Motherhood at JM: The personal, the professional, and the overlap between the two

Equal parenting is a consistent topic in many workplaces, but it can often feel like it’s not going anywhere. Our Director Jess and Product Director Colleen are two women who have achieved incredible things in their careers alongside motherhood. They sat down with our Content & Marketing Writer Grace for a chat about their experience navigating parenthood as professionals.

For those who’d prefer to listen to this article, we’ve included an audio recap.

Part 1: Domestic negligence, cognitive load and letting go

Jess: I finally shared that Jessica Valenti article with our #parenthood channel on Slack.

I was a bit nervous to link this to the rest of the team — I thought it might be poking the hornet’s nest a little, considering that our parenthood group is mostly male. I’ll be interested to hear what the guys think.

Coll: Indeed. What were your thoughts, though?

Jess: Look — I’ve only been a mum for the last 12 months, but what really stood out for me was the whole notion of the mental load.

It’s not just about dividing those clearer physical activities in the home (taking your even share of pickups and dropoffs, whatever it is), but it’s the additional cognitive load you’re taking on by thinking about the myriad of other things that actually go into taking care of a little human being.

Coll: My husband is super hands-on with the day-to-day stuff, but I find myself taking on all of the thinking behind those more straightforward physical activities — checking if we have the right clothes washed for certain activities, making sure the right things are packed at the start of the day, and actually deciding what meals we’re going to have. You come back to being like… ‘What if I didn’t think about these things? What would happen?’

Jess: Early on when my newborn Flo was waking in the night, Ben [my husband] would suggest something and I’d take it as almost an insult — an implication that I didn’t know what to do next. So much of this predicament is something we’ve helped create by having an expectation of how things should be done. We have to let go a little bit in that respect. Maybe our partner won’t do it the same way… but at the end of the day, does that really matter?

Coll: Life goes on and things get done. It’s funny — in the lead up to this evening chat I realised that I hadn’t even told my husband that I wasn’t going to be coming home. ‘Darren, I’m going to be coming home late — I’m doing an interview about being a working mum’.

Jess: [laughs]

Coll: Absolute irony. As it happens, my husband’s totally awesome anyway — he was already cooking dinner and saving me leftovers. Anyway — when I’ve thought about it from the angle of creating your own predicaments, the notion of epigeneticscomes up.

I’m not a scientist, but the theory I was reading about covers how science is starting to understand that generational experience is passed on — not just your physical genetics. I think about the generations upon generations of mums who have done this ‘women’s work’, and the expectation we have of ourselves that within one or two generations we can change the way that we are geared and programmed as mums to mother. You can think about it on a societal level (structures and how we can change those), but you can also think about it from within (how you as a person can do things differently). That fascinates me. I think it’s a challenge that you need to recognise on both of those levels in order to tackle it. Maybe, educating yourself about these things can make your version of ‘letting go’ more conscious.

Part 2: Capacity, value and the logistics of workplace parenthood

Jess: Since becoming a mother myself — and having worked with other mothers with an open-minded approach about what their needs are and how flexible we can be to accommodate them — the notion has really dawned on me of the talent being lost to motherhood.

There’s a big gap in the talent pool of women available to us recruitment-wise, and in the talent pool applying for positions of a senior nature with experience in the field. This age gap matches perfectly with the time that most women tend to have babies — the time that they devote to being mothers.

This is definitely not a criticism of stay-at-home parents or the choice to focus on motherhood at certain times of your life rather than your career, but the fact is that there’s less talent showing up in this demographic.

Coll: There’s less talent across the board which results in fewer people applying. But also for those mums who are in roles already, or are returning back to an existing job after maternity leave, there’s a gap too. I’ve found that I’ve met the challenge of [asking myself] ‘How do I continue to be valuable, and grow myself in my career?’ whilst I’m in this stage of having young kids. Maybe I should mention, I’ve got a 22-month-old and a 4-year-old.

A lot of the time, people who are dedicated to their careers spend time outside of work hours keeping up to speed with the industry and their coworkers — that becomes even more challenging when you’re a parent and don’t have that part of the day to yourself anymore.

Jess: Do you think that it also forces you to have more discipline? Maybe that’s a good thing, in terms of your efficiency.

Coll: Working mums are incredibly efficient — they have to be — but a lot of working mums end up just doing the late hours anyway.

Jess: Burning the candle.

Coll: Exactly! In so many different ways, with all sorts of different implications.

Jess: I’ve definitely been burning the candle at both ends. Flo still hasn’t slept through the night (she’s almost 13 months now).

Coll: I think Arlo [my son] slept through the night last night. It was maybe the third night in his life — he’s almost two. We had a little celebration this morning!

Jess: [laughs] Even when my mum took her for a couple of nights — and you do feel so much more amazing getting that consistent sleep — I’ve still been burning the candle at both ends. I don’t feel like that’s a pressure coming from anyone around me. I think that’s very much my own need to be ‘capable’ or ‘enough’. You have those expectations.

Coll: You have expectations of what you can achieve, and then when things pop up and you don’t quite get to them, you’re still determined to achieve it all. That’s the only thing that helps you do it.

In saying that, I need to think about my capacity at work, and how I deliver value, in a different light.

I need to understand that I’m pretty experienced at what I do, and at times I can actually offer the most value in an advisory capacity which means that I’m able to give interesting and useful high-level critique, feedback and input.

I can do that quickly, and the more I do it, the more value I can deliver to everyone.

Then, [when my kids are less dependent] perhaps I can get more on the tools again, and do the kind of work that just takes more time by the nature of it. It’s almost uncomfortable to go into that advisory space. You think to yourself, ‘Am I even qualified to be an advisor to others?’ and you might shy away from it [for this reason]. It feels like…

Jess: Like you’re elevating yourself? Or big-noting yourself?

Coll: Yes. Elevating yourself during the time in your life where you’re feeling the least capable in your ability to get things done. But sometimes you need to do it, even if it feels very strange. You have to remind yourself that that’s where you can deliver the most value. It’s a challenge on the mind — how you see and perceive yourself, particularly when you’re feeling incredibly vulnerable because you feel like you’re failing.

Jess: Everywhere.

Coll: On all fronts.

Jess: I remember hearing this before becoming a mum. My view of you, Megan and the other mums of JM was that you’re nailing this. Like ‘I don’t even know how you’re doing this!’ But on the other side of motherhood, you feel like you’re failing everywhere.

Coll: You’re just keeping afloat all the time. But I think that what we can do to help other mums out is confidently elevate them into an advisory capacity. You CAN do it.

Jess: I think that word, ‘capacity’, is key. As soon as you realise that your capacity has changed — and you give yourself permission to change your expectations of what you’re capable of — that’s when you can start beating yourself up less about not getting certain things done and be more valuable to everyone around you.

I don’t think that this reduction in capacity is a reduction in capability.

Coll: No, it isn’t.

Jess: I think that we overcompensate for that.

Coll: Maybe this is why you get fewer women in boards and those types of roles? We’re less comfortable with playing the ‘fly in, give a piece of advice, fly out again’ role in life, whereas men seem generally more comfortable in that space.

Having trust in yourself and your opinion in those moments is something I have been working on myself. When you start to do it, you realise that you have plenty of value to give in the moment without having to write it in a document or back it up with in-depth research straight off the bat. Realising, funnily enough, that I actually am an expert at what I do means that I can have trust in my immediate thoughts and advise in the moment with more confidence. Thinking about the bigger picture, being a Mum is actually a moment and opportunity to feed those new skills within yourself and forcing yourself to hone them.

Jess: It’s so true. I feel more empowered if I look at it that way — if I say I can decide. It doesn’t mean that the obvious societal factors like gender inequality aren’t there — it just means that we’re acting in a way that’s true to us and within the scope of our immediate control, wherever we are in life.

Coll: Part of doing that, I think, is trying your best to let go of precedents as much as you can.

Part 3: Vulnerability and equal parenting

Jess: I believe that that reduction in capacity does have an impact over what you can deliver on. That doesn’t mean that you’re contributing less value, but you do have to acknowledge (for yourself) that you don’t have the time to dedicate to the same tasks that you used to. Something’s going to give in that equation. For me, I realised in working an advisory role through most of my maternity leave that I couldn’t be CEO of JM at that time — my capacity prevented me from doing that role justice — but I could contribute in other valuable ways, and my experience absolutely still counts for something. I’ll work back up to that role again in the future — or something like it. For me, that’s really freeing.

Coll: To give yourself permission?

Jess: Yeah.

Coll: It’s interesting to flip that on its head.

If you were a man and the CEO of JM and had just had a baby, you might be out for three weeks — but you’d continue in that CEO role.

Jess: Well, my husband is case in point, right?

Coll: Totally!

Jess: [laughs]

Coll: We’ve talked about this — from a physical perspective, mums breastfeed and that’s a reality.

Jess: If you choose to do that — if you’re both fortunate enough to be able to, and you make that decision.

Coll: That’s a very good point! On a rational level, [you say] ‘I’m being Mum because I physically have to be the one there in the moment’. But for many women who for whatever reason aren’t breastfeeding, it’s still the same scenario. The mums are staying at home and the dads continue to work. I’ve had conversations with Dads — not just my husband, but other dads — who actually feel like they’re missing out. I feel sorry for them! Society is the way it is and the expectation is that men will continue in their full-time roles at work. I think that’s incrementally starting to change as businesses are starting to have more thinking around paternity leave, but by and large, it’s still very much the men continuing. They have a couple of weeks off, maybe, if they’re lucky. But then they stay in their full-time capacity, trucking through their jobs even though they’ve got a new kid at home that they want to hang out with! That’s got to be a hard expectation to swallow as a dad as well.

Jess: Definitely. Maybe Ben and I would change things up with our professional roles the second time around — but not completely. I’m still proud of my decision to handle my return to work the way I did. The crux of it is that I want to do great work, and the way I work right now has more potential to allow that.

Coll: It’ll be interesting to see what the dads of JM have to say about Valenti’s article.

Jess: Maybe that’s a follow up conversation [laughs].

Grace: What needs to happen to ease all of these sore points (both for parents and employers) that are bottlenecking equal-parenting?

Jess: Something’s got to change in the way that we construct roles, the way that we view full-time and part-time work, and how we might job-share. A lot of it comes back to the definition of what you’re doing, and clarity about the goals that you’re going after within that to help delineate what can be shared and what needs to be owned by one person. I believe that there’s a solution somewhere in there.

Coll: We just have to give it a go. Whether that’s seeing visibly successful co-parenting men in part-time roles, or having those bold conversations with our other half. Like, if both parents want to actually stay home with the kids sometimes, how do we make this work from an economic perspective?

A likely scenario is that a couple will say that, and then discuss how. That’s how it’s happened in my family — my hubby happily took the lion’s share of parenting during the week, allowing me to return to full-time work, but I don’t want to miss out either! It’s not like we’ve said ‘Let’s flip this: I’ll go to work and you can stay home with the kids’. No way am I missing out on this time when my kids are young!

Now we’re both working part-time — my husband works three days and I work four. But the economics of that becomes the other conundrum in your life, and you forego some things because you’ve made the decision to work and be at home with your kids.

Not everyone has that. I’m forever whinging that we haven’t bought a house — but if we had, we’d probably be more hamstrung right now. We’d have to be meeting mortgage repayments and probably couldn’t be living the way we are, which starts to stray into the territory of housing affordability — a totally different topic! It’s curious: how can society allow more of these flexible working arrangements for mums and dads when affordability is a challenge?

Jess: Flexibility for mums and dads — but just flexibility for individuals generally. We can’t be discriminatory against the non-parents within our workplaces either.

Coll: It’s true. We all have things that we’re achieving in our life, and not all of them are done in the workplace.

Grace: Ideally — in a utopian sense — what would society giving permission for men to work part-time and take a completely equal role in parenthood look like? What would change and what would stay the same?

Coll: I don’t know!

Jess: That’s such a hard question.

Coll: Your mind wanders very quickly to the repercussions.

Jess: I was thinking about society and workplaces generally, asking myself the question ‘Do women naturally mother?’. I personally think that they do, but have we created our own cage? This leads to the epigenetics discussion — are we programmed to be this way after hundreds of thousands of years of playing this role?

Coll: Whether we want it or not?

Jess: For who knows what reason? Because men are physically stronger? Maybe they weren’t, originally! I don’t know! I’ve been reading Brené Brown lately: she’s done a lot of research around vulnerability and shame.

Her books basically distilled ten core facets of things that women are ashamed about. Body image was number one, and motherhood was number two. There was a list for men as well. The interesting thing was that the ten for women were all quite separate, self-contained issues. Whereas with men, all ten characteristics could be summed up into one: the perception of weakness.

Thinking about society and part-time work for men, or the idea of men staying at home to take care of their children, I wonder whether this has something to do with the fact that nurturing-type characteristics are associated with vulnerability.

At a surface level, vulnerability is seen as weak, even though it’s actually an extremely courageous thing to possess and exhibit.

Coll: The other angle is interesting too: foregoing full-time work and looking weak because you’re not progressing your career. We [as women] have felt that incredibly strongly in our process of coming to terms with our careers and achievements not progressing as far as they would have if we didn’t have kids. Men succumbing to that, when weakness is such a huge vulnerability for them, might even feel it in a much stronger capacity than we do. It would be incredibly intimidating. Perhaps it makes it even harder.

Jess: I don’t know if we even answered the question.

Coll: I don’t think that we know the solution. It’s such a hard one. My sister in law works at a big international NGO in the Pacific, and was looking at the structure of the company. All of the people in the levels above her are men, bar one person. 15:1 or something. All of those men have wives who stay at home and/or travel around with them — they do a lot of travelling. I guess for her, she feels the challenge even more strongly than we do at Josephmark. For her to be able to really flourish in that environment, she needs her family to trundle along with her. She could ask her husband to do that, but her husband is an academic and she doesn’t want to cut hiscareer down by asking him to stay at home. She can see that he wouldn’t be flourishing as a person if she asked him to do that. That’s another layer to it — feeling the guilt of the other half giving up their opportunities and potential in life — which makes it even more complex.

Grace: A little more on the strengths and weaknesses in vulnerability and that classic term that we bandy about, ‘mum-guilt’… or is it mum-shame?

Jess: Guilt compels you to do something, whereas shame compels you to hide away, deflect, procrastinate, ignore, blame someone else… It’s a really destructive emotion. Shame is at the root of these struggles that we have with ourselves which play out in all of these different ways. If you find yourself being defensive, you can probably trace it back to something that you’re ashamed of in yourself.

Coll: Are there ways that [Brene Brown] talks about changing or moving shame to guilt-land in some way, so that you’re more productive about things?

Jess: She talks about being vulnerable. So firstly, following the path of:

a) ‘I’m being defensive in this moment. Why am I being defensive?’

b) ‘Because I don’t want this person to know this thing about me. Why?’

c) ‘Because I feel badly about it — I’m ashamed.’

If you can actually name that shame, you’ve already broken it down before you’ve started what could have been a much bigger battle. If you can talk about that with someone else: your partner, your friend, a stranger… maybe just writing it down. But if you can give that a voice…

Coll: You’re already moving forward.

Jess: That’s how you’re combating that feeling. Shame loves to be hidden out of sight.

Coll: Do you think that ‘mum guilt’ is sometimes ‘mum shame’?

Jess: Yeah, it probably is.

Coll: We talk about ‘mum guilt’ all the time.

Jess: Yeah. You have this picture of the type of mother that you should be, and every time you’re not meeting that expectation it’s coming from that shameful place.

Coll: It’s shame, rather than guilt. You described guilt as something that is useful, and a lot of the conversations and thinking around mum-guilt are more about mum-shame, which is not useful.

Jess: No! And it’s horrible to think about. Just the term, even.

Coll: It’s a harsh word.

Jess: It’s a hard thing to stomach. That instance of me not accepting Ben’s suggestion in the middle of the night was because I felt ashamed that I couldn’t solve it myself.

For some reason I think that because I’m the mum, I should have all of the answers, which is ridiculous.

Coll: It is.

Jess: But somehow, you…

Coll: Carry this.

This is just the start of a conversation that needs to happen — both at Josephmark, at other workplaces, and in the wider community. Were there any parts of this that resonated with you — or parts that you disagreed with? Did you read this and nod your head, or shake it? What does this piece mean to you, if you’re in a relationship that doesn’t look like the kind that we’ve talked about — or if you’re not in one at all?

Is there something you would have liked us to cover, or a question that you would have had us ask? Would you like to hear from the JM dads too? Continue the conversation with us on Twitter with the hashtag #JMParenthood. We’d love to have you be a part of it.

Originally published at www.josephmark.com.au on November 23, 2018.

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