The Professional Mother’s Dilemma

The Professional Mothers dilemma

Written by - Sarah Cosway - Accredited Psychotherapist - Team LGT

We’ve come a long way from the days when as soon as a woman got married she was expected to give up her job and become a housewife. These days, girls come up through the educational system with the same career expectations and aspirations as their male counterparts. The media paints a narrative of us as having thriving careers whilst simultaneously enjoying fulfilling personal lives and raising tribes of well-adjusted beautiful children.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the reality of maintaining our dual roles can feel starkly different to this and there is tension between the demands of maintaining our successful careers and managing the responsibilities of motherhood, along with running our homes (which are also apparently supposed to look like they belong in the latest copy of the Ideal Homes magazine).

Sadly, unpaid care work (cooking, cleaning, shopping and caring for children) is still seen as a mainly female responsibility and the onus of these can often still fall mostly to us. The pressure to excel in the workplace while shouldering the lion’s share of the caring responsibilities can place an immense burden on working mothers. 

So as professional woman, we find ourselves facing a dilemma:

Society expects us to parent like we don’t have a job and yet at the same time to work like we don’t have children.

This can result in us battling the feeling that we’re never quite coming up to scratch in either domain!

In light of this, it’s clear that we need to redefine our definition of success – rather than buying into contrived notions of achievement that are solely based upon career advancement.  We need to acknowledge and celebrate the multifaceted accomplishments of working mothers. 

How about redefining success as the ability to nurture meaningful relationships and being able, and willing, to prioritize self-care whilst also seeking fulfilment in both personal and professional spheres, rather than holding ourselves to the loftiest, and perhaps unrealistic, of expectations?

Navigating the Challenges: Balancing Career and Motherhood

The challenges of motherhood for the professional woman are multifaceted and can be quite complex, not least due to the stage of life that many of us have reached before making the decision to start our families.

The changing landscape of Motherhood

My mum was a few weeks off her 22nd birthday when I was born and yet these days the average age for having a first child is almost a decade older than that. 

And that’s an average…it’s really not that uncommon now to be having a first child in our late thirties or early forties; so at the age when my mum and her peers were tearfully waving their daughters off as we left home for university, many of us could still have babies and young children in our care.

A lot starts to happen at this stage of life. We might very reasonably be looking forward to reaping the rewards of all the blood, sweat and tears we’ve poured into our careers throughout our twenties and early thirties, but this may mean higher levels of responsibilities and demands at work.

We may also find ourselves faced with the challenges of menopause, the average age of which is 51, but can occur as early as 45. 

And adding even more complexity to the mix, not only do we have a caring role for our children, we may well find ourselves in the position of caring for our ageing parents.

Scarcity of Time

It’s not surprising then that one of the main challenges for professional mothers is scarcity of time – we have so many plates spinning at once, what with work deadlines, seemingly endless communications from school about the latest non-uniform day, sports event or bake sale, and perhaps a drama or two with our parents thrown into the mix! No wonder we can end up feeling stretched paper thin, overwhelmed and exhausted.

Navigating the Workplace Terrain

The workplace is a very different world now for us compared to our mothers’ generation, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t still encounter systemic barriers; many of us can still end up facing biases and stereotypes that undermine our capabilities. 

We may feel under immense pressure to maintain very high levels of performance at work, going above and beyond in order to demonstrate that our caregiving duties are of no consequence, for fear that otherwise our career progression could be stymied and we will be left in a corner stagnating.

Emotional Toll and Guilt

But then on the other side of the coin we may well be grappling with feelings of guilt as we leave our little humans in the care of someone else whilst we head off to work every day – experiencing a sense of loss and perhaps a fear of missing milestone moments. 

I remember telling my childminder that under no circumstances was she to say anything if my son took his first steps with her, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being there when it happened.

Finding Strength Amidst Adversity

Yet amongst all these challenges, there is an opportunity…an opportunity to cultivate resilience and find fulfilment. If we can step back from all the societal pressures, the expectations that we take upon ourselves, and consider what will not only be fulfilling for us, but give us a sense of purpose and align with our values, then that will be truly empowering.


Achieving Work-Life Balance: Finding Fulfilment and Cultivating Resilience

So how can we start taking steps towards building our resilience and working out where our sense of fulfilment will come from?

Prioritising Self-Care

This has to be the first thing on the agenda. If everything I have said so far is resonating with you then it’s likely that you are feeing burnt out and overstretched. I want you to keep this phrase in mind:

Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

As mothers, we can have a tendency to put everyone and everything else before ourselves and then frequently find that we just don’t have anything left in the tank for attending to our own needs. This is the wrong way around. 

Think about sitting on an aeroplane just before take-off. The cabin crew run through the emergency procedures and they tell you that if the cabin decompresses and the oxygen masks drop down then you need to put your own mask on before helping anyone else. 

This is a great metaphor for approaching life – you can’t look after others properly if you’re not looking after yourself first! 

Taking Mindful Moments

To practice mindfulness you don’t have to set aside big chunks of time to meditate – you can do anything mindfully. As you’re going about your work (whether that’s your professional work on your mama-work) just take moments throughout the day to pause, breathe, and ground yourself in the midst of the chaos of daily life. 

If you do this regularly you might be surprised at how much of a difference it makes to your resilience.

Setting Boundaries

If you establish clear boundaries between work and personal life, and then within the different areas of your personal life (between “me-time” and “being-mama-time”) then this will help you put the self-care in place and prevent you from burning out. 

Putting boundaries in place can be tough at first, especially if you have never really done it before, but getting things clear in your mind and then communicating this with those around you helps. 

Obviously it will depend on what your work context is, but if you can define specific working hours and stick to them, resist the temptation to take calls, do paperwork or respond to emails when you are on your personal time. 

Similarly, ring fence specific time for you during your personal time so that you can do some form of self-care activity – where you can, sharing the childcare responsibility with your partner so that you can both benefit from some from some “me—time”.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Establishing a great career takes a lot of hard work and dedication. We’ve often had to go above and beyond, and the mind-set for success is often one which demands very high standards, not only of others but of ourselves. 

We can get caught in a trap of perfectionistic type thinking, and if this spills over into our approach to motherhood it can bring a lot of stress and distress with it. Here’s another phrase to keep in mind:

Don’t let Perfect be the Enemy of Good

Try to be realistic in the expectations that you place upon yourself, both in work and in motherhood. Perfection is an illusion and we can exhaust ourselves trying to achieve it. 

Of course, we all want to be the best mamas that we possibly can to our babies, but really and truly…Good Enough is Good Enough!

Delegate and Outsource

Following on from the previous point, once you have figured out what is really realistic for you to be able to do, then delegation and outsourcing are your friends! 

They’re not just useful for your professional life, they’re effective tools in your home life too. Outsourcing household chores (e.g. ironing), employing a cleaner, and getting a babysitter so you and your partner can have a date night once in a while are just examples of how you can alleviate stress and free up your valuable time to focus on priorities.

Embrace Flexibility

Life is very unpredictable when you have young children. It can feel like the dramas come thick and fast sometimes, and until they reach adolescence they can be a bit like mobile germ factories bringing the latest vomiting bug home from nursery or school on a frequent basis. 

Unexpected changes and demands can be very challenging, but our mind-set can make a huge difference in how we manage them. 

Try to embrace a growth mind-set finding creative solutions to help you balance competing demands, as this will help you foster a sense of resilience in the face of adversity.

Seek Support

This was one of the hardest things for me to do when my children were small and I was struggling. It felt like reaching out for help would expose my failings as a mother for all to see, but once I was brave enough to start telling people that I was struggling and needed help it was a huge relief. 

I discovered that lots of my friends with children of similar age were experiencing, or had experienced, similar feelings (even if their flavour of challenge was different) and we all drew strength from each other in mutual support.

So be brave and reach out to people in your life who you trust, they will understand and empathise with what you’re going through; remember that they can’t encourage you and offer assistance if they don’t know that you’re struggling.

Celebrate Achievements:

Take a moment to stop and think about everything that you have achieved. Recognise just how challenging and difficult it is to bring up a child, let alone doing that whilst also maintaining a successful career. It’s easy to look around, comparing ourselves to others and think that what we’re doing is nothing special…when in reality what we’re doing is absolutely amazing…we are growing these little humans into adults; we are raising the parent and partners of the future! 

Every single accomplishment and milestone, no matter how tiny it is, is a testament to your dedication and should be celebrated. 

Celebrating success is a key factor in maintaining well-being…but that’s a blog post in itself.

Redefining Success: Embracing a Holistic Perspective

As I hinted at above, our perspective on success can make a huge difference to how we feel about ourselves. Society traditionally defines success based on career achievements and external accolades, but this can feel restrictive in the context of our complex lives. 

We can feel trapped in a web of societal expectations, our personal aspirations and the family responsibilities. But how about if we were to redefine success in our own terms? What could that look like? 

Shifting the Paradigm

The modern world is very goal-oriented and the professional environment encourages us to measure our success by external markers such as our job titles and salary band. 

In my pre-therapist life I worked for a multi-national Fortune 500 company and every year we went through a performance review process which really reinforced these ideas, but it had little connecting with my sense of purpose or fulfilment in my role. 

It was as if the focus was always on the destination and never on the journey…and before we’d even arrived at the destination we had to be thinking about what the next one would be after that. I remember a female colleague telling me that she had applied for a new role within the department, not because she wanted it (she didn’t really) but because she felt that it would count against her if she wasn’t seen to apply.

When you’re immersed in this kind of a working environment, always striving and aiming for perfection, it is very difficult for the mind-set not to also spill over into your personal life. 

But what if we shifted our definition of success away from status and more towards finding joy, purpose and meaning in our daily lives, from a number of different sources? 

This will be different for everyone, we’re all individuals after all, so the remit of fulfilment will vary widely, but by focusing on a journey that encompasses growth, resilience and authenticity rather than focusing on the final destination we are more likely to build our self-esteem and wellbeing.

Balancing Ambition with Wellbeing

As I mentioned above, the professional environment encourages us to be ever striving for the next thing – next promotion, next pay rise, next opportunity – but this can come at the expense of our wellbeing and family life. 

Redefining success means prioritising our self-care, setting our boundaries and finding harmony between our professional and personal values.

Success is not Static, it is Dynamic and Evolving

Cultivating a growth mind-set is key as it allows us to see challenges as opportunities for learning, rather than threats that are potentially harmful and dangerous. Instead of ruminating on setbacks and fusing with the story that our mind gives us (“you’re a failure), when we develop a growth mind-set we can approach setbacks with curiosity and resilience, reframing them as stepping stones to progress.

Embracing Authenticity

It’s worth reflecting on whether or not, if we are striving for success, we are travelling in line with our values whenever we are trying to conform to societal expectations. 

When we’re chasing external validation, are we really truly being our authentic selves? 

Authentic success is about embracing our unique individuality and living in line with our values, passions and strengths. We are more likely to have a fulfilling, meaningful and purposeful life if we embrace authenticity.

Finding Fulfilment in Motherhood

Despite a lot of progress since our parents’ generation, the role of motherhood, and actually caring roles in general, are still woefully undervalued. 

It’s important that we, ourselves, recognise the immense value of motherhood and one of the things that we can do to help with that is to celebrate the everyday moments of connection with our children…even the seemingly mundane. 

It may not feel like it at the time but they really do change and grow up so very quickly, so when they are driving you up the wall repeatedly saying “why?” in response to everything you tell them, take a second to pause and really drink in that present moment…because one day you will be nostalgic for these times.

Motherhood is a profoundly transformative experience but it can be easy to forget, in the grind of daily life, what a privilege it is to be nurturing and shaping the next generation whilst we are also pursuing our own passions and aspirations. 

 Creating a Personal Definition of Success

Ultimately, we are all individuals and there is no one single definition of success. We all have different values and ideals, and motherhood is a deeply personal journey. It takes courage to challenge societal norms and walk your own path, and introspection and self-discovery to work out what that path is. 

But throughout all of this, the most important aspect is to treat ourselves kindly and to remember to reserve some compassion for ourselves. 

Sarah x

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