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The futile pursuit of perfection – and how to get over motherhood guilt.

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By Norah Breekveldt, Director – The Leadership Agenda : Ampersand Advisory

 

“We are not meant to be perfect. We’re meant to be whole.” Jane Fonda.

 

We have all come across the perfect stereotypical mum or career woman. Perhaps she is the perfect stay-at-home mum you meet at the school gate, as you drop your child off, hurried and late as usual for the start of your crazy workday. She could be part of the hostile “mummy mafia” who look down their nose judging you as they drop their children off in their luxury car, holding a skinny decaf latte from the cool café around the corner. She is probably wearing the latest black lycra workout wear on her way to her daily gym workout, followed by an hour at the local nail spa, perhaps a hit of tennis before a lunch of salad leaves and coffee, and a spot of shopping before she returns again for the afternoon school pick-up wearing the latest uber-cool skinny jeans. You could swear she’s been to the hairdresser, too, since you saw earlier that morning.

Or perhaps she’s the perfect career mum, professionally assured, focused, has her diary organised to within an inch of its life and has the office running like a well-oiled machine. She is full of stories about her extraordinary, overachieving children who were chosen as captain of the basketball team, won the school eisteddfod, got top marks in all subjects. At work she excels in everything she does, seamlessly accepting accolades for her work and accepting that plum job or promotion to which you’ve always aspired, but couldn’t possible get because you refuse to put in the long hours in the office, take on the brutal travel schedules and cope with the relentless time pressures required to deliver results.

Exhausted trying to compete with her? Or perhaps you suffer from motherhood guilt because you can’t live up to your own ideal of perfection. Your reality is that you struggle to forge out a successful career amidst the chaos in which you and your family lives. Each day you face a daily struggle making choices and sacrifices in your quest to achieve a semblance of work-life balance. You’re overwhelmed with guilt about not being able to attend important events, like your child’s school play, because you’ve had to attend a critical meeting, guilty that you can’t help out in the classroom like other mums, or that other mums have to take your daughter’s to after-school sports. Reading the latest must-read prize-winning novel or taking regular exercise are indulgences you can’t even contemplate.

Take heart. You are not alone. More than one third of Australian working mums suffer motherhood guilt, according to a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald[1]. Most of the successful women I interviewed for my publication Career Interrupted How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks (Melbourne Books, 2015) experienced feelings of motherhood guilt from time to time.

  • Jodie Sizer, partner at the global accounting firm PwC, has daily conversations with herself about getting the balance right. “Every time I leave the house to go to work I feel guilty and every time I’m away I worry about what I’m going to miss”, she confesses. She often leaves for work before her children are awake and comes home after they have gone to bed in the evening. Her frequent interstate travel means she often can’t plan her family time or can’t get to important school events. She recalls how she often feels overwhelmed with guilt, like when she attended her daughter’s ballet concert, guilty that she hadn’t been part of it, that she hadn’t been able to take her daughter to ballet every week, like many other mums.
  • Lucinda Dunn, former principal ballet dancer at the Australia ballet remembers sitting under the ballet barre one day, totally exhausted and thinking “someone else is taking my child to the park, is seeing her grow up, and I’m sitting in the studio, exhausted, depressed – what am I doing?”

Disheartening as these stories may be, don’t despair. These women and others discovered specific actions and strategies that enabled them to clear their conscience so that they can lead fuller lives, have a rewarding career, and create a semblance of work-life integration. I’d like to share ten of their strategies with you.

  • For Kelly O’Dwyer, Federal member for the Liberal seat of Higgins in Melbourne, baby Olivia has become part and parcel of her everyday life, not an add-on for whom she needs to find extra time. By the time Olivia was born she was effectively juggling four roles – two cabinet ministries, first-time motherhood and fighting off a rising Greens threat in her local electorate. To help the juggle, her husband Paul has taken 12 months parental leave to accompany Kelly and Olivia in Canberra. Baby Olivia goes everywhere with Kelly – breastfeeding makes anything else not an option, she says. When she can’t have Olivia with her, Paul takes over.
  • For Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam, honest communication with her children was the key, combined with understanding her limitations. With her children she was open about her feelings, plans and movements, and this honesty forged a strong bond that lasts until today, with the kids all grown up and with lives of their own.
  • Jennifer Keyte, journalist and Channel 7 news presenter, ran her household with military precision, calling on as much external help as she needed. This enables her to focus on work without wallowing in motherhood guilt.
  • Ambassador Adamson, Australia’s Ambassador to China set herself a firm rule right from the start. ‘I would work at work and home would be home. As soon as I walked in the door at home I’d stop thinking about work and as soon as I walked in the door at work I’d stop thinking about home’, she said. ‘It seemed to me not productive to feel guilty in both places, and this way I was able to throw myself into each part of it.’
  • Jodie Sizer makes the most of her downtime in her car on the trip home by phoning her children, talking to them throughout the two hour trip and catching up on their day.
  • Maggie Evans Galea, scientist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, connects with her daughter through monthly mother/daughter days where they spend the whole day together, her daughter Bre deciding on how the day will be spent.
  • Lisa Croxford, lawyer and Capability Development Manager at Herbert Smith Freehills, decided to “lean back” for a time (to borrow Sheryl Sandberg’s term) and accepted a less demanding role while she took the lion’s share of parenting. She leant in again when the time was right, and was promoted to Special Counsel soon after.
  • Journalist and newsreader Tracey Spicer describes her husband as a genuine 50/50 parent, who took parental leave after Taj was born. They share the nighttime feeds so she got some reasonable sleep time – expressing breast milk was a non-negotiable!
  • Anna Burke, Federal Member for the Labour seat of Chisholm is highly organised and innovative. She has an enormous freezer where she stores frozen meals for the family when parliament is sitting, all labeled with cooking instructions. She also has a cupboard full of presents for those times when a children’s birthday party unexpectedly comes up. She described how she would read her children bedtime stories through Skype when she was in Canberra, holding the book up to the screen to show them the pictures.
  • Lucy Roland, consultant and small business owner, believes it’s important to teach the girls valuable life lessons – for the girls to see her enjoying work and succeeding, as well as being a good mother and a happy, independent person in her own right. She wants to be a role model to the girls, so they develop their own independent lives, choosing and pursuing work they love.

Lucy has touched on an important point. Evidence abounds that mothers returning to the workforce is good for society and for families. A Harvard University study published in 2015[2], found that daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, hold supervisory positions, and earn more money than the daughters of mothers who don’t work outside the home. It also found that sons of working women are more likely to spend time caring for family members and doing household chores than are the sons of stay-at-home mothers.

Conflicts between work and family responsibilities will happen. One of my favourite stories comes from Anna Burke, again. Her daughter Maddie’s first day of school clashed with a leadership challenge in the Labour Party in 2006. Kim Beazley was challenging Kevin Rudd. For Anna to cast her vote, she needed to be physically in Canberra. Here’s what happened:

Kim Beazley rings me: “Anna, I’d like your vote.”

“Kim, I’d love to vote for you”, I replied, “but I’m not going to be there. I’m going to take Maddie to her first day of school.”

Kevin Rudd rang me. I said, “Kevin, I’ll be honest. I was going to give my vote to Kim, but it doesn’t matter, I’m not coming.”

Both of them said fine, they understand.

Lots of my colleagues rang and said, “Anna, you are mad. You have to be there. This will be counted against you.”

Even my mother rang and said, “You’ve got to think about this.”

I said, “I have. And I only have one option and that is I am taking Maddie to school.”

“She won’t remember,” they said.

“I don’t care, I will remember. This is an important step. I’m going to be there and if it counts against me, well, so what? She’s going to be here forever, my career in parliament’s not.”

Sometimes we just need to consider all areas of our lives, set boundaries and take a stand. Each part of our lives, relationships, career, parenthood, health and spiritual well being, needs its own time and energy.

The next time you find yourself labouring under your own expectations to be the perfect parent, partner or friend, ask yourself these three questions: What would life be like if ceased the futile pursuit of perfection? What kind of life do I want to have? What values do I want to instil in my children so they grow to become the kind of adults of whom I would be proud?

Life happens in stages for all of us– there are periods when we can focus more on our career and other times when we focus more on other parts of our lives. As you move through these different stages your priorities can change, and with these changes your daily habits and strategies can shift too.

Perhaps it’s time to recognise at which the stage your life is in right now, and build daily habits and simple strategies that are right for you, right now. Let these practices become the basis for new ways of achieving success at work as well as defining you as the whole person you want to be.

 

[1] “Do you suffer motherhood guilt?” Kate Jones, SMH, 11 September, 2014

[2] http://bit.ly/1HJYoO8

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