Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?

“Since I returned to work after my career break I feel guilty every day. Don’t all working mothers?”

Listening to this comment from a guest speaker at an event for women returners and seeing the nods of agreement in the audience, I was not surprised that many women decide not to go back to work even if they are feeling unfulfilled as full-time mothers. Who wants to sign up to years of feeling guilty?
Do all working mothers feel guilty?The premise that a heavy burden of guilt is the lot of the working mother seems to be fairly ingrained. Not a week goes by without some mention in the media. And we are just talking about working mothers here, no-one talks about ‘working father guilt’. Just recently …

“8 out of 10 working mums feel guilty” Justine Roberts reporting results of a Mumsnet poll at Workfest, Jun 2013
“I think all women feel guilty” Sheryl Sandberg, Woman’s Hour interview, Apr 2013
“Majority of mothers admit to feeling guilty for working” Daily Mail , Jan 2013
And it’s not just in the UK …
“Working mothers still plagued by guilt” Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2013

I’m starting to feel guilty for not feeling guilty. As one of the 2 in 10 working mothers who don’t feel guilty, is there an implicit assumption that I don’t care enough about either my work or my family (or both)?

Psychological basis for guilt

It’s worth looking at guilt from a psychological perspective. What is the function of guilt?
“From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. The emotion of guilt follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.” Psychology Today

So guilt is not a consequence of caring. Healthy guilt is a sign that our conscience is working effectively and can be a useful emotion if it’s telling us that something needs changing. If guilt is a warning flag that our actions might be harming our children or our co-workers, then it’s served its purpose. But feeling guilty doesn’t make you guilty. Working can have a positive effect on family life (see previous post). Often guilt comes from judging ourselves by impossible standards (back to the Perfect Mother and Employee) or being influenced by the perceived judgements of others. In this case, it’s a destructive emotion that we are allowing to reduce our life satisfaction for no reason at all.

How to challenge guilt feelings when you are returning to work

Analyse the cause of your guilt feelings. Is the emotion telling you that you are making a decision that is inconsistent with your values? Do you rationally think that you are jeopardising your relationship with your family? If so, are you able to reduce your working hours, to shift your work pattern or to work from home some days? Do you need to think about a job or career change to get more flexibility?

If you consider your choices and the trade-offs you are making and do not want to make any changes (or are practically unable to do so), then recognise that guilt is serving no useful purpose and let go of it. Guilt is not a badge of pride for working mothers, just a rod we have created for our own backs.

Posted by Julianne

Who am I anyway?

Many clients arrive at our first meeting with the same concern: they have lost touch with their professional identity and are only able to view themselves as partners or mothers.  Thoughts such as ‘I can’t do those things anymore’, ‘I don’t recognise my old self’, and ‘I’m not the person I used to be’ are regularly voiced.  For some women, the loss of identity is compounded by not having felt fully themselves in their professional life.  If your previous working identity has felt ‘fake’, then it is even harder to work out how you might wish to express yourself professionally in the future.  Other women recognise that their former working identity doesn’t fit with the life they now want to lead and are unclear how to create the new self.

According to findings from Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, women – particularly working women – undergo three ‘identity shifts’ when they become mothers. Before giving birth, we begin to feel increasingly invisible and undervalued as we prepare to go on maternity leave. After giving birth, we are forced to acquire a ‘mother identity’, which causes our goalposts to move. And if we return to work, we find we need to redouble our efforts as we seek to revalidate ourselves, both as employees and as mothers.  (Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, The Transition to Motherhood in an Organizational Context). Those of us who take an extended career break miss this opportunity to revalidate ourselves as professionals and as mothers within the familiar context of our former role.

Often the loss of the professional identity is expressed as a loss of confidence.  Indeed, recent research of 2000 women by the Association of Accounting Technicians (The Times, April 17, 2013) has indicated that women on maternity leave lose confidence after eleven months absence from the workplace.  So is it really surprising that women who take an extended break will lose their confidence?  (See post Where’s my confidence gone? for ideas on how to regain confidence).
My own experience of identity and confidence loss occurred when I arrived in my office after my honeymoon, to learn that my position had been made redundant.  Suddenly, I found myself with no professional identity, an unfamiliar surname and living in a new home that didn’t feel like mine.  It took me some months to find myself again and re-create my new, married, professional identity.

The process for regaining or re-crafting your professional identity involves reconnecting with your real interests and your values and articulating your skills and experience (even from long ago).  It is ultimately a rewarding experience as the emergence of a new professional identity is inextricably accompanied by a growing self-confidence.  Remember that you have already successfully changed identity at other points in your life (eg when you first started work or when took your break) even though that might have felt daunting at the time.  You will be able to do it again if you allow yourself time to adjust.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners

Is it worth working if I’m not earning much money?

Money, or the lack of it, can be a major stumbling block
when considering going back to work. If you’re looking for a more
flexible job, with shorter hours, the salary can be
considerably lower than the one you earned in your pre-break professional role
and that can be hard to accept. If you’re changing career and starting again in a new field, the contrast is likely to be be even more extreme. And if you’re a working mother, childcare costs take a huge chunk of your income if you don’t have a local grandparent happy to do the childminding (and most of us don’t nowadays).

Working for a fraction of your old salary not only has a practical impact. It can also hit your professional pride and your sense of being valued, as we have a tendency to link what we’re paid with what we’re worth.

“I’m not sure if I’m prepared to work for peanuts”, was the reaction of one of my clients recently when she calculated her expected after-work pay if she switched sector.

If you’re finding that low financial returns is a barrier to your relaunch, try looking at all the benefits for you of working, including those that are harder to quantify. When I discuss motivations with women returners, I hear many other reasons than just the
money: “I want to use my brain again”; “I
want to stop apologising when people say ‘what do you do?’”; “I miss the social
side, having colleagues, talking about other things than kids and schools”; “ I
want to be a role model for my children”; “I want to be on a more equal footing
with my partner”.

Peter Warr, a Professor at the Institute of Work Psychology,
has studied what it is about working that gives us fulfilment and confirms that
money is only one factor. In “The Joy of Work”, he identified the ‘Needed Nine’
– the nine main sources of happiness in any situation or role: 1. Personal influence
2. Using your abilities 3. Goals 4. Variety 5. Clear role requirements and
outlook 6. Social contacts 7. Money 8. Adequate physical setting 9. A valued role.
Warr found that studies comparing women working at home
and outside the home typically find that average levels of happiness do not
differ much between the two groups. The difference depends both on your
preferences (staying at home or paid work) and your current situation. If you
feel that you have high levels of the ‘needed nine’ – using your abilities,
with good social contacts, daily variety, enough money and feeling your role is
valued – then unsurprisingly you will be happier than someone with lower
levels, whether you are working or not.
When I was a
full-time mother, what got to me from the ‘needed nine’ was the lack of variety
(the Groundhog Day cycle of washing, shopping, cooking, feeding) and the feeling
that I was not really using my strengths; I was never going to be the mum who made a wonderful fancy dress costume or an awe-inspiring birthday cake. The joy of working again
was not so much in the pay (as a fledgling psychologist there wasn’t much of
that after childcare and travel costs), it was more about regaining my
professional identity and having the satisfaction of doing something where I could feel
a real sense of achievement and growth.
So if you’re wondering if it’s worth returning to work if you barely
break-even, think of whether working means more to you than the money. Will it
make you a more fulfilled person in other ways? And remember that you’re investing for the longer term: whether you’re starting on a new
career track or re-establishing yourself in your old field, you are building the foundation for a satisfying and profitable working role in the future.
Further thoughts
See Carol Fishman Cohen’s of iRelaunch’s advice on investing for the future and weighing household rather than personal income against expenses here
Posted by Julianne

Is “having it all” a myth?

A quick ‘PS’ to Katerina’s post on Sheryl Sandberg et al…

Sandberg has dismissed
“having it all” as a myth: “Having it all is the worst. No matter how much we all have and how grateful we are for what we have, no one has it all, because we all make trade-offs every single day, every single minute”. This echoes the theme of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article “Why women still can’t have it all”.
It’s easy to become disheartened as a woman returner, thinking that if these high-achieving women can’t make it work, who can? In fact these comments say more about our confused definitions of ‘having it all’ than about whether anyone can be a fulfilled working parent.
‘Having it
all’ originally meant motherhood + career. Now we’re equating it to being at
the top of the career ladder and the perfect hands-on parent (and not making
trade-offs!).  Who set this impossible
In fact, Anne-Marie
Slaughter continued to work after she left her senior government job, returning
to her academic job at Princeton University to have more time for her two
teenage sons, and she has recently become President of the New America
Foundation. In the UK, Penny Hughes who resigned as president of Coca-Cola when
she started a family has developed a successful portfolio career as a
non-executive director. And away from the headlines, I know many professional
women (and men) who feel they have fulfilling careers and family lives. Most are not working at
the highest level (only a few exceptional people like Sandberg can manage that), but they are happy with the trade-offs they have made,
seeing them as positive choices to have time and energy for their personal life.
This sounds close to ‘having it all’ to me.

Posted by Julianne

Too many choices: how to focus

When I was on a career break after stepping out of my first career in strategy/marketing, I realised after a while that being a full-time mother was not for me. I knew that I wanted to do something enjoyable and flexible and spent many hours dreaming and chatting with friends about what this might be. One month a friend and I got excited about importing baby equipment from Australia … then a few months later I was inspired to set up a family-focused travel agency … then it was a flexible childcare business … then studying psychology. I was never short of ideas but the interesting thing was that the more options I thought of, and the more I talked about them and researched them on the internet, the more problems I could see and the further I became from actually doing them. Eventually I was reluctant to share my next great idea with my friends as I had stopped believing myself that I was actually going to make any of them happen. Somehow having too many choices was stopping me pursuing any one option more seriously.
When I went on to study psychology, I found that my experience is so common that it has a label: the Paradox of Choice. Too much choice in everyday life can make us confused and paralysed. The psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book and TED talk on this topic explained “with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all”. As no choice is perfect, we can always imagine that we will find a better alternative. And the effect can be stronger with more complex choices, such as career decisions. We are less likely to hit “choice overload” if we are clear on our preferences or have a simple way to compare between options.
What got me out of the choice paralysis was realising that first of all I needed to develop some decision criteria to work out what I wanted from my life so that I could weigh up my alternatives. While all options were appealing, with some positives and some negatives, I was unable to prioritise. When I became clearer on what was most important to me and where I could compromise, I was able to discount many of my ideas and to focus on the one that seemed the best fit. Then I needed to push myself to stop thinking/talking and start taking action. I dipped an exploratory toe in the water by enrolling on an introduction to psychology course and that was the first step on the road to retraining as a psychologist.

Some of the women returners I meet also see too many possibilities and may have been thinking and talking about all the things they could do for years without making any concrete progress. One of my clients brought a list of the 16 options she had been considering to the first meeting – unsurprisingly she felt very confused about where to go next! If you too are hitting choice overload, aim to narrow your focus to get down to a manageable number of choices to investigate:

  • Work out what is most important to you in your future job. Fine to start with 1) flexible 2) pays enough, but then go beyond that. What are you missing about work (is it using your brain, the achievement, the social aspect, …), what are you really interested in, what are you good at and love doing?  If you’re wondering where to start with this process, look at  Windmills online or Build your Own Rainbow.
  • Use this to work out what you want from work, decide what are ‘must-haves’ and where you can compromise. You can then choose a few possibilities that really appeal and seem like they could be a good fit for you. And don’t fall into the trap of looking for the perfect job as all jobs involve trade-offs (see my last post!).
  • Critically don’t spend more time thinking – practically reality test your short-list: talk to people in the area, maybe take a short course, go to a conference, work shadow, do an internship … test your ideas and learn along the way. (We’ll talk more about how to go about these steps in future posts).

Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Posted by Julianne

Tackling perfectionism: Is ‘good-enough’ not good enough for you?

“I can’t be happy
with being ‘good-enough’ as a mother and at work. 
It feels like failure to me”

Many of the women returners I talk to hit a barrier when we start to discuss the compromises they will have to make when going back to work. 

Emma* had a high-achieving accounting career before having children. Describing herself as a perfectionist, she told me how in her 20s she had worked long hours and “given 100%”. Soon after returning to work after her
second child, she became overwhelmed and exhausted: “I felt like a poor mother
and was frustrated that I could not give as much to work as I used to
”. After one
particularly stressful month, she decided to give up work and become a full-time
mother. Six years later Emma is discussing her options with me. She wants to
return to work now the children are at school as she wants to ‘use her brain more’. However she is finding it hard to compromise on her family life.

Like many previously
high-achieving mothers, Emma’s perfectionist focus had switched to “Supermum”: being the best mother, finding the best schools & classes for her
children and creating a perfect home. All her time and energy had been put into bringing up her family
and she could not see how to cut back.
Perfectionism can be a major
barrier to returning to work – the reality is that we have to make trade-offs.  If we set impossibly high standards for
ourselves, looking to be both the perfect employee and the perfect mother/partner/daughter, we are at risk of continually feeling inadequate. Do we want to always feel like a failure? We can make this worse by the classic perfectionist’s reluctance to delegate – we have to do everything as no-one can do things as well as us.
If you find yourself falling into this trap, spend some time
thinking about your priorities and what is most
important to you. Is it necessary to dedicate yourself totally to your children
to meet your own view of what a good parent is? Are you spending too much time and energy on things which really don’t matter that much? If you are really motivated to work, how can you free up the necessary time and
energy? For example, does the house need to be tidy all the time? Will your children really suffer if they don’t have homemade food at every meal or homemade cakes for their school cake sale? What can you give up? What
can you delegate to your partner, a child-minder, a cleaner, etc.? Exploring your job options, consider whether you are making life harder for yourself by looking for the ‘perfect job’. Work out your key motivations for wanting to return to work, what is essential for you in a job and what you can compromise on.
Aim towards viewing compromising as a good thing – it means we’re making
positive choices.  As Rosabeth Moss
Kanter said in a recent Harvard Business Review blog: “You can have it all. It
just won’t all be perfect.”
Try out a new perspective on success. Success is typically
seen as high achievement in one activity, feeding the myth of the perfect mother
or the perfect lawyer/doctor/teacher/manager. Consider instead that personal success
can be about creating a full, rich and satisfying life by doing just enough and
being ‘good-enough’ in a variety of roles rather than outstanding in just one. We
don’t have to give up our high aspirations, just to redirect them towards a
more reachable objective.
*names and some details have
been altered for confidentiality
Posted by Julianne

Am I too old to be employable?

I’ve spoken at a number of conferences directed towards women returners and one of the common questions, especially from those who’ve taken a long career gap, is ‘Am I too old to be employable?’
When I returned to work after my career break, I chose to become self-employed, but it is a common view among women hoping to return to employment that organisations are only looking for younger people or those who have worked their way up a career ladder.  It is easy for us to fear that we are too old and too out of touch, to be considered employable.  We worry that we won’t fit in to the office environment and that our prior experience, expertise and qualifications are no longer relevant.
Instead of looking at what is missing from our CVs, it is much more helpful to notice what our years of experience, both in and out of the workforce, have given us.  As Michele (who found full-time work in her 50s, following a divorce) says:
‘I was attractive to my new employer because at my age I was reliable, I brought a wealth of different experiences which meant I could talk to anybody and I was serious about my work.  At the same time, I wasn’t going to take his clients and set up on my own.  And, I wasn’t going to get pregnant which made a big difference in a small company’
A recent Harvard Business Review article, which highlighted the concept of internships for returners mention that such internships ‘… allow [companies] to hire people who have a level of maturity and experience not found in younger recruits and who are at a life stage where parental leaves and spousal relocations are most likely behind them.  In short, these applicants are an excellent investment’.  (HBR November 2012 ‘The 40-year-old intern’).
It is not just in the US that internships exist for returning mid-career women.  In the UK, the financial services industry was one of the first to offer these types of opportunities and since 2010 Red Magazine has arranged month long paid internships at a number of UK companies and with an MP

The internship route is only one of many ways to return to work and we will discuss other ways in later articles.  However we plan to return, we can help ourselves by remembering all the qualities mentioned and we also know that we offer future employers commitment and stability.  We will stay a long time if we enjoy our work and are valued for what we bring to the organisation.

Posted by Katerina 

Am I being selfish by wanting to work?

For the last few years, I have been running workshops for women considering returning to work after a lengthy career break. As I listen to the voices around the table I hear the same worries & doubts drowning out the excitement and anticipation. Lack of confidence, guilt and other mental barriers can stop us even exploring ideas and options to see if they are practical. This emotionally-charged word selfish often pops up in the conversation & seems to strike a chord with many of the women in the room.
What makes us talk about going back to work as selfish?  The underlying fear here is that work will negatively impact the family: children, partner and/or elderly parents. It’s unsurprising that this seems to be such a common view. Working women tend to either be portrayed in the media as completely frazzled ‘jugglers’ or as superwomen with an army of helpers.
Most people instinctively believe that happy mothers are better mothers; if a woman isn’t feeling fulfilled at home, being a full-time parent may not be the best thing for her children either. The reassuring news from psychology research is that studies show that work & family don’t have to be in conflict. Satisfying work can have a ‘positive spillover’ effect on family life. This is supported by evidence that work can invigorate us, like healthy exercise. Provided we feel competent and satisfied at work, our positive mood and satisfaction can create a happier home life. Women in a recent study who were more energetic at home said it was because work gave them an energy boost.
I have talked to many women returners over the last few years and I have found that they’re often surprised and relieved by the positive effects of combining work and family.  Janet* a mother of four took on a new role after a seven year break:
“Having a purpose makes me happier, more energetic and more fulfilled. I now enjoy being with my children more and look forward to the holidays with them rather than slightly dreading it.”
Susan* a mother of two returned to her previous employer after a ten year break:
“I thought working was going to run me into the ground but I now have more energy for the family than as a full-time mother.  I feel back to being me. Life is busy but I’d rather be busy than bored.”
So next time you’re worrying about being selfish, try looking at things in a different way. It is possible for work and family to enhance each other: for you to be a happier person and for your family to benefit.
*Names and some details have been altered for confidentiality

Posted by Julianne