development. 

For Philippa and her family, it meant her husband had full responsibility for both children, gave him perspective into her experience, and improved his bonds with his children.

But Philippa doesn’t like people talking about full time caregivers as only stay at home mothers.

“As someone who works full time, I’m still a full-time caregiver. The hours that I’m at work, I’m not *not caring for my kids. I’m planning and thinking about my kids and that mental load is still there. You might outsource the onsite supervision, but you can’t outsource the actual parenting.”

Philippa – like so many women in Beyond the 9 to 5 – wants to work. She wants her daughters to see her as a whole person with varied interests.  

“Work gives me time to achieve things that aren’t directly focused on my children. I develop people, and I’m passionate about that. I want to be able to show [my girls] that I’m an expert in the field and I made a difference. I want them to be able to see that you can do whatever you want.”

The weight of the mental load

Like so many women, Philippa carries the bulk of the mental load and spends time managing her husband to work as a team.

“A lot of women find this – it’s natural for me to be thinking about life admin all the time and planning doctors appointments and sports and birthday presents for parties. I have to be proactive in not assuming my husband knows what’s planned.”

She gave a great example of what Fair Play calls conception, planning, and execution – the three stages of every task.

“I know that if I were to tell him our daughter has a birthday party on Saturday, he would be very focused on getting her to the party. But the steps up to it would be lacking, like getting the presents and making sure nothing else is planned at the same time.”

She hastens to add that her partner is really hands-on, they share drop-offs and pick-ups, and they plan family logistics together at the start of each week. And she manages the overall family load by splitting it into mental and physical loads.

“Sometimes I feel resentful, but I try to balance any mental load with physical load from him.”

So, while she drives creating that balance, it also means she’s not planning AND doing it all. She and her husband also work to their natural talents, so he works on big picture things like choosing schools and thinking about where they will live while she manages the day to day.

Giving up elite sport to focus on mental health

When she had her first daughter, Philippa stopped competing in road cycling.

“I just didn’t have the time or the energy and physical ability anymore. I know a lot of women do go back to elite sport after children, but I didn’t want to.”

It’s well researched that women are more likely to give up sport and exercise to care for children while men preserve it – there’s a reason why there’s no woman version of MAMIL. So, Philippa works hard to prioritise her exercise time. 

Exercise is still important to Philippa, but now instead of competing, it’s for physical health, sanity and some time alone. She says it’s still often a battle to get out the door, but she tries to focus on how she’ll feel afterwards.

“I have to be really protective of things like exercise and be really conscious of things that promote mental health for me.”

She’s also worked on reframing things to focus on what she can control.

“In prior years, if I received negative feedback at work, I would have dwelt on it, and it would have had a real impact on me. Now I have to think, what do I have control over and what do I have the power to change?”

“I’ve taken control of as much as I can when it comes to mental. It doesn’t always work.  There are days when you wake up and have been griding your teeth all night because things do get to you. At the end of the day the goal is to come home and have happy and supported children, and for them to see you be a bit vulnerable as well.”

And while she wouldn’t say she’s burnt out, she does share,

“It feels like I’m on the edge of getting to the edge all time.”

“I never have days where I wish I didn’t have the children, bit I have days when I wish that I could plan an overseas trip and go by myself, and be sure I wasn’t missing the children and they weren’t missing me. There are impossible scenarios that I wish I could do. There are no perfect decisions anymore.”

Bringing our challenges to light

Philippa is the only person in her team with children and one of few in the entire organisation, in a male dominated industry, which presents some challenges.

“I wish that everybody knew that when I get to work, I’ve never had a solid night’s sleep. I’ve been up getting the kids ready for hours, I’ve probably gone through some drama. Being a working mum, you’re living so many different lives before you even get to work, and that doesn’t stop once you’re sitting at your desk.”

While the conversation around bringing your authentic self to work has improved hugely in recent years, Philippa wants to see that extend more to parents.

“I think we need to talk about it more from a parenting perspective. It’s me coming in and saying, ‘I’m so tired today because I didn’t sleep last night. I may not be at the top of my game, but I’ll get what needs to be done, done. It humanises everything.”

Recognising and embracing our lives outside of work benefits everyone.

“There’s not one person sitting in the office who doesn’t have something going on outside work. Whether that’s children, or mental health, or anything that’s taking some of their mental energy away from what’s going on at work.”

If people didn’t have to put energy into hiding their challenges, then we’d all be better supported.

*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the potential repercussions of speaking up, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous. 

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