One of my clients said something to me last week which I found really intriguing: ‘Why can’t we turn up to work as our whole selves?’ In the context of the conversation, it was about how we are expected to work as though we aren’t parents and parent as though we don’t work.
Being a working parent isn’t easy, and you can’t know what it’s like until you are in the situation. So before I dive into talking about showing up to work as your whole self, I want you to remember that you are doing the best you can, making decisions with the information you have.
Returning to work as a new parent
I have shared my story of returning to work before but the crux of it was that I expected to be ‘myself’ but with a child. I hadn’t realised the impact of having kids on my own identity. We all play different roles - sibling, niece, friend, employee, leader, volunteer etc. However, when you become a working mum it can feel like you live two separate identities!
When I returned to work I felt that I had to prove myself more, working after the kids went to bed but I also wanted to make sure that I made cakes for the school bake sale. And these parts of my life were completely separate.
I didn’t talk about work when I was at home and vice versa. This can be beneficial in terms of not bringing one area of life into the other - but - it can also lead to overwhelm. Whilst on the outside it looked like I had it all together but on the inside, I felt I was failing at everything! At work, I felt like I was missing my girls. At home, I was thinking about work and all the while, I lost myself.
On the good days, I was able to acknowledge how I was balancing home and work. On the tougher days, I cried on the way to work and felt completely hopeless. I felt unable to balance and/or integrate these parts of myself.
The double bind of working mums
I’m not alone. As women, we're often held in a double bind. We are expected to smile and be nice, but ‘being nice’ doesn’t get us ahead. We are expected not to be vulnerable and then told we are not relatable.
As working mums, the scrutiny increases. We are told we shouldn’t work because our kids will miss out; people comment if we travel in our job or if we decline a meeting that’s not during our working hours. The truth is that we all need to make decisions that work best for ourselves (and our families if we have one).
“Women are expected to work as though we have no kids and parent as though they don’t work outside the home.” ~ Unknown
Women enjoy greater financial freedom and equality of opportunities compared to 50 years ago. Many of us enjoy working because of the sense of achievement, fulfilment and purpose. But there's also a pressure to be and do it all. All of this makes showing up to work as your whole self feel harder.
Reasons that showing up to work as your whole self feels hard:
- Lack of motivation - this could be due to a lack of appreciation or recognition, feeling unfulfilled or bored or not having a connection between our own values, purpose and the company’s goals/values/purpose. This is a big one for working mums as our values realign when the baby arrives
- Stress and burnout - this can occur with heavy workloads, tight deadlines, insufficient resources or feeling unsupported at work and/or home
- Life changes - changes to our health, family, finances or relationship difficulties can be a distraction and make it harder to feel balanced and focused
- Job dissatisfaction - this might occur when you’re feeling undervalued or if you’re not seeing opportunities for progression which results in you not feeling so invested in your work.
- Culture - our level of engagement and investment in our work can be influenced by the culture of our organisation. A toxic or unsupportive workplace makes showing up as our whole selves, particularly challenging.
All of these things can overlap and this impacts our ability to show up as our whole selves.
How to show up to work as your whole self
I believe that you can love your work and love your family. It doesn’t need to be either/or. It also doesn’t mean you will/should have it all. I have days where I feel guilty about leaving the girls but then I hear that in their Brownie Six, they have been ‘coaching’ their peers through a tough feeling and it reminds me how my work not only benefits me but them too. All of this helps me be my best self at home, and at work. It works towards me showing up to work as my whole self.
Working mums are no less committed to their job than anyone else. We want to be professional, get our work done and spend time with our family. Millions of women and parents feel this way and all they need is some support. Ideally, taking small steps to gradually move the needle on attitudes, behaviours, mindsets and assumptions.
Here are three ways to show up to work as your whole self:
This means holding the mirror up to colleagues, leaders and ourselves so we are all aware of the impact of our behaviour towards each other. I advocate for my clients to speak openly about the joys and challenges of being a woman at work AND being a working mum.
I encourage them to put their kids’ artwork on their desks or have a picture as a screensaver as a visual reminder of life outside the office in order to blend both sides of themselves and acknowledge their combined strengths. In fact, we often do a strengths exercise which specifically looks at the strengths we use in each role.
Making a change
Specifically creating an environment where people can show up as their whole selves. This might look like sharing information and articles with others or getting a coach in to do a programme, training or giving support for parents-to-be/working parents and parents returning to work. It is really important that we share the reality of our experiences with others so that we and they know we are not alone.
Creating new ways of working
One big change over the last few years is how we use technology in working from home/remotely and how we manage and lead our teams from a position of trust. This allows greater freedom on how, when and where people work and provides some balance to integrating all areas of our lives.
How you could you create 1% more balance in showing up to work as your whole self?