The Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood

The Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood

This article outlines the Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood and is an extract from Chapter Two (What To Expect) of my book, Baby Proof Your Career, adapted for this blog.

Meet Sophie. At the age of 34, she had an enviable career as a senior associate in one of the world’s biggest and most respected law firms. After years of training and a client list that read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the FTSE100, Sophie was the talk of the office. Formidably intelligent, always immaculately groomed, Sophie was that unique combination of brains and charm that made her every law firm’s dream associate. Naturally, Sophie’s transition to partnership was in the bag, the procedural hurdles a mere formality. She knew it; everyone knew it. But then Sophie did the insane, unthinkable, crazy thing: she had a baby. Though she didn’t know this at the time, it marked the beginning of the end of her career.

Six months after her baby boy Ben came screaming into the world with his carpet thick hair and his perfect little feet, Sophie went back to work, planning to pick up where she had left off – or so she thought. When Sophie returned to the office, something wasn’t quite right. The big deals stopped coming her way, and why, Sophie asked herself, had everyone stopped talking to her about partnership?

“Not quite ready.”

“Needs a stronger business case.”

A career derails

These were the official reasons Sophie was given when her bid for partnership was rejected later that year. But there wasn’t a single lawyer, paralegal or cleaner in that office who didn’t know the real reason for Sophie’s failure to make partnership. What had gone wrong? Seemingly overnight, everything she’d worked for – the reputation she’d built; the value she’d contributed to the firm; the clients she’d charmed; the opponents she’d outsmarted; the numbers she’d contributed to the partnership coffers over ten years of hard graft – ceased to count.

Sophie found herself in the unenviable position of having to choose between a humiliating career compromise – same job but with low profile clients (her FTSE100 client list was now being ‘looked after’ by someone else), no partnership prospects and a 20% pay reduction as a trade-off for a four day week – and the horror of walking away from a job she’d dedicated her life and soul to for over a decade. The cocktail of injured pride, disillusionment and anger she felt left her unable to accept such a humiliating compromise. Sophie felt she had no option but to walk away. And that’s exactly what she did.

The career graveyard

If only Sophie’s story was the exception to the rule. I have lost count of the number of stories of discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment I have heard discussed in the playgrounds of schools, debated over a glass of wine or bemoaned in the press. These are the experiences you’ll read about on the website Pregnant Then Screwed set up by Joeli Brearley to give a voice to, and campaign on behalf of, the thousands of women who lose their jobs every year as a result of having a baby and feel powerless to do anything about it.

How did Sophie and so many other bright, impressive, educated and successful women like her end up in the career graveyard? After exploring and surveying their stories, the answer is any number of reasons. In one case, a recalcitrant boss. In another an unsupportive husband. Still another, a work environment where the idea of work-life balance was anathema to its values. From the stories of the women I’ve interviewed and met over the years, I have identified five major pitfalls that have proved the downfall of countless career women when they start a family:

The Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood


The Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood

The Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood

  1. Overwhelm

Overwhelm occurs when it feels too hard and exhausting meeting the demands (such as long hours) of a high intensity job and trying to meet the needs of a child, typically while sleeping only a few hours a night. Added to this is the expectation from a partner that the woman be responsible for the household as well as the primary caregiver responsible for meeting the emotional, social and physical needs of the child. There are not enough hours in the day for all the roles she needs to perform and the tasks that have become hers to complete. She feels that she is doing two jobs badly and that her life is slipping out of control.

2. Guilt

Working mum’s guilt arises when a woman has to divide her time between work and home, leaving her child in somebody else’s care. She hates not “being there” at key moments in her child’s developments, or for key events at school. Another contributory factor is when a woman recalls her own mother always “being there” because her mother stayed home. These factors lead a woman to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt that she is not being a good mother.

3. Sabotage

Sabotage occurs when a woman experiences direct or indirect discrimination as a result of having a baby. In many cases this comes at the hand of one particular person in her organisation who appears to have made it their personal mission to obstruct her career path from the moment she had a baby. Typical examples include being sidelined on important projects, being moved to a lesser role and being refused flexibility when it relates to a parenting issue. Sabotage can also occur in the home, when a woman’s partner expects her to carry the domestic burden, or when the partner puts undue pressure on the woman to give up work because looking after the children is considered a mother’s responsibility.

4. Confidence, loss of

It is common after pregnancy for a woman to lack confidence in her ability to do her job well, and to undervalue the contribution she is making to her organisation. She also lacks confidence as a mother, finding it difficult to embrace the steep ‘learning curve’ that is becoming a parent, and the ongoing challenge of adapting to the demands of a growing child. She holds herself up to impossible standards of perfection and feels inadequate for not being able to meet them. If ever a mistake is made, she often feels like a failure.

5. Motivation, loss of

After having a baby, work may no longer seem to matter as much as it did before. A woman’s values shift, and unless she takes time out to review the new values that arise as a result of becoming a parent, and evaluates how these values fit with her previous values system, this shift can result in a loss of motivation at work. This also occurs in cases where a woman finds herself sidelined at work into a lesser role that is boring, unchallenging and offers little or no opportunity for career progression.

A personal experience

These are the Five Pitfalls of Working Parenthood that have derailed the careers of many brilliant talented women causing them to prematurely leave the workforce. My personal experience was no exception. Reflecting back, I know that my career derailed because I felt guilty about leaving my eldest son Dylan in nursery all day and was frequently overwhelmed by the monumental task of working and doing all the household chores. In the tough competitive environment that is corporate law, where it is all about how many billable hours you work, I felt completely inadequate when I left the office at 5.30 p.m. five days a week to go and collect Dylan from nursery, even if I would then log on to check my emails from home and even though I’d dropped twenty percent. of my salary for the privilege of doing so. I didn’t have the confidence to walk out of the office with my head held high, or to assert myself when the boundaries of my flexible working arrangement started to shift.

Like the experience of so many women before me, these were challenges I either hadn’t expected, or I hadn’t taken steps to prepare myself for. Our careers derailed because we didn’t know how to meet them.

What will you do to avoid this fate?