Who was your mother before being ‘Mum’?

motherandbabyLook at this picture and imagine that one day, long time ago, that baby was ‘You’ and that woman was your own ‘Mother’. It is hard to picture what was the life of your own mother before you got to know her as ‘Mum’.
In your mind, the ‘ Mum’ image is so strong that the brain finds it difficult to process the image of a young woman who once wandered through the world without worrying or caring about your existence.  Maybe your imagination is better than mine, but I was up for a big surprise when I interviewed my own mother for my book (look for it in 2018!). I interviewed many mothers  in the past year and I didn’t expect  it would be so emotional to hear my own mum’s life story and mainly the ups and downs she had before I was there. We spend one and a half hours together, with a little voice recorder on the table, my mum telling vivid stories of her childhood, her teenager time and how she almost died while giving birth to a ‘stillborn’ baby after a second pregnancy and me really listening , listening with my heart.  

She told me about the difficulties of young women in the Romania of  the ’70s who were forbidden to end any pregnancy. The doctors  were facing criminal prosecution if there was a suspicion that they were helping women with abortions. The autocratic Ceausescu’s introduced Decree 770/1966 to stimulate Romania’s population growth and the young women were tasked to deliver it. If you were hospitalized in the last trimester but hadn’t reached the 7 months cut off date, you were put in a special ward with ten other women in pain and left to deliver that baby alive or stillborn all by yourself . No doctor or nurse wanted to take the responsibility of what could have been seen by the regime as a provoked and unsuccessful abortion. If you were lucky enough to come for delivery after seven months, you got all the attention and support of a free, state sponsored medical system. It was a tough time for women like my mum, who had no choice but to stay in full employment while encouraged to put their babies in creches after six months.

I walked away from the evening with a new image of my mum and I understood how much life changed her from that ambitious young girl who wanted to go to University because she knew she had the brains for it, to that committed Mother who decided to give up on studying after giving birth to three kids she had to care for. What I learned in that evening is that:

I never actually knew who my mother really is, until that very moment.

My mother is an incredibly powerful woman who willingly gave her power away to my father and, in some cases, to her parents-in-law in exchange for the happiness and fulfillment of her children.

Do you really know who your mother was before being your mum?

Take some time to get to know her before is too late and if you want to know what questions I used in my ‘interview’ drop me a line and I am happy to help.

I was inspired to write this article after reading a piece of daily news about Harvey hurricane in Houston and the sad story of a mother and a child who had to leave their car for safety and unfortunately they were washed away by the water just before rescue forces got there. They only managed to save the child.

Thank you ‘Mama’ for everything you have done for me!


About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two young children Kara and Thomas, the wife of Sjors and in the past fifteen years she has been a HR Organizational and leadership consultant and coach.  She grew up in communist Romania, spent some of her youth in London and now lives with her family in The Netherlands. She believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take that leadership position they are afraid of.

Her mission in life is  ‘to give people all over the world the opportunity to discover their uniqueness, their strength and the power to follow their dreams’.

Can mothers save the world? And, what is stopping us?

poor children

I belong to the privileged group of mothers that has the luxury to think about the rest of the world because her own family is safe and has enough to eat. I hope that you do as well.

I just returned from a two-week summer holiday in Cyprus and we had a wonderful time.  Still, the last picture I have left in my head  from our holiday is what I saw when I returned to the apartment after the check out. I saw two cars parked in front – one from the resort and a second one, behind it, that was old and branded with the name of some cleaning company. The second car driver  was  a  lady in her late thirties speaking Russian on the phone. Behind her, walked hurriedly three women. For an European eye they looked Asian, they could have been Filipino, but I wouldn’t bet my money on it. One of the women was younger, highly pregnant and  breathing heavily while holding her bump. The other two women who took the back seat looked looked older, skinnier, burned by the sun and with a miserable look on their face. None of them was wearing the resort’s uniforms and they squeezed in the car quickly as they were hiding from something. I knew that they returned from cleaning our apartment and I felt really bad that a poor unfed and pregnant woman had to bend to clean our floor in temperatures of 35 plus Celsius while we, the mothers at the swimming pool would complain that we don’t get 15 min to lay down on the sunbed without getting disturbed. I felt ashamed that I am also one of those mothers.

We keep a blind eye to the poverty around the world so that we can focus on our own family. In today’s world 2% of the people hold 80% of the wealth. This is the world we live in and we we accept every day. As mothers we have a crucial role to bring forth the next generation, but as we focus on our own kids we keep a blind eye to the injustice in the world. The sad thing is that the poverty and injustice impacts mainly the women and children.

So, how can mothers help saving the world? It can happen through solidarity with women which are in need and by speaking up, ‘Leaning in’ and sitting at the table when decisions are made. We all can do something, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant in the eye of the cynical.

What is stopping us?

Love is a ‘double-edge sword’. We love our kids too much and in our attempt to create a safe environment for them we end up creating a fake safe environment if we forget about what is outside our house.  We can give them a nice family house, but that house is in as society which is becoming increasing mistrustful and on a planet which is getting increasingly more polluted.

The quote that comes to my mind now is from the Manic street Preachers song: ‘And if you tolerate this then your children will be next’ . A friend of mine showed me the video of this song just before I left on vacation and the irony was that I got reminded of it by the sad reality. Thank you Lucy!

Learning by doing

learningbydoingpicCan you really be a ‘Bad mother’ or is it just about being a ‘bad leader’?

I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine who is seriously considering not having kids because she is afraid of being a bad mother. I find it difficult to even write the words ‘bad mother’.

It feels counter-intuitive. I know most of you would say: ‘There is no such a thing as a bad mother’. Who hasn’t, at least once in their life, given her child that extra ice cream that she should have said ‘no’ too? You knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but you did it anyway . After that, you felt weak because you gave your leadership power to the child. Still, calling yourself a bad mom is a pretty heavy accusation.

There is no school for becoming a parent. You have the best intention and you do the best you can under certain circumstances, that is all.  A mother, as any leader in this world, needs to be confident. No one wants to follow an insecure leader, so why would kids listen to insecure parents.

I remember being six months pregnant and terrified with the thought that I am not built for the motherhood job. I asked for mentoring and advice from one of the female managers in our team who had two small kids . She reassured me that it will be ok – ‘the kids will have priority’. For her the balance worked because she decided she wouldn’t be a home-goddess.

What I would now tell to my friend is that, although I am writing a blog for mothers, I don’t have all the answers. I am just doing my best to be the best version of myself I can be, because my kids deserve the best mother. Does that mean that I do everything perfect , no actually not. I don’t bake, I am pretty impatient with art work and I am not the mum who joins all the school trips.

There was only once when I thought I am a bad mother… .a few months back I brought my daughter to school in the morning and somehow she had imagined she would make a special entry with her new dress. Unfortunately the ‘ WoW’ factor didn’t happen, which meant she broke down in tears and ran down to the toilet. She was in such a state that I thought that I would have to call the school psychiatrist. I was myself a mess.  From all the crisis, the pulling, running down the school corridors I ended up loosing my car keys. So, here I was 10 min to 9.00, about to get to my car for a work teleconference with Singapore at 9.30 and not having my car keys nor the state of mind to facilitate a sort of difficult leadership hand-over between two disgruntled people.

I was about to start crying, thinking that I should have handled my daughter differently so that she doesn’t end up in tears and so and so on, but when my emotions reached a certain peak, I suddenly saw this coffee corner at the end of the parking lot and I thought – there is nothing that a good cup of coffee can’t solve.  So, appreciating the fact that I least had my wallet with me – I sat down had my coffee and started to make calls to cancel all my morning meetings. When I called my boss, to tell him I had a situation at school I needed to deal with, surprisingly he said – no problem, take care of it. Then, as a side joke, he said he was surprised it had only happened once in the last two years. Eventually, I went back to school, found my keys and I even got to have my difficult Singapore discussion, but the heavy feeling ‘I am a bad mother’ stayed with me. I confessed about it to my mother-in-law and she said only that – ‘you should never, never doubt that what you are doing to educate your child is wrong and doubt yourself like that! You can not let those thoughts in your head.You will go crazy by the time they are eighteen’

My advice for anyone worrying about being a bad mother: You can be confident of one thing – parenthood is something everyone  learned by doing.  “For the things we have to learn before we can do them,  we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle)

A mother’s guilt

baby pic

I heard the expression ‘mother’s guilt’ before, but I never thought that it applies to me. A part of me even started to worry that I don’t have it.  And then, I got it – If I worry of not having ‘mother’s guilt’, I probably have it.

Yesterday I have been through one of those ‘guilt’ moments. It was my son’s first day in the Pre-school Nursery group and it was painful. Thomas is two and a half now and he knows how to express his feelings especially when he needs attention. Although he likes the new kids and teachers, he just didn’t wanted to let go of me. He didn’t cry, but he looked at me with his big warm eyes saying: ‘Mummy…’

I was paralyzed and I couldn’t let go of him. When, eventually, the new teacher convinced him to stay on her lap with a book, instead of thinking that it is a good outcome since I had to leave for work, I felt was pain, quid and jealousy for the woman who took my baby.

I got back in the car and I start feeling guilty for leaving my son with strangers so that I can go and do exciting or less exciting stuff at work.  The questions going through my head: ‘Is it all worthwhile, what I am doing there? Do I really do what I think has a positive impact and gives me energy?’.

My day in the office yesterday has been different because of that painful start. I spoke my mind more, I brought some new edgy ideas for a conference and I had a very honest and open career mentoring conversation with a senior female leader in our company. I also dared to reach out and asked help from a senior stakeholder on a issues  I dreaded to touch few days earlier.

Looking back on it again, what I would say to young working mothers who might experience this mother guilt every morning, is that:

  1. We need to accept the ‘Mother guilt’ as something that is part of the ‘package’.
  2. Turn it from a ‘Problem’ that holds you back from pursuing your own dreams into a ‘Driver’ that pushes you forward.
  3. Put all that emotional pain in something really worthwhile for you and your family.

Johaan Cruijff once said: ‘Elk nadeel heeft zijn vordeel’ – every downside has its upside’

Nature versus Nurture

When a woman becomes a mother a wonderful transformation happens in her life. She will soon realize that the cost she has to pay for having and raising children will be higher than for  most men becoming fathers.

For millennia, culture and science have colluded to explain why women aren’t as competitive and ambitious as men. Even Charles Darwin wrote in the ‘Evolution of Species’ that successful males evolved to win the mating race, while women raised and nurtured the young.  Two American Economists and Sociologist, Ury Gneezy and John Smith did a fascinating study on competitive drive by looking at ordinary men and women in their natural habitat doing things people tend to do every day. The question they searched an answer for: ‘Is it Nature or Nurture what determines women’s competitive drive?’

First they looked at the impact of the ‘Nature factor’.  To test whether young boys and girls would have different competitive tendencies they asked ten-year-old kids to run forty meters on a track, one at a time. After that the student who ran at similar speed they raced against each other. There were no incentives and they didn’t even told the kids it was a competition.  The boys reacted stronger to the competitive environment and they ran faster. The girls ran about as fast as they ran when they ran alone.

To look at the impact of Nurture and the cultural influence on competitiveness in men and women they went to visit the most patriarchal and the most matrilineal cultures of the world, the Masai tribe in Tanzania and the Khasi tribe in India.The data showed them that men and women in Kenya Masai tribes were a lot like the men and women from developed nations. What is surprising in this experiment is that for the same experiment, the differences between Masai and US were relatively  small(69% vs 50% of the Masai men and 31% versus 26% for the Masai women).

On the other side in the Khasi tribe they found a reversed sexism.  It is one of the few left matriarchal tribes left in the world, in which inheritance flaws through mothers to their youngest daughter.  When a woman marries, she doesn’t move into her husband home, rather he moves into hers. The mother’s house is the center of the family and the grandmother is the head of the household. Khasi women don’t do any farming, but as the owners of the land, they wield a great authority over men.

In identical throwing experiments as the ones conducted for the Masai tribes, they looked at how competitiveness shows up for the Khasi women and men.  The Khasi women behaved more like the Masai and the US men.  The Khasi experiment, shed some light into the nature versus nurture questions.  Given the right culture, women are as competitively inclined as men, and even more so in some situations. Competitiveness is not only set by evolutionary forces, as Charles Darwin suggested.

The average woman would compete more than the average man if the right cultural incentives are in place.

Motherhood – a challenge or an opportunity?


karaclimbingfotoWhen I became pregnant with my first one I panicked thinking that there is no way I can follow my career ambition and have children. My own mother story was resonating in my head.

My strong belief was that be a successful professional and a good mother you need to be very good at distributive attention and multi-tasking and I know I am pretty terrible at it. I asked for advice from some ‘experienced’ working mothers, but unfortunately what I found wasn’t encouraging. They were all trying to keep all the balls in the air.

To deal with my anxiety  I decided to take a whole year as maternity leave. It was an extraordinary year with many changes that took over my life, but it was also the year to slow down and allow myself to enjoy motherhood. The biggest lesson I took in that year was how my own mindset and beliefs define my actions and the result of it.

A lesson about the spiral ‘mindset – belief – action – result’  and how to get out of the negative loop.

If you have the mindset that a working mother, in order to be successful, has to master multitasking and constantly managing competing demands, your belief will be that you need to master efficiency and planning. That will drive all sort of actions and a busy life which, in the end, could lead to you ignoring your own recovery and health.

On the other hand, if you replace that belief with the belief that being a mother is actually being the leader in the life of your children by influencing their education, you will step in the work place as an informal leader with increased confidence in own ability to diffuse tensions,  see the bigger picture and influence difficult stakeholders. After all, you learned all those skills the hard way …with your own children. Others will soon notice your confidence and attitude and this will have impact on your career chances.

I tried this myself and I was  surprised to see that it works and indeed my own thoughts and insecurity were most of the time the real obstacle.

So, my encouragement is… try this at home and at work and  you will see that others will also notice that motherhood did you well. It brought you confidence and leadership.

What do you think? Any comments, suggestions?