Whatever we do, we don’t feel like enough

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

Ashley* has a 3 year old daughter and is 27 weeks pregnant with her second. Working three days a week as an Occupational Therapist in a special needs school, her experience working in a female-dominated industry is distinct from some women I’ve spoken to in more corporate roles. 

She still finds herself on the verge of burnout though, which is a common theme from women in Beyond the 9 to 5. And she has very little time to herself.

No one feels like enough

Like almost every woman in Beyond the 9 to 5, Ashley struggles with juggling all her roles.

“[My biggest challenge is] feeling like I’m giving 100% in any one of my roles. I don’t feel like I’m giving 100% at work, or with my daughter or with my husband.”

“I wish I was doing more, or I think of how I used to be and I’m sad that I’m not like that anymore. I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail and not working to the best I believe I can. The word phoney comes up. I feel like I need to fake it till I make it.”

None of Ashley’s fears about her performance are founded on fact though. Her boss is supportive, she was given additional responsibilities when she returned from her first parental leave, and the school is understanding of timeframe adjustments for part time workers.

At home, Ashley also feels like she’s failing.

“In the early days I was a really involved parent. We did lots of activities, whereas now just getting out of the house feels really challenging. I’m putting her in front of the tv more than I ever had been just to get things done.” 

I’m sure there are a few people who can relate with putting your kids in front of the tv to get some work done, and then feeling guilty about it!

When burnout feels like the only path

At this stage, Ashley feels like all she can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“I just keep going. I’m trying to find ways to stop that constant feeling of chasing my own tail. I’m trying to prioritise. If I’m busy at work usually my house is a mess.”

Ashley spoke to her boss who introduced an additional planning period to help her get on top of work. She also tries to remember that busy times will come and go.

“The saying, this too shall pass, always resonated with me, even prior to having my daughter.”

Because she’s feeling uncertain about her level of productivity at work, Ashley is working more on her days off. She feels like her house is always a mess, and on top of that she’s trying to make sure the family’s diet is healthy, her daughter is engaged and her dog is walked, all whilst pregnant and dealing with morning sickness. 

It’s a lot, and it’s no wonder that mothers are burning out.

Trading career for family

Many women in Beyond the 9 to 5 have shared that, at least at some point, they have made career decisions specifically to make space for their family and children, and Ashley is no different.

Working in a school is heavily female-dominated, which means the environment is supportive and understanding of pregnancy and family. But the industry salary is low.

“My husband always asks, ‘Why don’t you go and work in private practice, you’d be earning so much more money?’ But I’ve said, 100% the support would not be there. Especially now with my daughter being sick with childcare germs and me having to take time off, it just wouldn’t work somewhere else.”

There may also be an element of ‘the devil you know’ in Ashley’s decision making. Many women in Beyond the 9 to 5 have shared that they are staying in their role or company because they know they can work flexibly, they have built enough of a reputation to be trusted with working from home, and moving to a potentially more fulfilling role in a new company is too big a risk to trade off.

Setting realistic expectations of motherhood

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

“Just how full on it is. [Before having kids} I just saw people doing it and thought, great they’re going on their merry way being a mum at home.”

Like many mums, Ashley wishes people knew that by the time she got to work she’s already been up for hours caring for her daughter. 

“I think when you see other people doing it, you think, ‘She must have her sh!t together, she’s doing fine’. But you don’t realise what’s actually happening internally and behind closed doors, and how much of a struggle it can be.”

Ashley herself has really struggled with the picture of perfection that some people display.

“I remember everyone saying, ‘OMG motherhood is the best thing ever and you’re going to love it and I wouldn’t change a thing’. I felt like that constantly plays on your mind. It’s not spoken enough about that it’s not always going to feel that way and it’s ok to not think motherhood is the be all and end all. As a society were getting better at acknowledging it and talking more freely about it.”

She had people cooing that life would never be the same (in a positive way). So, when she found it challenging, she wondered why she wasn’t loving every second of being a parent.

“As soon as I hear people say stuff like that now I think, ok well I know you’re not being honest.”

Not a moment to herself

For Ashley, time to herself is an absolute premium. Right now, her favourite activity is just napping, as she tries to make it through this challenging pregnancy.

“I’m not able to fit in much time to do things for myself, but I’ll still make a priority of going to get my nails and waxing done. That’s the one thing I do, but aside from that there’s nothing.”

If you’d like to talk about how to reclaim some of your own joy and fulfillment, reach out here.

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