Career and motherhood – is it possible?

12:0AM, Jul 18th 2012

Christine Kininmonth asks the mother of all questions

When my first daughter was born, I happily threw myself into the chaotic but delicious world of being a mum. My days were spent rolling around on the floor marvelling at this little person I'd brought into the world. I was in my own mummy bubble, away from the reality of everyday cares and worries. And I was loving it.

But after four months, my husband started dropping heavy hints. Wasn't it time I went back to work?

Back to work? Couldn't he see I'd totally lost interest in work? I was happily tending my brood, and it was his job to leave the nest and pay our crippling mortgage.

But as the weeks went on the pressure grew. So to save our marriage as much as anything, I did finally squeeze into a suit. After nine months of maternity wear and baggy t-shirts I felt as if I'd stepped out in clown feet and a red nose.

My interview with a TV station was a disaster. I looked totally bored until the news director mentioned he had a baby. A baby? How old? Was she sitting up?

Later I phoned and apologised for wasting his time. 'Yes, you came across as completely uninterested,' he said.

Yet fast forward three years and I am so absorbed in my career that I return to the job with a four-day old baby.

A "motherhood coach"

Helping mothers return to work has turned into a business for Jenny Dixon-Elliott.

Jenny is a "motherhood coach". She realised her work in corporate coaching would be useful in helping working women deal with the challenges of motherhood.

"You become a mum and all of a sudden you lose your identity, which is tied up with perhaps being in a leadership role, or delegating," she says.

"A lot of women struggle with becoming 'just' a mother. There's no control, you can feel alone, isolated and cut off. Even women in palatial homes with no financial pressures can go bananas."

Jenny coaches her clients every couple of weeks or months. Most of the time she simply offers a sympathetic ear. "One of my client's marriages was badly shaken when she gave up work," Jenny recounts. "She had a good job and found it really stressful to let it go. In particular, she found it hard to watch her husband go up and up the ladder in his job."

Jenny says the key to a successful return to work is to plan ahead.

"Tell your employer that you are a keen and enthusiastic employee and that you are passionate about making a valuable contribution to the company, and then tell him or her that you are pregnant – after all, it's a natural and normal part of being a woman."

Jenny says the pressure to be a good breadwinner will send a lot of women back to work too early. "Then you get the guilt the feeling that you're not an adequate parent."

She thinks that for many mums, part-time work is the preferred option. "Full-time work always becomes more than full time. And, let's face it, you end up holding two full-time jobs managing family and the home and your work."

How I found balance

Now, with four children (one of them asleep on my lap as I write this) I have finally achieved a bit of that oh-so-precious "balance".

I work part-time for a few companies, one of them my own. I've found two to three days a week away from home is about as much as I can manage before the wheels fall off the family wagon. I know my colleagues at work find my shorter hours frustrating but I've finally realised I can't please everybody. My main priority at the moment is the happiness of my children.

For the most part, I do have my act together. But we working mothers are very sneaky at hiding all the chaos under our Superwoman cloaks.
For example, how many of my friends know that my three year old usually goes to bed in a grubby ballet tutu or her tattiest favourite sequinned dress? This I can deal with.

Perhaps the only time the whole thing goes belly up is when I miss a school presentation or a preschool singalong. All the money and job satisfaction in the world mean nothing when your child's crumpled face shows how hurt they are that mummy won't be in the audience.

On the up side, returning to the workforce has been great for my self-esteem. Few people smile at a mum and say "Hey, great job on those dishes!" or "Wow! Anna's hair is brushed and she has shoes on". But at work I bathe in the odd little words of praise. The wage leftover from childcare costs does make a difference to the family piggy bank and the stress levels of my husband.

And these days I even feel pretty good about getting dressed up in a suit.

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