The dilemma for all working mothers isn’t new, and we must do more to change it.

Shannon Hennig
May 5 · 8 min read
Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

Living in Canada I have the privilege of being eligible for up to 18 months of maternity and parental leave benefits paid for by the federal government after having a baby. So after the birth of my son, I took 10 months off but was anxious to return to work. My maternity leave was marked by significant health challenges and the searing isolation of new motherhood, so an escape back to the real world was desperately needed.

When I went back to work I was at a great job with a supportive manager that had four kids of her own, ranging in age from 9 to 21. She was a senior executive in a massive organization, and somehow found time to raise a family and do the work of two people without what appeared to be breaking a sweat. The beautiful thing was that she didn’t expect anyone else to match her in terms of time, effort or output. All she asked was that you did your best with the time that you had.

She understood the complexities of juggling daycare drop offs, phone calls coming mid-meeting about fevers and diaper rash, and the need to sometimes drop everything and run in order to take care of your little ones. I was never penalized or reprimanded for working from home when my son was sick or if I had to take him to a medical appointment. We had an understanding that as long as work gets done and meets expectations, she didn’t care where or when I did it. Under her wing I flourished and was able to accomplish a significant amount that helped lay the groundwork for the next steps in my career.

The knowledge that I was supported by a woman who understood the realities of working motherhood was a gift. I knew this at the time and it became even more apparent when I transitioned to a different job at a different organization last year. It’s not that I took my former manager for granted, but I didn’t fully appreciate just how supportive she was, and the relative ease with which I was able to build my career until this was no longer my reality.

Enter a new job, a new manager and a new organization. I had moved into a director level position and I knew that the expectations were high. Any type of management level role typically requires more time and effort, and I knew this before I accepted it. In other words, I went in with my eyes wide open. What I didn’t know at the time was that efforts on my part to balance family and work were strikes against me. Despite being told that flexibility and understanding were the name of the game, my experience suggested otherwise.

From the outset I was traveling more and working longer hours. All this while also trying to juggle a longer commute and daycare drop off and pick up with my husband. Any parent with young children knows how challenging mornings can be, to try and wrangle a toddler or preschooler out the door, into the car and safely strapped into the car seat can take precious minutes that you don’t have. Depending on how things go you might make it to work on time, or find yourself half an hour late and flying into the office like a bat out of hell. Forget trying to do your hair or look like you’ve spent any time that morning getting ready — you’re a disheveled mess.

Our family quickly found itself drowning from the pressure of my new role. I wasn’t able to juggle all the responsibilities of motherhood including the infamous Mental Load, along with the expectations of my childless manager. On top of the regular Monday to Friday of the job, there were extra weekend social and fundraising events (that I never went to — when would I spend time with my kid?), evening commitments and ongoing email chains that would stretch into late hours.

To compound the perception of my failures to my manager, one of my direct reports, though having two young kids himself, was ready, willing and always able to respond to the call. He pushed himself through grinding fatigue and even pneumonia to meet expectations and “serve” our clients. He would regularly be away from his family for 16 hours a day, relying on his wife to look after the kids. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do this so I was upstaged and viewed as roadblock, someone to be worked around, as opposed to a valued contributor.

The stress of trying to manage my life, and my job pushed me into a depression, and though I was functional, my work suffered greatly, as did my son. My attention to detail disappeared. I was constantly forgetting things despite writing lengthy to-do lists and trying to keep detailed spreadsheets, notes and follow ups at my fingertips. Most of my days were spent with a knot in my stomach, worrying about what my manager would ask of me and how I would likely fail to meet her expectations.

She was always quick to provide feedback about what I was doing wrong, even in front of my team and colleagues. One on one meetings felt like a test in high school — one that I hadn’t studied for the night before — as our interactions were reduced to awkward question and answer periods about the status of documents or other tasks. Her response to my overwhelm was to get a house cleaner. I also asked to work from home several days a week and this was granted, but begrudgingly and didn’t last long.

During the little time that I did see my son I was usually angry because he wasn’t cooperating or following our routine as I had it exactly spelled out in my head. Our interactions felt meaningless and his behaviour at home and at daycare was escalating. Morning drop offs would take 20 minutes or more as he would beg me not to leave him. Weekends were spent with him constantly begging for attention and seeking it through any means possible. My husband and I were exhausted, and I ran from one task to another with an immense sense of guilt hanging over me. I was half-assing everything and it showed.

The full impact of my career choice on my son came one night when I was putting him to bed. Not yet five years old, he sat on the edge of his bed with his legs gently folded underneath him and his elbows resting on his tiny knees. He looked me straight in the eyes and with a depth of knowledge and insight that most grown adults don’t have he told me that he “…hates it when Mama puts me to bed because she’s always angry. This makes me feel like there are monsters inside me that want to come out and be bad. They’re telling me what to do and I don’t want to do it, but I do it and I don’t know why.” His frustration and sadness were palpable and I could feel my heart wrench.

Stunned, I looked at him and asked for him to tell me more about how he was feeling. He continued, “I love you Mama, but you make me so mad when you put me to bed. That’s why I want Dada and not you. And that’s why I don’t listen.” Right then and there I knew that I’d become the person, the mother, that I didn’t want to be. Authoritative and demanding, with little time for love or play, I was a sickly shadow that showed up at bedtime and bossed my only baby around.

All my attempts to balance the demands of my work and life at home seemed trivial after that conversation. My focus and attention snapped together and for the first time since I’d started in this role, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t succeed in what I was being asked to do. I couldn’t be a mom and a career woman at this organization and that the best way forward was to quit. To throw in the towel. To fail.

My ego and the practical realities of finding a new job meant that I stayed longer than I wanted. I prioritized my son and family first, leaving no later than 4:00pm and no longer responding to email in the evenings. Mentally, I checked out — I had to in order to keep going through the motions each day — and it showed. By this point in time I didn’t care because my priority had to be my son. Being his mother is the most challenging and rewarding thing I will ever do with my life. You hear others say this all the time and I’m often one to roll my eyes, but now that I’m in the thick of it I know without any hesitation that this is my truth.

I’m no longer at this job or organization and my life is dramatically better. It was toxic and the conditions to succeed were not in place for anyone with children, unless of course they were willing to sacrifice them all in the name of the organization’s mission and vision. The story that I’ve shared is all too common for working mothers everywhere, despite being told by employers that they are family friendly and supportive. The sad and frustrating part is that it doesn’t have to be this way as my previous experience clearly shows.

We’re all still talking about Lean In and making the divide between motherhood and career smaller. I’d argue that nothing has changed socially or structurally to support this, but now it seems like we can have a conversation about it without being told to just suck it up. Leaning in has meant that mothers even more scrutinized for our inability to juggle work and family because there are simply more eyes paying attention. Mothers are stretched too thin, with unrealistic demands on their time and energy coming from all sides.

If we work we’re expected to perform like we don’t have children, and that time spent during the day attending to the needs of our family has to somehow be made up for. The divide between our home life and work life is to be clear cut — and yet this same rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the evening and weekend hours our employers think they can demand. When we parent, schedules are designed for families where one parent isn’t working. School is dismissed at 2:30pm and every month brings another professional development day where there aren’t classes. Class presentations are on at 3:00pm. Extracurricular activities start at 4:00pm. The requests for parent volunteers are endless.

What my experience shows is that we can create inclusive work environments that respect the additional challenges faced by working mothers, and do it in a way that doesn’t saddle them with guilt or the expectation that they’ll make up lost time by working later. We have to do better and by that I don’t mean we create more space for women to act and work like men. Instead we must start respecting the role that women play at home and in the workplace and support them to thrive. It looks different than what we’re all accustom to in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective or achievable.

I’ve learned that I can’t do it all — and that excelling in both my career and as a mother at the same time is yet another cultural myth that I fell for. Much like the rest of my motherhood experience has shown, the world women inhabit is not our own. The rules and expectations are clearly defined by men and we’re only here to try and compete in a game where the odds are heavily stacked against us. We’ve been invited to play, but we’re set up to lose. It’s within this reality that I take my next steps forward, choosing my child over my career and doing so without any hesitation or regret.

Shannon Hennig

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Writer & entrepreneur. Productivity, work, mindfulness and motherhood. Subscribe for tips & tools.

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