It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a job must feel guilty if she is also a mum. Or is it? Why are there such different standards for men and women? Mothers are held to such a tougher regard than their male counterparts thanks to long-held stereotypes when in fact they should be celebrated for being so damn awesome and capable. A friend of mine is returning to work for the second time, leaving her 6 month old in order to support her family and while she’s looking forward to the challenge of her job, she’s reluctant to leave her baby. She told me that people keep asking her ‘how she’s feeling’ about the whole thing. “Shit,” she said.
That concern can often feel dressed up in judgement and speaking to PR maven, Dionne Taylor, production boss, Chana McLallen and celebrity nutritionist, Zoe Bingley-Pullin; maybe the answer is first to stop judging ourselves. Spousal competition, work/life balance, working mother guilt; this trio of working mums open up about what led them to where they are now and how they navigate their professional needs with their personal ones.
Mum of two, Dionne, is the founder and director of Polkadot Communications, a consumer PR agency delivering strategic communications and campaigns for its clients to secure media coverage and build up their brand profile. Dionne started her business almost 13 years ago.
Her girls were born into the business, so to speak, and immersing them in that part of her life is incredibly important to Dionne. “They won’t remember this but they have been in the office since they were both a few weeks’ old and continue to “help” during the school holidays.”
Between her PR business and her husband, Danny’s real estate business, Dionne aspires to model to her children just how important it is that both Mummy and Daddy have the opportunity to follow their dreams. “I recently asked my 8 year old if she’d prefer I didn’t work and picked her up from school every day when the bell goes. Her response was so eloquently delivered, “but Mummy, you love working, and that makes you happy, and that makes me happy.” From the mouth of babes. I am setting a good example for my girls.” Not only happiness derived from career but also financial independence is something Dionne personally considers an important factor of being a ‘working mother’, regardless of how successful or not their partners are.
Of course, given the choice, would all women choose to work? Perhaps not, but Dionne has never had the option not to be in the workplace and while she’s not necessarily felt the weight of other people’s judgement for her decisions, she admits there are times she’s been her own worst critic. “When the girls were little I felt so guilty,” she says. “I never had ‘time off’ from parenting to be alone or do my own thing. My ‘time off’, as limited as it was, always involved some element of working. When my eldest turned 1 I realised that I had lost my sense of self and forgotten to prioritise the things that I liked. Not me the mum, not me the business owner, but me the person.”
That fine balance between the different parts that make up who we are in the world so often means that the non-priority bits get overlooked. But why should what we, at our core, need come last? Dionne says that even earmarking 2 hours for herself during the week makes all the difference.
Shrugging off the notion of ‘working mother guilt’, her feeling is focusing on the quality of the time you spend either at the office or with your kids. “My kids are an extension of me and always come first. I come last. This is the reality, but with it comes a sense of achievement, honesty, fulfillment and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As for getting around the life juggle of raising children and running a business, Dionne has put practical measures in place. “I have a weekly online grocery delivery so I don’t need to go to the supermarket. I subscribe to a meal service and have three meals per week portioned, but not cooked, I do all the cooking. I have a cleaner once a week and am part of a fruit and veg co-op shop which is delivered on a fortnightly basis.” So that’s the house and meals sorted, what about the kids and their after school activities, school lunches, and general wellbeing?
Following Dionne’s advice, these are some of the hacks she applies to get around the difficulty of balancing kids with work:
- See what activities your child’s school provides on-campus or with an inbuilt pick-up scheme that means you don’t necessarily have to escort them to it
- Talk to other working mums and help each other out with lifts to activities/events your kids are both involved with
- Make school lunches the night before and have everything laid out in the evening so you can ‘grab and go’ in the morning
- Get up before the kids, shower, get dressed (have coffee) and then start your day. Once they’re up it’s game on!
- Try to be there before bedtime for your kids most nights; it’s not always possible as often you may have evening commitments. I do however find they communicate most about how they feel right before bed. It’s a good opportunity to get insight into your kids and their emotional state.
Being a working mum comes with its hurdles. While men are just dubbed breadwinners and expected to mark their territory in the workplace, women are simultaneously lauded and accused of ‘having it all’ as society attempts to get its head around post-1950s gender equality.
“Whoever has it all is lying,” laughs Dionne. “Having it all, for me, changes by the minute. As long as I have healthy, happy children, happy staff and clients, food in the fridge, a roof over my head, I am happy. I would say the same goes for my husband too, who wears the same responsibilities as I do. Neither of us see the other as the breadwinner, we’re in it together.”
But whichever way we look at it, women more than men are generally expected to wear more of the responsibilities when it comes to child-rearing and home-making, whether they spend their days in a board room or a playground. “Any woman who manages to switch their hat from parent to worker, back to parent without completely losing their sh*t is inspirational,” says Dionne.
Mum of two, Chana is a TV Commercials Producer for Goodoil Films, a top tier production company specialising in above the line advertising campaigns for big brands.
Proud to be an inspiration to her children, Chana acknowledges that in her industry she’s not alone in juggling motherhood with a high octane career. “I try not to spend too much time wondering what other people might be thinking.”
Finding a sense of familiarity and even identity in one’s chosen vocation is another reason why maintaining a career after children can be so important to some women. “I’ve always felt very at home in this industry and it’s become an integral part of who I am and how I recognise my worth and relevance,” says Chana, whose decision had less to do with filling a gap and more to do with challenging herself in a new way as far as understanding a different side to herself.
That doesn’t mean that she’s immune to the dreaded ‘working mother guilt’ but she has found a way to cope with it. “I am learning to not be too tough on myself and I try to respond to what I think the kids need from me in the moment that I’m with them,” she says. “I try to be available when I get home and on the weekends and any work I need to do at home, I try to do when they’re asleep.” Crediting the support of her partner, Jason, Chana believes mutual respect and teamwork are what is required in any marriage or relationship. “He’s amazingly well-domesticated and often takes on the heavy household load if I am having a crazy busy time with work. He’s pretty awesome and the house runs so smoothly when I’m away so I know he’s totally got it covered.”
The matter of outsourcing various things too is something Chana is undoubtedly familiar with and recognises as a necessity of modern day motherhood and life. Having a cleaner, getting the car washed, buying ready-made meals and allowing herself the luxury of leaning on nearby familial support are all as much a part of keeping the cogs turning as anything else.
“To be honest, some weeks are better than others but we try to make sure we don’t over-schedule our weekends, which I think really helps when you work 5 days a week. Try to make sure your brain isn’t fizzing on the weekend with all the social arrangements on top of all the household work you feel you might need to get through.”
Generally, Chana lives by these working mother commandments, something she feels both long-time WM and those returning to work would benefit from:
1. Think about the reality of daily timings if you are returning to work and how your home schedule will function with your work schedule. It can be as simple as reducing your travel so you don’t feel so stressed about getting to work and thus the whole home environment shifts.
- What time do you need to leave the house to get to work?
- Is it realistic to think that everyone can be up/dressed and ready to go?
- Can you find daycare/school that is close to work or home so you’re not wasting time travelling to collect?
2. Juggling work with children is challenging but don’t be too hard on yourself, you would be surprised how resilient kids are. But if you feel like laying down next to them and holding their hand to go to sleep ‘cause you haven’t seen them since breakfast, then do it – adults need to be refuelled by affection just as much as kids do.
3. I know it’s a cliché but enjoying your job definitely makes being away from your children a little easier.
Chana believes in celebrating the strengths of each person, regardless of whether they are man or woman, father or mother, and while salaries still have a way to go in reflecting that, times have changed. “Women are just as capable as men and age or experience don’t always count for nearly as much as determination.”
Mum of one, Zoe is a nutritionist, chef and founder of Nutritional Edge, a nutritional consultancy business. Zoe is also a presenter on Channel 7’s The House of Wellness and films regular segments for them as well as appearing on their radio show of a Sunday morning. Her 8-week Falling in Love with Food program is yet another string to this busy mum’s bow, as she guides people in how to fall in love with food and regain their confidence in the kitchen.
“I am grateful on a daily basis to be doing a job I love and feel passionate about,” says Zoe. “It’s important for me to teach my daughter that it is possible to achieve what you want in life as long as you work hard, have confidence in yourself and understand the importance of perseverance.”
A great outlook to have, it can prove incredibly difficult to please everyone when you’re a mum, and not just your immediate family but society at large. Women often feel the ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ sentiment as they endeavour to satisfy their maternal desires together with providing for their family. “It’s hard to find the perfect balance,” says Zoe. “However, I feel comforted knowing that my daughter has come ahead of every career decision I have made.”
Mothers who work should not be judged negatively, and yet whether we do return to work or whether we choose to stay at home, that judgement rolls in anyway. I know plenty of women who admitted to feeling more comfortable in their professional role than that of mother and others who had no choice but to return to work due to financial reasons; it’s the way of the world. “Like any mother, I could prefer to be with (my daughter) than at work but I know that when I am working she is in a happy and safe environment and I couldn’t ask for more,” says Zoe. “I also remind myself that by working, I can give my daughter more opportunities and because working in a job I love, brings me happiness, it helps me be my best self for my family.”
Undoubtedly the guilt can creep in, we all feel it. I mean, the #mumguilt hashtag wouldn’t be a thing right! But it’s dealing with the guilt and, in an age of social media where other family’s picture perfect lives are pressed up against your consciousness 24/7, trying not to compare yourself to others, that can prove the biggest challenge. “As a parent, it’s important to not compare yourself to other parents and if you need help, be ok with showing your vulnerability and ask for help,” says Zoe. “Most of the time there will be others feeling the exact same way as you.”
She may be a celebrity and even one of those mums we find ourselves measuring up against but Zoe got to where she is through hard work and determination which is why it was so important for her not to sacrifice that part of her life when she became a mother. “Work gives me a sense of purpose and motivates me daily to grow myself and learn more, which in turn shapes who I am and helps me constantly evolve.”
With all the commitments she has going on, Zoe admits “balance” is often a far-flung concept in her life. “I recommend working with the chaos and understand that at times things will flow well and when things don’t go to plan, try not to be hard on yourself.” Life is messy and unpredictable, especially when kids are in the mix. “If I’m tired, this is when I become unstuck and work/home life balance becomes a struggle,” says Zoe, who confesses crying is her go-to on days like those.
“What I’d say to other working mums or mums about to go back to work is this:
1. Try not to beat yourself up about it, realise work is a necessity – we need it for money, a sense of purpose and to teach children the value of work.
2. Be as organised as possible because this will help things flow more smoothly.
3. Try not to do 10 things in one day, choose your top 3 and prioritise getting those achieved.”
Zoe also champions working mothers to own their successes and strengths without allowing the bitter taste of envy to wet the lips of your relationship. Men can on occasion feel threatened if they feel their archetypal role of ‘man of the house’ is in question, particularly if their wife or partner is killing it at home and in the office. “It’s important to not be competitive with your partner,” advises Zoe, “in fact I hold my brother in high regard, he is a stay at home Dad and his top priority is his child. There is not one defined role for every person.”
It was her own mother who inspired Zoe’s relationship with food, “she was an amazing cook and taught me the value of sharing food you love with the people you are closest to.” Being a mother is a powerful thing as we are tasked with inspiring and influencing our children to help them become the people they want to be. However we do that, whether through the lessons we teach across a hot stove, or the quality time we share at the end of a busy working day, the important thing is that we are there showing them who we want to be. Only then can they understand how to value the ‘what’s important to me’.
We have some copies of Zoe’s book Falling in Love with Food up for grabs to the first 10 people who comment on this article with their favourite childhood food!