The motherhood penalty and burning out

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

Anna* has twin girls who are 6, a 3 year old boy, and works full time – talk about hectic!! She’s in an HR people partner role, working with a segment of the executive team on their business strategy. 

We talked about sacrificing sleep to make it all work, having boundaries to keep yourself sane and how our careers take a hit after having children.

Who needs sleep anyway? 

After having her twins, Anna returned three days a week into a promotion. She built to four days after two months, but was working overtime hours every week. After a year, and wanting to be paid for that time, she officially went full time. 

The mum guilt was intense; I felt like I was failing in all areas. I wasn’t getting all of my work done in the 4 days, I was working additional hours at night. I might as well be paid for the work I’m doing.”

She took another promotion, reporting into the global head office, which would mean she had to work nights (due to the time zone difference) but could be a bit more present with her twins during the day. She thought, 

“That’s fine I can do it and have the Friday off because I’ll be on calls from midnight until 2am. That’s fine, I don’t need to sleep! I can just be doing this cool job, being awake and present and a wonderful human for my children when they’re home.”

The reality of the global role meant that she DID have the flexibility to take some time out in the day for the day care run and to be with her twins, but being up so late catching up on work and connecting with the global office became unsustainable after some time.

“Six years ago, we weren’t as flexible as we are now, so my local boss thought if you were working from then you were just taking a day off. While I didn’t get much sleep, the flexible hours allowed me to go back into the workforce.”

77% of women say they are burned out

Three months ago, Anna hit burnout, joining the vast majority of working mothers

Her team size halved, doubling her workload alongside self-admitted perfectionism. She was dropping her kids to school, going straight to work, blocking out 4pm – 8pm to collect, feed, bathe and put her kids to bed (the second shift), and was then back online until midnight to catch up. Before getting up early in the morning to do it all again.

Additionally, one of her daughters has separation anxiety. That was ramping up, school drop off was horrific, and Anna was arriving home in tears trying to gather herself for the workday ahead.

“I was not getting enough sleep, eating shit, not getting to yoga, and even if I did find time for yoga then I was up even later to catch up.”

There was no light at the tunnel for when it would end, another project came in, and Anna completely melted down. She realised,

“There’s no values alignment. [I thought], I don’t think this is the place for me anymore, but I have no energy to go anywhere else. I feel stuck, because the effort to put myself out there to go and impress in a new role feels too much. I’ve got nothing to give; I’m scraping the barrel every day.”

How boundaries can help you find yourself again

Anna reached out to her boss to share how badly she was struggling. Knowing her perfectionism tendencies, he pushed her to put some boundaries in place.

“He directed me to do business critical work only and say no to anything else. He would back me up, but I needed to be able to set that boundary.”

Now Anna is taking Monday mornings off to take her son to swimming lessons and has no-meeting-Fridays to catch up on work and emails. Despite the support of her boss, putting boundaries in place was hard.

“Saying no was difficult. I still find that a bit of a challenge. How do you find different ways to say, ‘that ain’t my job!’, without being the person who says that?”

For many women, including Anna, allowing downtime and rest can be just as difficult as saying no in the first place. She’s taking Friday afternoons off now but feels the constant pressure to be ‘doing’ and maximising her free time.

“I actually find Fridays really challenging. There’s always that moment of, I’ve got this spare time, I need to make every second count. Can I go and do a yoga class, or I could do these 75 things to be productive. This is golden time, am I using this entirely the best possible way?”

Boundaries need to be made in context, and Anna has the support of her boss in decreasing her hours and taking a step back. But if you find you suffer from perfectionism, don’t know how to say no, and can’t let yourself rest, I can help. In Anna’s words,

“Perfectionism is a unicorn. Work that out and life becomes instantly more enjoyable.”

The negative career impact of motherhood

When women have children, they are seen as less authoritative, less committed and they face a per-child wage penalty

Even good intentions can manifest as bias to mothers. Anna has found herself not invited to meetings requiring travel, as people assume she won’t want to go while she has small children.

“I wish people would stop the biased assumptions. Yes, I have kids and yes I’m able to get myself on a plane. Now I’m the only one dialling in on zoom for your full day meeting.”

She has also been paid unfairly and subject to a gender pay bias. A much less experienced male colleague took Anna’s job when she went on her first parental leave, but he was given a much higher salary than she had ever been on. And although she came back to a promotion, her pay rise was small – because they had used the money to bump the younger male’s salary up. 

“I think that was directly linked to me going on my mat leave.”

The role she had before her current job was made an Asia Pacific role that needed to be on Singapore time. Her boss said, ‘I know you’ve got young children and those hours won’t work for you, so it’s probably not a role you should consider’. Anna’s initial response was,

“How dare you make that assumption! I can do this!”

She laughs that for a while it was just stubbornness leading the way, but she has had to make some trade offs in her career to help balance family and work. 

“I don’t think it has halted my career, in the sense that my career has accelerated since having my youngest.  But it has impacted some of the conversations and types of opportunities.”

She would likely have travelled to work in the company’s global headquarters without family obligations. With the Singapore opportunity, she decided that working through the 4pm – 8pm peak family-needs time would be too difficult, and she has previously taken roles specifically to give her flexibility to manage her children.

The superpowers mothers bring to the workplace

“I wish people had more of an appreciation for the life skills that mothers bring to organisations. It’s not a gap on your cv, you actually come back with a hell of a lot more capability, resilience and critical thinking.”

Despite the new skills we collect on parental leave, Anna thinks that the new post-baby person isn’t recognised with the same level of value as the person who left to go on parental leave (or maybe before getting pregnant).  

There is a huge internal shift that happens when you become a mother. But when you return to work, everyone thinks you’re exactly the same person as you were before and everything will be just as it was.

“That was profound when I returned [to work]. I am not the same person that I was when I walked out the door. There’s a belief that it’s just like you went on annual leave. You’re back refreshed and ready to go. But I’m not refreshed, I’m very different and I haven’t been on holiday. Equally, I’ve learned a hell of a lot of things that are useful in an organisation.”

If she could share some words of wisdom with her younger self, Anna shares;

“Never apologise for being a parent!! Say, ‘I am unavailable at that time’, not ‘I’m sorry I’m a parent’. I would catch myself in that apology zone, which is then self perpetuating being limited because you are a mum. I don’t apologise anymore.”

Getting help to shift your circumstances

The motherhood penalty, the gender pay gap, and the realities of part time work are all systemic barriers to women’s progression, and can’t be changed by one person. But as we are all individuals within that system, we can change the role we play in shaping our own lives and careers. If you’d like to chat about how I can help you set boundaries, say no, ask for what you deserve and speak up, get in touch here.

*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and difficulty finding meaningful part time work, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

If you would like to share your story, please send me a message!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.