The beauty of being a consultancy is you can be a yardstick for what is in and out of favour. In my experience projects tend to go in cycles – last year it was all about policies and compliance, this year businesses large and small are looking for growth.
It’s the night before my deadline and my marketing manager has asked me for this article for the last 5 days! Checking my phone this morning I see a ultrasound of my now 10 month old son and am reminded of the stark difference in my life 12 months on.
Let’s not dwell on my age, but to say I’m in my 40s and have lived a long and fortunate life of holidays, sleep-ins and independence up until 12 months ago and to say that it’s been an adjustment is an understatement!
Within the workplace, not having children until now has been a double edged sword. On the one hand I was free to attend all those late night networking events, schmooze clients at functions without worrying about bedtimes and routines, free to be promoted because I didn’t have the “challenge of a family” and cheaper than my male counterparts because as one CEO explained to me, I “didn’t have a family to support!” On the other hand, when inevitably asked if I had children and responded “no” I would be looked at with pity, or told “maybe one day!” or just assuming I didn’t want children at all. Most people being none the wiser to the 10 years of IVF!
Having watched friends and colleagues come and go with having children, I was convinced of two things – one, I wasn’t going to be surprised at the changes that my son would bring to my life, I was all over it! And two, I wouldn’t really change that much – I would still hold onto me, my identify and would not talk about my son incessantly!
You will need to ask my friends and colleagues if I have fully succeeded in the second! (Editor’s note: half the time, yes, haha). But as for the first, I could not have been more wrong – I have been equally parts pleasantly surprised and side swiped by the changes he has bought to my life.
Given it’s International Women’s Day, I want to share what I have learnt 12 months on and what this day means to me now.
You can’t have it all but you can have choices, and it is up to you to decide what that looks like for you, even if it changes day to day, week to week or even hour to hour! The reality is that if you have a child you have an extra new very important (very noisy, stinky and luckily very cute) factor in your life.
You’re no longer just balancing your work life and your personal life. You have someone that completely needs and depends on you. But you also have yourself to consider, making (sometimes just a little) time to do the things that are important to you outside of work and/or child. And in my case I still have a business to run, and the buck stops with me so taking a year of parental leave just wasn’t the right option for me. So what that looks like is sometimes finishing emails inside the playpen or ballpit. And delegating things out to my team and trusting that while it may not be perfect, they will do a good enough job and always the right thing by our clients. It’s taking turns with my partner to allow for ‘self care’ (and yes that phrase is a little vomit inducing but it is true). For my partner that means a good session of gardening. For me it’s dinner with friends. At some point we also plan to have a date night! It’s not easy to make these things happen but it’s so important.
So you can kind of have it all, but not all at once, and you need to make choices on what’s right for you.
There is a secret undercover mothers support network that I never knew existed until I gave birth. You hear and read about mums being ‘judgy’ towards each other and competitive about whose baby is ‘advanced’ (ugh, has there ever been a more pretentious way to talk about a child?!) but I have to say that this has not been my experience.
One of my other mum friends checked in with me nearly every day when I first had my child. Another of my colleagues told me what I needed to know without sugar-coating it at all which can sometimes be a little confronting but I’d rather have someone tell me how it really is than find out absolutely everything the hard way.
There are now online networks of business women who are also mothers supporting each other, giving advice and even business referrals as we’ve built a strong level of trust bonding over hilarious epic fails with diapers and stories of sleep success. Side note: I’ve never been as obsessed with sleep as I am now. I track it, measure it, I think I even dream about sleep while I’m sleeping.
Stop making assumptions about women and their desire to have or not have children! Some, like me, secretly struggle for years and don’t need to reminded that they’ve been unsuccessful – I was made redundant the day after I was told I would never have children and couldn’t say anything because of the secrecy surrounding unsuccessful pregnancies.
I’ve also found that you don’t have to be a mum to support other mums. It’s ok to not want children and it doesn’t mean someone doesn’t care about your kids or should be left out of a conversation or looked at differently – my strongest supporter doesn’t have children and has had my back and understood me every day the last 12 months!
These days I would say there is no appropriate way to ask someone about their procreation plans or otherwise. If you’re close with someone it can sometimes be ok to ask a friend if they have a view on having kids or not, but making a joke out of it or pressuring someone can be extremely hurtful. Honestly, the best thing to do is wait to be told. And if no one offers you an insight, the message you might (read: should) take from that is that it’s none of your business.
The boardroom has evolved, but not everywhere and not for everyone. I am fortunate to have the flexibility to work when it works for me and my family. However, during December I needed to attend two key meetings with two different business leaders and had to bring my son. Both could not have been more supportive, at 8 months my son was in some very prominent boardrooms and I was greeted with genuine care and flexibility – as the male CEO stated “I want to have an important conversation with you and we can do that equally as well with your son sitting next to you!”
But let’s be real – this won’t be possible for everyone – the receptionist can’t bring her child to work and some women will need to go back to work sooner than they want and don’t currently have the choices that I do in the workplace, but change will occur as more men and women see new possibilities and innovative ways to approach flexibility.
Some businesses are getting it very right, others are a million miles behind – my partner has an extremely progressive (by Australian standards!) workplace that has allowed her to use her paid primary carer support one day a week over a 12 month period instead of all in one block. This is invaluable as it allows me to work in the office one day a week, and her to spend one day a week with our son in these formative first 12 months.
Unfortunately, our HR division gets too many of the other phone calls – male leaders wanting advice on how to get rid of that pesky maternity leave or wanting to know why you can’t ask a woman in an interview when she plans to have kids (in case you’re wondering why this is unfortunate it’s important to note that it’s illegal).
When will the corporate world wake up and wonder why so many leading women are leaving to start their own business or work in small business? These women have realised that some of the top corporate jobs are actually $hit jobs. They’re not set up for success, the expectations of availability are obscene and therefore the likelihood of flexibility is dismal. Instead, many have taken their enviable experience and made it available to other business as a consultant, or joined a smaller firm on a part time basis. Indeed, my own business consists of a few people that fit this bill so I’ve directly benefitted from this movement! But this shouldn’t have to be the only option if you want career progression AND a life.
Leaders would be well placed to remember that their business is made of men and women, young and young-at-heart, mums and dads, families of all types and combinations, people going through personal or mental health challenges, parents tired from a sick child the night before, and employees without children but with other caring responsibilities. It sounds too simplistic but I believe leaders need to stop thinking of the ‘company’ and start thinking of the business as ‘family.’ I bet if your leader is considering the needs of a ‘family member’ they will be more empathic than a faceless company.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceForBetter. It’s about each of us, regardless what gender you are, asking ourselves how we can get closer to a more gender-balanced world. How we can celebrate women’s achievements. Raise awareness against bias – don’t be a silent bystander. Take action for equality.
Every year we have the opportunity to learn more and get better at this. At Businessary we’re passionately committed to living these values. Even if we’re doing it from a children’s ballpit.
-Annabel Rees, Businessary Managing Director and Lincoln’s mum (not usually in that order)