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What does ‘work-life‘ balance actually mean for a mother of young children? Or is it more like work-family conflict?
Work-family conflict is the direct result of incompatible pressures from an individual’s work and family roles
My workplace is very flexible and I am able to work part-time, arrive late after dropping off my children at school, take leave during school holidays even if the timing is inconvenient for organisational operations. In return I’m flexible, so I answer emails, Skype calls, and phone calls in the evenings and on weekends, I do work some evenings, and I occasionally travel internationally. On Wednesday this week I put my son into childcare so that I could go to work on my day off (cue: guilt and stress already) to make an important presentation to some visitors. I had cleared the day with my husband 2 months in advance that he would do drop off and pick up from school/childcare so that I could go to work and be prepared and have a sole focus. In the morning it became apparent that he had a gastro bug and the role fell to me, so I desperately scrambled to arrange pick up of both kids at 3:00 and drop off to their Indonesian class, then return to childcare when the class finished. Fortunately the school and childcare were very amenable to my last minute request. However the fact remained that childcare closes at 6:00pm.
My presentation was delayed by 2 hours and by the time that I began to speak I was already looking at the clock and worrying about my children. I spoke well and even managed to make a joke that my team laughed about and one of the visitors later extended the joke so I’m guessing that they got it. Up next was my colleague presenting some of my research so I stayed on to support his presentation and help field questions. As the clock approached 5:30pm I began desperately checking the time every 30 seconds and calculating the absolute latest time that I could leave the office and still get to childcare before they close at 6:00pm. I began to sweat and wish that I had worn more comfortable shoes and trousers instead of a skirt so that I could run faster when the exit time arrived. Finally, just as I was about to interrupt the presentation to leave, my colleague finished and I popped up out of my chair, smiled to everyone and said that I had to go and pick up my children from childcare.
I spent the next 30 minutes stressing over whether I could get there in time or if I would have to pay the penalty rate for arriving after the centre has closed (charged by the minute!). I got stuck behind a slow driver with a steady stream of traffic passing me in the other lane and tried my best to stay calm. Finally I was in the carpark at 5:59 and ran, as best I could in those shoes and skirt, wondering from which childcare room to collect a child first, knowing that I could only sign out one before 6pm came around. By good fortune the kids had been moved into the same room and I was able to sign them both out at 6:00 on the dot. We have never left our children at childcare that late and I felt terrible that they were the last ones there.
Once the adrenaline subsided I became intensely frustrated that I’d had to leave the presentations when they were only 1/2 way through and shown to everyone in that room what I perceived as a weakness. Later I railed to my husband that I strive hard every day at work to be super-human and never to show weakness. I went on to say that in some ways motherhood in the corporate world is treated as a disability (I apologise to those with disabilities and mothers for this non-PC statement but I was in a bit of a state) and I never wanted to be the mother that has to leave an important meeting early. I felt that it would leave a permanent black mark against my name with our visitors.
Women feel compelled to work like ‘surrogate men’ to succeed
Obviously I can’t know what they really thought about me but interestingly the next morning when the visitor saw me the first thing he asked was whether I’d made it to the childcare centre in time and then commented on how lucky I was to avoid paying the penalties for being late. He went on to talk about his own young children. As he said this I realised that it may not have been a black mark after-all … or maybe he was just being nice?
With clients I avoid mentioning my children because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, in fact I avoid being overly feminine because I want to be considered on my own merits. I’ve always hated seeing ex-colleagues from the research institution where I worked during both pregnancies and the first thing they all ask me is how are my children. That makes me cringe because I feel it isn’t genuine and they are really just putting me in a box.
I hide my true self at work and create a persona that I think will suit other people but I can’t know what others are thinking and it could just be a limitation in my own mind. What do you think, did I construct it all in my own mind? Is it a weakness to leave an important meeting early and admit to needing to pick up children from childcare?