Can I Have A Successful Career And Be An Amazing Parent?
On reading this in the Guardian last week I almost choked on my Weetbix,
Would happiness and confidence return if full-time motherhood became the normal expectation again for women?
Despite my initial reaction, I have been wondering whether there is some truth to this question because, from where I’m sitting, women still can’t ‘have it all’.
The challenges of work-family balance
I am a lawyer and I have worked in law firms and most recently in-house at a company. I have been umming and ahhing about my career since having my first child five years ago. Life has been a flurry of office, home and children. My job ticks a few boxes: income, a solid routine, meeting other adults and having an identity which is independent from parenthood.
I had days when I was euphoric to be leaving my adorable but crazy children behind, striding freely to work, cup of coffee in hand. I also had days when I was consumed by guilt at not seeing them enough. More than that though, I simply missed my kids.
Work family balance and job satisfaction
We talk a lot about the G-word – working mothers feel guilt at not being present enough for their kids. What we do not seem to acknowledge as often is the need of a mother (and a father) to spend regular stress-free time with their children.
A relocation halfway across the world forced me to quit my job a couple of months ago. At first I was upset at having lost the income, my freedom, and my coffee. While I have spent the last couple of months packing and moving I have also spent a lot of that time with my children. Somewhere along the way, I realised that I don’t want to be away from them five days a week, 12 hours a day.
This is where it gets tricky. I can no longer be both the parent and the professional I want to be.
A new theory of work/family balance
Prior to becoming a mother, I was described as ambitious, driven, motivated. I don’t feel that these adjectives apply to me any more, or at least not in the conventional sense.
I wrapped up my identity with my profession. I don’t know how to be anything other than a lawyer. Many of my peers from law school are either already partners at major global law firms or are well on their way to becoming partners. Some people have launched successful careers in management, academia, or as entrepreneurs.
Work and life balance – can I be a lawyer and ‘have it all’?
I want to spend quality time on motherhood; to help my kids be healthy, kind, warm, independent, and successful. Equally, I want to have some success of my own that is not my children. In my experience though, partnerships or even senior legal jobs at most companies do not allow a parent the flexibility to spend substantial time nurturing their family. I see friends and peers around me postpone motherhood time and again, to make it to the next promotion.
I want to have some income and continuity in my career, but I also want to have enough time to focus on my family and to explore alternative opportunities.
I know that I don’t want to be a partner in a law firm, but when I try to think of alternative careers which enable me to spend real time with my children and which offer the professional success and satisfaction I seek, I draw a blank.
I’m beginning to understand what Anne-Marie Slaughter was getting at when she wrote her famous 2012 Atlantic Magazine article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” That’s a pretty sobering thought when you have always believed that you can be anything you want.
Does this mean that if I want to be a lawyer I need to accept that (in some sense) I’ll never ‘have it all’?
Can I have a successful career and be an amazing parent?
I figured that one way to think myself out of this conundrum was to get myself a career coach. I met with a coach who is highly regarded and works with a variety of professionals and entrepreneurs.
We had a few sessions and these were the questions she asked me:
What do you like about your career?
I like that it is logical, solution-oriented, commercial, and that I am a subject-matter expert whose opinion people rely on.
What do you dislike about your career?
It’s not very flexible and working in-house at a big company is not terribly cutting-edge or exciting, most days. The work is repetitive and very often I feel like a cog in a wheel.
What are your priorities?
Spending more time with my family, working on something that is interesting, feeling like I am an important part of a whole and interacting with like-minded people.
What is your vision?
I visualised my ideal career/vocation: in my mind was a clear picture. From this picture I understood the goals I had to work towards. My coach also asked me to imagine my own picture of success and to then place myself in it. I had to consider what it would take to get me into my own picture.
All of these still seem like abstract ideas to me, but now I know where I am headed I can make a start.
Your work-family balance vision and priorities
Once you have made a decision to make some changes in your life, you should keep your priorities front and centre in your mind when exploring opportunities. This will help to narrow down the available options or motivate you to think outside of the box in search of other solutions.
We all know that when you are in between roles (read unemployed) it is easy to jump at the first job which comes your way. But beware, this may land you right back in the same place you were before.
While I haven’t yet come up with a coherent future plan, I will be guided by my priorities when considering my next steps and options. And I have decided to heed Slaughter’s advice, ‘Don’t drop out, defer.’ That way, ‘If you keep your hand in the workforce while you are devoting more of your time to [family] care, it will be easier to ramp up than to get back in.’
My own definition of ‘having it all’
So, for the moment I will focus on finding flexible, short-term legal roles. I want to have some income and continuity in my career but I also want to have enough time to focus on my family and to explore alternative opportunities. This is somewhat easier as I am starting afresh in a new city. Maybe here is the perfect place for me to reset my own expectations and to discover my own definition of ‘having it all.’ Because ‘having it all’ means different things to different women and that’s okay.
I could’t finish this piece without touching on a very important point. It is abundantly clear to me that the pressure to be a breadwinner comes at the expense of time and relationships with family. This describes the struggle of many working women across the globe. But it describes the situation of most fathers too. This internal struggle is something my husband must feel everyday, perhaps to a different degree. That is why it is so important for us to push for family-friendly working environments for all parents.
Have you faced similar work/family conundrums? Let us know in the comments below and head over to The Squad to see how other working mothers create their own definition of ‘having it all’.
You might also like this article about going back to work with a baby and preparing for parenthood with a fur baby.
I’m a thirty-something lawyer, mum, and freelance writer. I was raised in India and have since lived, studied, and worked in Dubai, the US, London and now Hong Kong.
Can I have a successful career and be an amazing parent?