I am sure you all heard the famous jokes, made mostly by men, about the perfect woman. I can’t stop thinking that there is a self-inflicted pain a woman experiences when aiming to become the ideal woman. It all starts in the teenage years when you discover you like a particular boy and suddenly everything that boy appreciates (or doesn’t) becomes the centre of the universe. ‘Ah… the first love. How romantic!’ most people would say. Years pass and, after being disappointed by several boys and men from your youth, you are less likely to be as naïve as in your teenage time but you still fall for the same type of men.
There still seems to be something biologically coded in all heterosexual women that makes them define success through the ability to find a father for their future children. I don’t even understand why we women follow the man we love into the riskiest and most adventurous career and life changes but, when it comes to our dreams, become cautious and risk-averse.
The ‘Work – Life – You’ balance
When you are a working mother with two small children and no additional household help, you know that the idea of work-life balance is a myth or a catchy title the human resources department in corporations tend to use. You have your good days when things are relatively in control and you can still play with the kids in the evening but you also have the chaotic days when one of your children gets sick while at school or nursery. The fragile balance is immediately broken and you have to get back into crisis planning mode.
Some are lucky and manage to navigate the choppy waters of the mid to late thirties but still for many working mothers the personal sacrifices required to keep that well-paid job that covers the expensive nursery costs stops making sense when the health of one of your children is at risk.
Being raised in a spartan Eastern European regime by a mother who kept her full-time employment despite receiving no help with the house chores from my father, I guess I am somehow naturally wired towards being a working mother. One of my core beliefs is that educated women should not abandon their professional jobs for which they trained for years, to become overqualified housewives and class mothers at school.
However, in the past years, I became more understanding and less judgmental towards the women who do just that. There is always a story behind that decision. The added bonus of writing the book Mothers as leaders was that I got to hear the life story of some amazing women and I could gain insight into their decision process.
The life-story that made me humble and respectful towards the courage it takes to give up a hard-built career and completely change your lifestyle so that you can be there for your family is the story of Katja, a thirty-eight years old Dutch woman and mother of two who took a career break of two years by resigning from a prestigious Marketing Director job. She did that so that she can focus on her family and on her health. The stressful life-style of combining a high-profile role and two children below 3 years old at home was significantly damaging her health.
On the other side of the spectrum, it was the life-story of Catherine, a mother and now a grand-mother who had a working life of 42 years. She became the first woman in Europe to become partner at a prestigious consulting firm. She raised two boys into successful young men and, not to be underestimated, she managed to keep her first marriage. She did decide early on to use most of her salary for outsourcing the household work and the school duties. She valued her work identity so much, that after she retired at 65, she went back to a reduced working week and she is still doing executive coaching.
I could relate to the story of both women, but at the same time I knew that I am not a Katja or a Catherine, I guess I am a hybrid, or simply Steliana:)
I worked for twenty-years in a competitive environment while guided by clear career goals, but as I saw that I could easily reach goals, success stopped being motivating.
Going back to the: ‘Can you have it all?’ in my title, I must confess that this was question that tormented in the early thirties in the first years of motherhood, but somehow as I managed to break my own imaginary career glass ceiling, I realized that having it all was quite tiring. It created a sort of pressure for being successful that ended up sabotaging your own inner peace and happiness.
On my 40th birthday while I was driving to a whole day team development event, it occurred me that although I felt I was getting old I had 27 years before pension and that there are so many things I could do in all those years.
‘Career is only one part of ones beautiful life’
I decided to change my profession and my life-styles so that I can prioritize time for my family, while doing something that it is in line with my values and purpose in life. It might take a while before I can reach, if ever, the same income I was earning when I was on the corporate career scheme, but I know that this is not my key motivator.
There is no silver bullet to solving the ‘work-life-you’ dilemma. The choices women make to stay employed after having children are rooted back in their beliefs about the idea of family, the role of parents and their working identity. Personality traits such as perfectionism and the inner drive to please others, can negatively impact the ability of some women to manage the work-life-you balance.
What is the story behind your choice?
What does that ‘All’ mean to you?
I liked your very nice and very honest piece Steliana. You are so right that there are no single right answers. I wonder how wokring mothers are doing in different environments with the Covid 19 challenges. There must be relief around being able to work at home most of the time and do this when children are occupied/asleep. I hope too that Zoom meeting which randomly include demanding children are being met with tolerance and humour – which is what they deserve! Personally I am hoping for something of a re – set on work – life balance following on from the real life and death challenges that have walked uninvited into many homes. Priorities change and I hope we are moving into a more forgiving and humane world – let’s see what the next few months give us.
In the new normal kids are getting used to having parents around all the time, but they also learn to respect the parents Videocalls. My 8-year old daughter just told my husband he shouldn’t end his call just because she is back home from school. It’s your work, she said:)