Navigating Work and Motherhood
The challenges most women face in the work force combined with those in the domestic arena cannot be underestimated in terms of their potential for psychological, physical and emotional stress.
It is not surprising then, that at times when feeling overwhelmed, many women choose to give up work rather than struggle on. A lot of women feel terribly conflicted about making this choice, feeling they are letting down the idealized version of themselves—which is that they “should” be able to effortlessly manage both a demanding career and equally demanding family life.
A common reason for quitting work is that when women become mothers many experience a sense of rejection in the workplace, as if they aren’t quite pulling their weight. Torn between their duties as parents and their responsibilities at work, they attempt a part-time compromise that leaves them feeling even more marginalized with an ever-growing sense that their colleagues do not think they are taking their careers seriously anymore.
Many of my clients complain that they cannot do any of their roles to any degree of satisfaction, feeling that they fail both as mothers and as workers.
Constantly split between roles leaves them feeling exhausted, conflicted, overwhelmed with guilt and deeply inadequate. Careers so hard won and heavily invested in before parenthood become a bitter treadmill that, in time, some women can only be too happy to abandon.
There are other related issues that come up with clients. For example, some women have dedicated their most fertile years to their careers only to be devastated that they cannot conceive when they finally feel they can afford to make time for a family. There are also the women who believe they have missed out on meeting a partner and starting a family because they have been so involved with their careers. In panic, they throw up everything and attempt to start again in the hope that they might meet someone, only to find that abandoning their career does not bring them a partner or a family, and then they have to fight their way back into a work force that is already overcrowded and highly competitive.
The Choice Between Career and Family
Many women realize that a single salary means they cannot give their children all the things they hoped for and they notice that their partners become more stressed carrying the entire financial weight of responsibility. Arguments about money can become an issue and many women feel crushingly guilty for not bringing in a salary.
Additionally, some women give up work because they feel they cannot cope, but then return to work when they find that being alone all day with a young family makes them feel claustrophobic. They worry that they take their negative feelings out on their children, missing the aspects of office life that make work fun, such as socializing, being challenged creatively and feeling a sense of personal advancement and development. There are few overt rewards offered at home, the tasks are never ending and few thanks are offered, whereas a project successfully completed and acknowledged at work can be very satisfying to the ego.
What is important when making the choice between work and home is to be completely honest with yourself about your motivation for making the change.
If your career is going through a dull patch or even a down turn, are you fantasizing about escaping into the safety of the home, so that you do not have to face realities at work, realities which may include difficult feelings of personal failure and let down? Are you retreating into domestic anonymity because you no longer have the stomach for the competitiveness of the workplace?
Reminding my clients that just as our family life has its highs and lows so does our professional life. Many women have invested years in establishing themselves in their career. To suddenly quit without thinking through the consequences can often create difficult psychological confusion and trauma. Although it can feel a relief at first to be in complete control of your day and answer to no one, there can also be a terrifying sense of missing identity, an identity that was defined with complete clarity by career choice.
The Risks of Abandoning Your Career
I’ve seen that problems can arise later in life for those women who having thought they were doing the ‘right thing’ in giving up careers that had begun to feel tarnished with stress and lack of advancement. These women find that when their young have left home the work force does not value the years of experience gained in raising a family—possibly the most demanding of any adult role. Instead, they are expected to start again in low-grade positions and crawl their way back to where they had left off. After years of being in control and running the busy and demanding department that is a home, this can feel demeaning and hardly worth the while.
Giving up the domestic crown and becoming a beginner again in one’s middle age is not an easy option, however flexible a lot of women are declared to be.
There are also the obvious risks in women making themselves financially dependent on their partners. The added financial pressure, now placed on masculine shoulders, can breed stress and resentment. Added to that, a wife at home may be not so interesting a partner as a career woman with an exciting day to report over a convivial dinner. If the partnership fails, some women feel a sense of complete psychological annihilation: having given over their identity solely to the domestic arena, the blow to their confidence in the failure of their relationship is compounded by a sense of dread at having to pick up the ashes of an abandoned career. The fear of having to start again can be paralyzing.
A lot of women can feel trapped between a desire to retain some control over their career while committing their attenuated resources more fully to the family. Not seeing enough of one’s children, having to give over responsibility to a nanny or child minder who cannot ever really be a substitute for the authentic maternal bond between mother and child, and can be emotionally confusing and painful. Many women regret not having spent more time with their young children, particularly in the first five years.
A useful compromise, therefore, can be to either choose not to work at all in those years with a view to returning to work when your children start school, while knowing that you will have to put some effort into regenerating your career after a relatively long break.
This decision can be ameliorated by remembering that you can never get those precious developmental years back and your children will grow up very fast, balanced by the reality that all of us will be working well into our 70s, so there are many years left to re-invent your career.
The alternative is to work part-time during those early years, which although has its drawbacks—the most common complaint is that colleagues take you less seriously, you are not promoted and are often given lower quality work— also has the advantage that you stay abreast of industry development and when you want to return to full-time work you already have presence and a network that is alive with accessible possibility rather than having to start again from scratch.
Whatever the choice, it is not easy.
Families suddenly becoming reliant on a single income can mean a very real reduction in material resources at a time when domestic expenditure is at its highest—children do not come cheap. It can add a sense to the grind in what are already difficult years for adults used to being able to do what they want with two salaries.
However, there are many rewards beyond the material that couples begin to enjoy as they focus on giving their children the full attention of a stay at home parent—often reporting that although money is always an issue, the reduction in stress, of juggling and paying for childcare and the sense of achievement in creating a harmonious and loving home can be more than compensation.
Some useful questions to ask when considering quitting:
Am I abandoning work because I feel that my career is stalling?
Do I have physical health problems that affect my stamina, making it unrealistic for me to work full time and run a home?
Have I developed physical and psychological health problems as a result of trying to cope with long hours at work and at home?
Am I being realistic about what I can actually manage as opposed to what I think I ‘should’ manage?
Do I find myself acceptable or not acceptable in not being able to do ‘everything’? Where do these scripts about whom I am supposed to be come from? Are they really mine or are they foisted upon me by external expectation?
Do I work because I am passionate about my career? Or, am I merely going through the motions to bring in extra money?
Am I idealizing the role of stay at home parent, forgetting the realities such as boredom, loss of power, loss of social contact, loss of creativity and personal development? Or, will I feel that there are intrinsic rewards in being a stay at home partner and mother and am prepared for the losses in identity that come about as a result of giving up a professional role?
Does it have to be all or nothing? Can I make a compromise, such as not working or working part time for the first few years, then picking up my career when I feel my children are settled and I have the resources to take on more responsibility?
Can I work from home? Can I develop a freelance career that keeps me connected to my industry while letting me choose when, where and how often I work?
Have I discussed my hopes and fears with my partner? Can we work together as a team to arrive at a balance that works for us all as a family, not just me as an individual?
Can I allow myself to experiment until I find a solution that feels right for me? Can I explore part time opportunities, a change in career to something more manageable, or a return to education or a course that will allow me to re-invent myself in harmony with the responsibilities of my family life?
The Most Common Complaints in the Therapy Room:
My family don’t understand how tired I feel when I come in from work and I am expected to start all over again picking up after them.
My office doesn’t understand how split I feel about my childcare responsibilities and treat me like a shirker if I have to take time off for my children.
Since I went part-time no one at work treats me seriously anymore and I get the most trivial tasks assigned to me.
I have lost power and influence since I had my baby. It’s as if they don’t think I can do both roles.
I feel guilty at work because I am not with my child and I feel guilty at home that I am not at my work.
The Most Common (Sometimes Unspoken) Reasons for Quitting Work:
My career was going nowhere. I wasn’t going to amount to anything. At least I can be a success as a mother.
I was depressed and anxious trying to manage everything. I thought I was going to break down with the strain of it all.
I can’t bear the thought of someone else bringing up my child.
I am jealous of my stay at home friends.
I hate my job; it’s the perfect excuse to quit.
I love being at home with my baby and doing whatever I want to do when I want to do it. If I want to lie on the sofa all day I can!
I love not having to commute into work anymore; a walk in the park is so much more fun.
I am so glad I never have to say yes to things I don’t really want to do. Being at home gives me complete autonomy of my day.
The Most Common (Sometimes Unspoken) Reasons for Going Back to Work as Soon as Possible After the Birth of a Child:
I’ve lost my identity. I don’t know who I am anymore.
I feel jealous of my working friends.
I hate not having an income and feeling like I can’t do what I want when I want financially.
I cannot bear the thought of being dependent on anyone.
I don’t trust my relationship to work out; I must work to protect my future.
I miss my work life so much, I find being at home all day so boring.
I don’t feel bonded with my baby. My baby makes me feel tired, old and boring.
I find other mothers uninspiring and overly competitive, waiting for the 1:00 club is the high point of an interminably tedious day.
*Adapted from an interview published in The Times.
Dr. Cecilia d’Felice is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, mindfulness and yoga teacher with an interest in how Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy can help us negotiate the complexity of western life. She works with chakra energy and uses the Tarot to help guide her intuition. Her book Dare to Be You: Eight Steps to Transforming Your Life is a guide to skilfull living in a stressful world.
Ed: Brianna B.