Work and Motherhood: Can We Really ‘Lean In’ and Have it All?

Is it possible for women to be mothers and have fulfilling careers? Can we have it all? This is a question that is never far from my mind.

Now that I am a working mum myself, I realise how my mum did an amazing job at working a high-powered full time job, and being a present mother, cooking us dinner most nights. I honestly don’t know how she did it and would aspire to at least come close! But how is it fair that women still struggle to do it all, simply because we carry and give birth to our children?

It’s been four years, one marriage and one baby since Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg changed the way I aspire to be at work and live my life in general. It really struck a chord with me as I had acknowledged that as a woman, my approach can be different to my male colleagues, in a good and a bad way. The question I always came back to was, how can I achieve my career goals without sacrificing who I am and the life I want to lead? Is it possible?

The conundrum of whether we can we do it all is still ever-present, so there is still a place for the messages in Lean In. Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg provides great real-life examples that make it so much easier to relate to and digest. I keep some of her key messages stored as a note on my mobile, and this is how I see these fitting into my life now I’m a mother;

1. “Dream big” societal norms make us think that we cannot be ambitious as women, but we should be able to dream just as big as our male counterparts – if not more so. Women are incredible and can take on so many problems thrown at us and find a solution. We are hugely adaptable as motherhood shows us. If one day I have a daughter I will endeavour to encourage her to dream as big as she can!

2. “Don’t leave the marathon race”; a career is a marathon and not a sprint. Even if we have to take our foot off the pedal we can still make strides at a later point. For me right now, this really rings true. I work part time at the moment and know that progression is unlikely but that’s a purposeful decision as right now i want to focus on my 15 month old and plan for another baby in the next few years. That doesn’t mean that I can’t continue to develop my skills and take on professional challenges.

3. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” As women we tend to shy away from confrontation or sticking our neck on the line whereas our male colleagues have more natural confidence to do so. On occasion we need to challenge ourselves to fight this natural instinct and be more assertive. The contribution that we don’t give is usually a valuable one that maybe no one else will pitch in

4. “Lean in”; the overarching message of her book is that we need to jump right in and this should be at all times. Even when other big changes are happening in our lives, including having children.

5. “Men need to lean in at home”; Men have a fundamental role in helping their partner achieve their aspirations. They can become more involved and invested in the home and with child care. My husband and I have always tried to have as equal a partnership as possible. We strive to share the load as equally as possible. He often does the cooking during the week whereas I put our toddler to bed. We agree how to split cleaning and tidying. There is also something to be said of just making decisions jointly, even small ones – it shares the mental load. A lot of my bandwidth is taken up with issues around my toddler’s nursery or his general well being. These issues should be shared jointly to make space for other important things.

6. “Sit at the boardroom table”; Sheryl presented some staggering data about how women tend to sit at the back of meetings, rarely participated. Just because we are mothers, doesn’t make us less able – in fact I think it makes us more able; we are more organised and are more efficient – because we have to be!

7. “Don’t become one of the guys”; when we encourage women to be more assertive, this tends to manifest in women acting like male leaders – aggressive, stubborn, egotistical. Often what makes women leaders so great at leading is their ability to be diplomatic, organised and efficient. We should be able to be leaders in our own way.

8. “It’s a jungle gym not a ladder”; this reflects the fact that nowadays career progression is much more fluid. Many professionals move sideways or develop their skills in other areas whilst working. I moved jobs for a progression which then turned into redundancy. Luckily I secured a new post that is challenging me. Even though this is not strictly progression, I am able to develop myself.

9. “Don’t leave before you leave”; this is especially relevant for mothers-to-be. Our minds tend to have left a job before we have even left for maternity leave. You can’t know when the most exciting project or opportunity will arise – sometimes at the most unsuitable times but making it known that you want to come back to a job you are passionate about is so important.

10. “Make your partner a real partner”; this links to the points above but whoever you have chosen as a partner, if you make them a real partner in all aspects of your life (home, children, career) you can support each other to do almost anything.

11. “Doing it all is a myth”; we need to give ourselves a break! We simply cannot do everything we want to. For this reason, I have decided that my career is not one of my main focuses for the next five or so years but once we have completed our family I fully intend to lean into my career and achieve some of my aspirations.

12. “Don’t judge others’ choices”; We all have to make choices and we naturally judge others’ choices, especially women that make different choices to us. We need to give each other a break and accept that we are all different and prioritise different things. I have to stop myself from thinking judgmentally about other women as we need each other’s support – especially our female colleagues.

13. “Change societal norms”; we all (men and women) need to change the norms around the perceived roles of women, mothers, men, fathers, to help us achieve our aspirations and also to enable our children to believe they can achieve their dreams – in all aspects of life.

If I can try to make some small changes in the way I approach my work, I’ll be happy. I know that there is already so much pressure on us as mothers, let alone working mothers. I would love to believe a woman and mother can do it all, but I have accepted that it’s not possible. As women, we tend to want to do everything 110% and I definitely feel that I fail at giving everything 110%; caring for my son, making a home, having a healthy marriage, having a career, having a social life with and without my other half, looking after myself.

We need to give ourselves a break!

Like this? Share it, and spread the MOLO love! You can read Sophie’s last blog Breastfeeding Didn’t Work For Me, Why is This Taboo? Or for the latest from The Motherload, head to our homepage

About Sophie

Sophie is mum to 1 year Jasper and a part-time international charity worker. Like most mums she battles with her natural instinct to do everything all the time – be successful at work, a good mum, a good wife, retain some independence and some of her pre-baby identity and be a domestic goddess – whilst at the same time being a feminist. You can follow Sophie on Twitter

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