Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.
Courtney* has one 9-year-old daughter with her long term partner. After working for a decade in one of the big banks, she took redundancy and joined the family business.
When you no longer belong (and you don’t get the good assignments)
Courtney had worked for five years in a bank before having her daughter, but once she came back from parental leave, she found all the opportunities were going to people who could work long hours and stay for drinks after work.
Behaviours sidelining parents aren’t always overt (it’s illegal to fire someone for announcing they’re pregnant, so most companies won’t do something so obvious), but it can still happen in insidious ways.
“You sort of feel it, it’s not always what’s being said. My boss wouldn’t give me remote access from home, I had to download everything to my desktop and work off that, and then upload it. I remember one Thursday afternoon when things were kicking off around 3pm. My boss said she needed my help, then sighed and said, ‘oh you’re not working tomorrow, I’m going to get someone else to help me’.”
Courtney noticed all the opportunities going to her colleague, who was at the same level and with a similar development plan.
“I said it wasn’t fair, but the excuses kept coming. I’m really blunt, and would ask, ‘Why did you give that work to him when I’ve got the skillset to fix it?’. They’d say it needed to be done by 9am and I have to pick my daughter up. But they still could have asked me and got a couple of hours work out of me to get it done quicker.”
But worst of all,
“You actually start to feel like you don’t belong. It’s a horrible feeling.”
Enough is enough
Courtney found the newborn period incredibly difficult.
“After I had my baby, it was just bl0ody hard. She was a hard baby. It was brutal. I remember getting back to work and none of it was enjoyable, it was all just really hard.”
Once her baby got a little bigger and she was back at work, things settled down a bit.
“I initially went back four days a week and was easily fitting in 5 days of work. I felt like I was getting just as much done [as before parental leave]. Then to see opportunities going to the younger staff who didn’t have those [home] commitments…”
The bank went through a restructure, and Courtney said,
“That put everything in perspective. It was like the hunger games, there were layoffs left, right and centre. There were a lot of empty promises.”
Shortly after, struggling with COVID lockdowns, home schooling and managing it all, Courtney spoke to her boss, who suggested she work more at night to catch up.
“My daughter has ADHD and she’s up till 930 or 10pm at night, and you want me to hop online and work after that?? The attitude was, find a way to make up for it, work nights and weekends. I found the whole approach totally unsympathetic.”
She held on until her long service leave, at which point it became clear she was going to be made redundant. She decided to join the family business and put her efforts there for a while, until she decides on her next steps.
“I was still struggling with the transition from a really focused career girl who knew exactly what I wanted, to hanging onto the cliff edge by my fingertips.”
Dealing with domestic load inequality
The truth is, Courtney does the lion’s share of parenting and domestic work in her family. Her partner works long hours in his own business. More difficult is his attitudes from being brought up in an old-school family where his mother didn’t work outside the home and did all the caring.
Courtney’s parents both worked, and because her mother worked night shifts in the hospital, her father always did bath and bedtime for her and her sister. She expected similar.
“Our upbringings are two extremes, and I thought he would work it out. But it actually didn’t turn out like that. I was the one who got up in the night, organised all the feeds, [and when I asked for help] there was always an excuse.”
“I did try, but it was met with friction, and sometimes an argument. It was better to just stay quiet and get on with it.”
Now, Courtney has decided to take on the bulk of parenting and hopes that her husband gets involved enough that her daughter can be close to him when she’s older. She was resentful for a while but made the decision to focus on her daughter now, and a more meaningful career again in a few more years.
“My shift starts at 530am when I wake up and it finishes at 930pm when I go to bed. I don’t sit on the couch watching tv, because there’s a small person to sort out. His morning routine hasn’t changed in the 13 years we’ve been together, even with the arrival of a baby.”
For other women, Courtney doesn’t agree with a lot of the messaging around maintaining work from home and flexibility for working mothers.
“It should be both parents! Why do we give women the ability to work from home so they can do the school pick up and make dinner and do some housework? It’s not just mothers we should be targeting, it should be both parents. We’re going backwards if we do that.”
Hitting burnout, comparisonitis and being kind to ourselves
A common theme for women in this post-COVID paradigm is just how burned out we all are.
For Courtney, a perfect storm hit. She had gone through redundancy and moved into the family business. Her family was given 30 days to move out of their rental and find a new home, and everything they saw was more expensive when they didn’t have a lot of money. One of their employees quit, leaving her working two full time jobs in the family business, their washing machine broke, and that was all on top of her normal work and caring load. Her grandfather back home was unwell, the increased workload meant she wasn’t getting her usual exercise in, and Courtney just hit her limit.
“I am just done. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the car crying.”
Courtney managed to pull herself out of the hole, but is back managing a huge workload. She said the village is important, as is being kind to yourself about where you are at.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s so important to get your village there. As difficult as it was, I found out really quickly who was in my village and who definitely wasn’t.”
“I would also compare myself to other women, and think, ‘how are you doing so well when I’m struggling?’. Then I realised, why am I doing that? They might have a partner who was really helping out, or family nearby. I don’t have that.”
“Working full time and having a baby is exhausting, No one expects you to do everything right. Do whatever you can to make your life easier. I think it took me awhile to learn that lesson, and I wish someone had told me that.”
Setting boundaries for your mental health
Boundaries at work around her hours and not working late into the night, boundaries at home to protect time to exercise, and boundaries with herself around what she will and won’t take on in her life all support Courtney in a difficult situation.
We can’t change the environment we’re in, but we can change our response to it.If you’re verging on burnout and wondering how boundaries might make life a bit easier, I can help.
*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the challenges of the juggle, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.
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