I’m often asked if women “can really have it all” almost certainly because I’m mother of ten and also that, alongside these children I’ve been carving out a career for myself.
The question is based on a stereotyped harried working mother not doing justice to either her work OR her kids. It’s assumed that both work and children are preoccupations requiring immersive focus. An ideal worker dedicates to work fully, an ideal mother engages in intensive mothering hence to attempt both must surely bring what is often called ‘being stretched too thin’. This tension between competing priorities is said to create fracturing which affects the working mother.
And, for many, this is true.
But what’s not mentioned nearly enough is that this tension is NOT the failure of individual women unable to make it all work, or to juggle it all effectively. Let me tell you a story of why I know this to be true.
Once upon a time I had a house husband.
Caveat: I say had even though this is a strange way of putting it. I’ll leave it despite what might be construed as ‘ownership’ language
Before we decided that we’d reshuffle roles he was breadwinner and I was baby-making supremo and homemaker. It felt right until it didn’t, so we changed things up.
A few months into me forging out into my part time career – let’s be honest it doesn’t happen overnight – I came home after work to find something I’d not considered.
My husband in his dressing gown.
The home in chaos.
I stood lipsticked in black pencil skirt, all revved up from a day making waves, crestfallen. There was caked expressed breast milk on his shoulder and a faint smell of unwashed teeth as he laid table for our supper.
This once strong shouldered man stooped. He held himself as less-than-before even though he was (mostly) enjoying caring for our kids. Finding time to do perfunctory personal admin tasks (showering, clipping toe-nails, even eating) were proving quite the challenge.
And there was me out in the world, finally.
Making my mark. Finding voice. Rising up that little bit.
The contrast was stark. And unexpected.
I knew the daily grind of kids and their relentless dress-feed-bathe-undress-feed routine. Plus the tidy-washup-tidy-tidy cycle of never ending insanity making stuff. It messed with my head grappling my confidence to the ground. I knew that place well.
But I hadn’t expected my lifelong career-man husband to buckle with such speed. I thought his backlogged decades in work would be some kind of buffer for at least, say a year or two before he showed signs of the erosion of himself.
The disappearance of self in raising kids can be a slow, gradual loss. Or it can be kaboom style, more overnight than a leakage of who we are. What I hadn’t anticipated (in fact I’d banked on his years of solid gold weighted selfhood as a working man) was that my husband didn’t know who he was without his work identity. His merging into our children was sudden. His disappearance to himself speedy precisely because the very idea of who he was and what his purpose was in the world was tightly wrapped up in the external world of work. Not in intensive fathering. Not in the unendingness of repetition in raising kids. Instead when he stepped out of productivity and into domesticity he was cut astray from all he knew, including himself.
This period of my life taught me something that I was too ensnared in when I was in it; being ourselves and growing who we are while raising kids is a radical act requiring conscious effort. Yes, what that means practically is that we must invest thought, time, energy, love, compassion and care into ourselves – this has to be separate from our families and our paid work. We must give oxygen to our souls desires and to the spirit we grew in ourselves before we became mothers. The person we are is more than Mother.
To categorise us as either Mother or Worker belittles our astonishing capacities to occupy both worlds. We can be both when we figure out our own criteria and measures of success, not other people’s versions but the ones that most reflect us. Meanwhile, there’s so much work to be done within business to move forward from remedial solutions for the ‘Motherhood Challenge’ so that mothers can flourish as Business Assets.
If you’d like to discuss your Mothers as Business Advantage with Danusia, please be in touch at [email protected]
About the author
Danusia Malina-Derben is a lifelong entrepreneur and straight-talking consultant advising Boards and C-suite clients on their Strategic Leadership. She is also founder of School For Mothers (SFM) a change-making movement upending old narratives that limit the potential of mothers and businesses. She is mother of ten children including ‘her last baby’, triplets of six years old.