Why we work when it feels like everyone is watching the clock and we’re sidelined after babies

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

Josephine* is a solo parent to two boys age 9 and 11. She’s the National HR manager at an engineering company, and we talked about the guilt of work and parenting, getting sidelined after parental leave, and why we work.

Sidelined after maternity leave

I’ve spoken about manager roulette a lot during the Beyond the 9 to 5 series, as so many women have shared the impact of their individual leader on their work experience (and that’s true regardless of whether you have children!). And for Mia, her workplace makes all the difference.

“I was moved to a different part of the office and literally had no work to do. I just did nothing, watching the clock pass for two days, it killed me. It was like [they thought] you obviously forgot all of your HR skills while you were on leave.”

When she came back from her second maternity job she had a manager who valued the skills working mothers bring to the workplace. But it was a bit of a poisoned challis having a manager who thought of mothers as extra-efficient.

“He said, ‘You can come back three days but I know you’re doing five days’ work’. I job shared with colleague who also had kids, and our manager was always spouting the fact that two of us were worth four people, because we worked so hard, almost to prove that this working part time business didn’t matter.”

While it was better experience than her first parental leave, it was still horrendous. Working part time there were also plenty of occasions when she was asked to come into work on her days off and ended up paying for childcare to go in for unpaid work.

Everyone’s watching you and the clock

Josephine’s workplace is supportive, with family flexible policies. But she still feels the guilt of eyes on the clock when she’s walking out the door.

“It’s more in my head, I think everyone is watching. They’re all men and I’m the only woman on the executive team, so I feel like they’re judging.”

“I’m not hiding the fact that the kids are at soccer practice, even though a lot of the men would struggle to even know what their kids’ names are, as that all happens at home with their wives. I always talk about my kids, and over time they start to realise that’s an important part of me.”

Occasionally Josephine’s boss’ wife travels for work, and when he says doing it all for a few days is hard she laughs and thinks, “oh mate, you have no idea”.

Travel logistics and mum-holidays

Josephine is heading away for a three-day work conference soon, and spent two days putting everything in place to enable the three days away.

“I’m treating it as half a holiday because we get to stay in a hotel and have a buffet breakfast – that is the ultimate mum holiday.”

She doesn’t think anyone realises the amount of planning that is required for a single parent to be there and be present. There’s an assumption in workplaces that there will be ‘someone’ at home to pick up the pieces. The same goes for fathers, and the assumption is part of what holds women back in work. Because someone does, indeed, need to be available at home.

Solo parenting challenges

Josephine has a lot on her plate. Her boys see their dad every second weekend, and she juggles the whole mental load alone.

“I run a pretty strict schedule. You manage to have your head in two spaces. I’m doing 21 different things at once.”

“The burden [of solo parenting] is not having anyone to ask if they can pick up a child from soccer training on the way home because you have to work late. It is ultimately, ‘oh god I HAVE to leave work or my child’s going to be standing at the soccer oval on his own if I don’t get there’.”

It’s unexpected late meetings or impromptu conversations that are the biggest challenge. Watching the clock out of the corner of her eye and needing to leave on time – and the guilt at leaving late for her children. But she jokes that maybe it’s not so bad;

“My friends who are in two parent relationships constantly whinge about their husbands not foreseeing what needs to be done. So, I just sort of smile.”

Why we work and why it’s hard

“I love work. I would never not want to work. I get a lot of fulfillment from going the office and making a difference.”

But the challenge for Josephine is the juggle.

“You just never get a break. You’re a mum in the morning, a worker in the day, and a mum and a worker at night.”

“Being able to contribute is important to me. I don’t want to be a stay at home mum, but the lowlight is trying to do it all and feeling like I’m failing, as a mum and a worker.”

“I can tell myself that sensibly I’m a success, I’m a good parent and both my children are thriving. A lot of it’s in my own head. My boss says, ‘You’re wonderful, keep doing what you’re doing’. But there’s no crossover.”

“I’d love for someone in the workplace to say you’re also a good mum. And the fact you’re a good mum also makes you a good worker.”

Women supporting women

To Josephine, it’s important to share our stories and support each other.

“When you see another woman don’t pull her down, adjust her crown and help her.”

The more we speak up about and share our experiences, and the more we value what’s going on in the home, the better off we all will be.


*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!

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