Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.
Katie* has two girls aged 11 and 7, is married, and works four days a week. We talk about finding some sort of balance, unicorn space, and facing discrimination as a working mother.
Work life IMbalance
“I feel like my work life balance is all out of whack, and trying to redress that is really hard.”
She admitted this was a terrible week to ask about balance, but at the start of this year Katie dropped down to four days of work a week. She often works more than her contracted hours though.
“You have to be hardcore in protecting it, and I haven’t been. Most weekends I’ll work a few hours, and there will be at least a few nights each week when I work longer hours. I’m working more hours than what I’m paid for.”
Because of the regular overtime hours, Katie is currently putting together a business case to work a compressed week – paid full time while protecting her Friday off work.
But what’s out of balance for Katie right now is the meaning she (doesn’t) get from her work. If she’s going to be working constantly, she wants it to be on something that she feels excited by and proud of. So that’s something she’s looking for right now.
Being sidelined as a working mother
Before taking parental leave for her second child, Katie recalls being eight-and-a-half months pregnant, working “insane” hours, going into the office on her days off, determined to prove how dedicated she was.
Despite that intense effort, when she returned part time they moved her into a different role, claiming her old position couldn’t be done part time.
“They left it right till the last minute to tell me. I had a job to go back to but it was the worst job I’ve ever had in my life, and it was just ridiculous. It was shitty treatment.”
Looking back, and with the strength that returns when your kids have grown out of the newborn/toddler phases, Katie thinks she could have fought them on the role change.
“At the time I thought, well I’m not going to work somewhere that doesn’t want me. I wish I’d pushed back and made life a bit harder for them.”
This sentiment, that exhaustion and vulnerability hindered their ability to fight an injustice at work post-children, is really common amongst the women sharing their stories in Beyond the 9 to 5. The challenge is that the discrimination usually takes place at the very moment when you are most exposed, making it harder to stand up for your rights.
“It was a good lesson not to kill myself for an organisation, because they aren’t going to kill themselves for me. My career is my career, and I need to be the one to look after it.”
After spending too many Sunday nights crying with dread, and deciding it was a no-win situation, Katie left.
Who are you when you’re not working?
We spend most of our time at work – more time there than with our families, seeing friends, or doing non-work things we love. Mothers often find that all their non-work time gets absorbed by children and family responsibilities, and we can forget who we even used to be.
A few years ago Katie took a six week secondment to work on an Indigenous project, working with a group of women setting up a medical clinic, who wanted leadership mentoring.
When everyone involved in the project introduced themselves, Katie struggled to have anything to say about herself that wasn’t work. She realised her balance wasn’t right if all she could talk about was her job. So, she decided to find herself again, and discovered the idea of Unicorn space.
Find your unicorn space
Eve Rodsky (of Fair Play fame) also introduced a concept called Unicorn Space. It’s that thing that makes you uniquely and vibrantly you. But as we already know, for many women it’s difficult to protect the time and space to do things for themselves.
But after Katie quit the job that made her cry on Sunday nights, and then couldn’t talk about herself outside of work, she signed up to drama class.
“Drama and dancing, I freaking love them and never do them!”
But now she does! She also volunteered for David Pocock’s campaign.
“It was insane and super busy, and man, I had not felt satisfaction like that in a really long time.”
“Those light bulb moments did make me realise I’m not going to get everything I need from ANY job, and I have to make space for the other things. Up until that point I didn’t think I could sign up for a drama class because I’m not going to be able to go half the time, but my husband plays touch footie every single Monday night and we make it work.”
Her move to four days was partly driven by creating the space for things she enjoys, for no other reason than it gives her joy.
Living in alignment with your values
Katie is deciding right now whether (and how) to upend things if she’s ready for a shake up. Not passionate about what she’s doing, she’s trying to work out what to do with her life.
“I’m 45, do I keep going down this path or is it time to upend everything? You read these articles about women who walk away from their corporate job and now they’re knitting in a cottage in Tasmania, and I think, that sounds amazing!!”
To her younger self, Katie would give advice to be more deliberate about her path.
“Get clear on your values and make decisions based on that, not because someone is saying nice stuff to you. You spend all day at work, so make sure it ticks lots of boxes.”
If you’re wondering how to live in alignment with your values, and how to find your own unicorn space, 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!