Friday, September 28, 2007

On the right track

Over at bluemilk (my mac doesn't seem to let me make links but go there - it's such a great blog) there's a post about the opportunities work presents and the constraints we face in taking advantage of them. There are also some comments about the mummy track - the career path women end up on when they have children and find their organisations don't take them seriously as workers anymore. One of the commenters suggested concern about this is 'ego', and that things change over time. I think it's true - things can change - but the point about ego is stinging a little (and I acknowledge this response is about me, and not the writer's intent), so much so that I'm writing this instead of dealing with some work stuff that Needs To Be Done Now.

Ego. It's such a dirty word, and doubly so if you're a woman, and triply so if you're a mother. After all, motherhood is presented to us as the suppression of ego, as a state of sacrifice for the good of our children and our family (and the country's economy if the Treasurer had his way). Worrying about the state of one's career can seem a little off topic when we are trying to raise kids under all sorts of pressures, with all kinds of hopes and fears and caught in emotions so deep and complex - it's overwhelming and beautiful and frightening and there is absolutely nothing comparable in my paid work life. But I'm pretty much on the Mummy track at the moment, and I'm not always entirely comfortable with this, even though it is the best solution for balancing our family’s emotional wellbeing with our financial needs.

I don't like that in the professions, there is only one legitimate way of being a worker. So many organisational structures and cultures expect the total devotion of mind and body, in ways that disadvantage people who are trying to be parents (and in particular, mothers, upon whom the caring tasks most commonly fall). But more than that, I'm frustrated that I can't shine in my career when I'm shining as a mother. This strikes at the core of my identity: I've been a professional for much longer than I've been a mother and I've worked really hard to be respected and to get all the necessary letters after my name. My life was directed to success in my field; motherhood came late(ish) and the desire for children was absent for decades; Kris-as-mother is a pretty recent and unexpected character. That earlier sense of self was not sloughed off when Lu and then Nell came along; it lives side by side - often uncomfortably - with 'Mummy'. And there's ego in it too, I miss feeling that I am (or have the potential to be) a player, someone who's going somewhere.

Work might be vanity, it might melt in the air, but it does matter to me. The work-family balance is usually presented as a question of the fit between hours worked and hours spent with family, but for many women it also a question of balancing the different elements of who we are and what we focus on: worker and mother and partner, ego and sacrifice. These ideas are written as separate, and contain an implicit dichotomy (trichotomy?) but perhaps they should be presented as workermotherpartner, egosacrifice because they're all mixed up together.

I'm lucky that my work lets me write this from home, and that home is where work is currently happening. I'm lucky that I don't have to make a set of hard choices about career and family. I’m on the mummy track, and in terms of what my family needs, this is the right track. I've been telling my friends I have little ambition, and I'm comfortable with its absence. And I am, sort of. But there's still a part of me that wants to travel not the back roads of the mummy track, beautiful and quiet though they may be, but the great boulevards of a successful career, in a motorcade, with tickertape and a marching band and, sure, the key to the city (yes, my ego is that big). I may get there eventually but in the meantime, I'm sometimes going to feel sad and frustrated that and resentful that I can't be seen as a great mother and a shit-hot leader in my field. Because I'm proud of being both.

9 comments:

Marjorie said...

I feel like you're in my head, taking a jumble of contentment, guilt, frustration, satisfaction, and, yes, a big dose of EGO, and making much more sense of it than I seem to be able to most of the time.

This post is going to be occupying my mind all day, I know it...

Crazy Mumma said...

Hi Kris, this is something that was on my mind a LOT when I had my first baby, at age 30, almost 6 years ago now. For many, many years I struggled with the very same issues you talk of, and it has only been quite recently that I have come to believe the maxim "we can have everything, just not at the same time".

I'm only 36, and their little lives develop so quickly, that it will be just a blink of the eyes and my kids will all be at school. Then I will be 40 - an age where I will still be young-ish, but I like to think that my opinions will be respected (unlike when I was in my 20's and consistently patronised), but I will still have a good 25 years of my working life left ahead of me. In the meantime, I deflect criticisms of being "just" a mum with a smile, because if I can cope with two hands and three kids then I will cream them back in the professional sphere ;-)

Kris said...

Hi Crazy Mumma. This is all very true - I guess the challenge is having that patience and that faith that everything cycles round.

And given the way governments are treating the aged pension and self-funded retirement, we'll all be working until we're in our 80s. So, loads of time to re-establish careers (gah - or will we be juggling paid work with grandparenting?). But it would be nice if women and men could be taken seriously as workers and contributors even if they are not full time or offering up every waking hour.

Janine. Jini. J. said...

And you should be proud of being both. Motherhood was such a shock to me, as I felt my entire future was being taken away. It does change every single aspect of your life -from your career to the relationship with partner and parents- and by the time you come up for air you are a different person. Close to four years after Ro was born I do believe the fear that I was not moving forward was only a temporary state, but it feels like forever because of the routine and the mundane practical tasks that are part of parenthood. And the isolation!
Now that I am emerging from the fog, I am beginning to feel like I have the potential to 'go somewhere'. It will happen Kris, and you're awesome to be doing what you are.

Theresa Bakker said...

What a post, what a post. Thank you for sharing this. The work/mother balance has been very much on my mind lately. One thing I've noticed is that when I do work now, I am a much better worker. I'm more motivated and less of a slacker. Being a mother has also helped me understand other people's motivations better. There's nothing like hanging out with a toddler for a little crash course in human development.

VictoriaE said...

In my not-so-humble opinion, to be an effective mother we need to have really good big healthy egos, and a solid sense of ourselves as a person in many different ways that are nothing to do with being a mother. Well, that's part of how I survive it happily, anyway. Love reading your thoughts about it.

Emma said...

Damn! I need to 'out' myself as the author of that 'ego' comment over at bluemilk. Whoa did I not mean it like that! I think my use of the word ego was a poor choice. What I was intending to convey was a sense that, as women we create (or have created for us?) rigid boundaries and useless labels such as "career track" or "mummy track". These are such inadequate terms when I think of myself and the other inspiring, hard working women (both in and out of the home) around me that are such staggeringly complex people - and so much broader than the 2 narrow tracks we have infront of us. I too worked hard to get letters after my name, but it was SO MUCH more than that. It is still a part of me. A desire to learn, to help people, to be really really good at something. To be recognised. I want these things too, as a Mother. It's just that they aren't recognised. I work harder now, but I am also (most days) happier. I have a greater sense of myself as a woman and as an individual, maybe that's just getting older and has nothing to do with children, I don't know. But I still hate when I am ignored by others who see me as "just a Mum". All I meant by 'ego' was that sometimes I try to "talk up" my past experiences to prove to people, "I was something". Then I catch myself and think, "you're an idiot, you ARE something". You're a woman that can do many many things - mothering is one of them, being a professional is one of them, a world traveller, a gardener, a good friend and a kick ass wife are also amongst them. I don't want to limit myself to ego based definitions of who I am. I loved your post Kris, I would hate to think I made a mother question her sheer brilliance.

Kris said...

Emma, as I said at the beginning of this post, my reading of the ego comment was about me, not about your words. I think the reason I responded to the whole issue was for exactly the reasons you've shared: people whose opinions really mattter to me think I'm letting myself down in not really pursuing my career (or at least,that's the feeling I get from them) even though my life is really full and I do good work, just not as much of it as I once did.

I think Victoria is right: we need healthy egos (as women, as well as mothers or workers) because in the end our sense of achievement is going to come from within. Our society offers very little validation for our choices and we just need to keep saying 'Stuff you all, this is my definition of success', whatever that definition might be.

Emma said...

That was a big one for me - the ego stuff, the validation. When I had my twins (3 years ago), my husband and I decided to both work part time, move to a rural area and do the whole sustainable (we try anyway!) living thing. I had to let go of a lot of 'stuff' and in doing so became more liberated within myself than I ever thought possible. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about needing to validate ourselves from 'within'. For me, yoga and meditation practices and going away for a few days ON MY OWN every now and then are my sanity savers. I had to realise that making the choices I was making, I wasn't going to be 'validated' by many of my peers anymore. In letting that go, I found some peace and some stillness which helps me navigate the rollercoaster ride of mothering daughters. Having said that, there are still plenty of days I want to bang my head against the fridge in sheer bloody frustration. I absolutely love your blog, by the way, mostly I find I want to compare notes on composting methods and chook raising.