Motherhood and career – a balancing act

Juggling being a mother and a career is not a simple balancing act. It’s a constant struggle, especially in a society like ours that pressures women to always be perfect, no matter what they do. 

It’s a pity, though, that the culture of super womanhood doesn’t include any safety net or support for working mothers, who are often left alone with their ‘mom guilt’ and their fear of losing it all. Sure, mothers are champions of time management, problem-solving and multitasking, but these abilities alone are sometimes not enough to keep them in the workforce and secure the brilliant career they’ve worked so hard to build. Lower wages, career disruption, flawed health care system, lack of or insufficient paid maternity leave create a situation in which mothers cannot even get themselves the time to recuperate from childbirth without fear of getting fired, being ostracized, or denied opportunities at work.

The Maternal Wall or Motherhood Penalty

‘Maternal wall,’ or ‘Motherhood penalty,’ is the bias that occurs when colleagues and employers view mothers and pregnant women as less competent and capable at their jobs. This may cause women lots of problems for their career advancement. 

In a 2007 study, researchers sent fictitious job applications to employers. Some made reference to children; some did not. Women who didn’t mention having children were two times more likely to get an interview compared to similarly qualified mothers. The study also looked for evidence of discrimination against fathers but didn’t find any. On the contrary, fathers were found to be more successful in the hiring process than men who didn’t have children. 

If and when mothers get hired, things don’t go smoother. A report from Third Way, suggests that mothers’ earning potential drops by 4% for each child they have. Again, the opposite is true with men who see their income go up by 6% instead. 

Could it be that employers still view men and women as stuck in their traditional roles and question mothers’ ability to meet the demands of a stressful job? We think so. 

But it could also be because women take more time away from work to attend to their children, downshift into a part-time, accept a lower-paying job, or agree to flexible working schedules. Flexible work may look like a great idea on paper, but it also poses a threat to women. When mothers take up these arrangements, they can be seen as unfitted to pursue management roles or simply unable to commit fully to their job. And there’s more. By obtaining a flexible work arrangement, women are silently implying that it’s ok for them to take the burden of family and household on their shoulders, which in turn increases the ‘unpaid work’ disparity between the two sexes. Women will simply end up working more, earning less, and missing lots of opportunities. This clearly shows that the problem is endemic and cultural: women are expected to copy men’s competitive model at work, whereas men are not expected to pick up traditional women’s responsibilities at home.  

The stigma of being a ‘bad’ mother

Fathers don’t seem to face the same faith. Nobody expects them to be perfect dads and the most diligent workers at once, after all. And certainly, no one will ever judge them for being ‘bad’ fathers if they leave their children to the nanny to attend an important meeting. On the other hand, society often condemns working mothers as selfish, wrong, and even dangerous to their children. Many go as far as to believe that problems in a child’s development, drug abuse, and delinquency among young people are all connected to women who choose to be mothers while also pursuing their careers. No data links these two facts. Instead, it has been observed that having a rich, satisfying career can help women be better parents, as it provides perspective, meaning, and greater economic stability. Conversely, becoming a parent can help people become more self-aware, more empathetic and develop new skills that help them thrive at work.

However, no amount of research will ever soothe women’s dilemma, and many mothers feel constantly torn between their professional aspirations and their desire to take care of their children. They’re often riddled with guilt, even when they have enough support around them. That’s just the result of centuries of mental conditioning and brainwashing, and it’s hard to change overnight. 

The invisible work

The unconscious (and sometimes even conscious) gender bias is very stubborn in depicting women as caregivers and men as breadwinners, even when reality shows clearly that in most couples, both partners work. So, men and women are equally busy building their careers, but the challenges of juggling work and family only reside on women’s shoulders. 

According to the Pew Research Center, women spend 32 hours per week on childcare and housework against only 18 hours for men. And even when women involve men in housework and childcare tasks, men rarely initiate or take full responsibility. Many unconsciously believe that it’s not their duty to wash the dishes and sort dinner for their kids but that they’re just ‘helping’ their partners. 

The world pandemic has exposed these ongoing gender inequalities and showed that working mothers still shoulder most of the responsibility of caring for children and managing the household’s mental load. In February 2021, a global survey of the Financial Times revealed that 2 in 5 working mothers had taken, or were considering taking, a step back at work to be able to help their children go through school closure and lockdown. The proportion of fathers who were willing to do the same was 10% lower. More than 70% of mothers felt it was their responsibility to shoulder the extra household duties, ending up grappling with a ‘double shift’ and mental exhaustion. Unfortunately, according to a McKinsey’s report, the gender-regressive effects of the world pandemic will have long-term economic consequences for women. 

The mom-guilt

Yet, an egalitarian relationship and distribution of the ‘unpaid work’ is the most important factor in working mothers’ success at work and at home and in reducing the mom-guilt. 

In fact, while mothers try to hide their hardship behind a smile (and make-up!), they’re internally consumed by a deep sense of inadequacy.
In her paper “Never enough hours in the day: Employed mothers’ perceptions of time pressure,” Dr. Rose interviewed women about a typical day in their households to understand the time demands that women need to fulfill. Many mothers admitted to being overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time, but still feeling like they’re not doing enough. The level of multitasking within and across work and home seems to increase the pressure and the guilt instead of easing it. 

Final thoughts

Is facing all of these struggles worth it? For many women, the answer is a resounding, loud ‘YES.’ They see their career not only as a sign of independence and financial security but also as a meaningful way to fill their lives with purpose. These women enjoy the stimulation that their job provides and feel that both motherhood and a career add to the completeness of being a woman. 

Fusion Movement believes that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

We want to celebrate mothers and their contribution to the workforce and society as a whole. We know that raising children while constantly fighting to prove their worth is not easy, but we appreciate their work and encourage them to keep destroying all the barriers that stand between them and their happiness, whatever this is for them.

Keep following this space for more interesting women-related topics.

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