In my twenties, I had my career path clearly chartered out. I was not pursuing a degree which left a lot of uncertainty as to what I was going to do with my life. I arranged good internships, graduated into a booming London job market, and my career was up and running. After several years working at some high profile architectural firms, I completed my professional qualifications, got married and in 2008, became pregnant.
Few working mothers are prepared for the impact of children on working life. Of course, everyone’s family situation is different, some have able grandparents nearby or (in Singapore) domestic helpers to share the workload of childcare. But the (physical, emotional, relational) role of mother still falls on one person’s shoulders. Motherhood and a career are not mutually exclusive, but unless you work at home, you do have to choose between the daily work of child-rearing and turning up at the office. And even if you do work at home, you cannot give your full attention to both demands at once.
Regardless of what we were brought up to believe, women today know they can’t “have it all”. So when kids come along, we move on to negotiating Work-Life Balance. And it’s all rather elusive. I haven’t yet met any parents who are truly satisfied with their lot – we juggle, balance, tag-team, outsource; I’m always hearing the same story:
“You just have to do what you can, don’t you?”
“It’s never really ideal, I suppose…”
“My husband and I pass like ships in the night, ha ha…”
“Most of my income goes towards childcare!”
Why are we so unprepared? Is it considered too politically-incorrect to address our expectations of work vs family life before it comes to pass? This fascinating blog post (3 ways to rectify the miseducation of girls) possibly correctly identifies that “The biggest problem women face is that they were raised to be high performers and they have no mindset for meeting that expectation other than succeeding in the workplace.” When women are held up as a model of success, it isn’t because they are home with the kids. We are often brought up to have little regard for the work of caregiving, homemaking and family-building, endeavours which are hard to quantify and whose results are immeasurable and unguaranteed.
Decisions surrounding career and family are some of the biggest we’ll ever make and yet relatively little guidance is offered early enough for would-be mothers to make well-informed choices. We need to know that in reality pregnant women might face workplace discrimination. That as a mother, one would probably prefer to work part-time, but that certain jobs just don’t accommodate a part-time arrangement very well. It might have been useful to have some prior experience running a business from home, or to be aware of which career options might be more family-friendly. It’s much harder to come up with a back-up plan after the kids arrive.
The aforementioned post also reports that
“in medical school, the most popular specialty for women in ophthalmology. This is because women are realizing that most medical specialties wreck havoc on family life.”
“You can tell your daughter she can be anything, but reality will give her a different message. So why not prepare her for the real choices she’ll face instead?”
Perhaps it sounds controversial, but it kind of rings true.
When Miss Chu was 9 months, we signed her up at a local childcare centre and I worked a four-day work week. After I became pregnant with Little Miss, I cut it down to a three-day week. And when she was born, I quit (classic second-child syndrome) and freelanced sporadically, taking my baby to meetings in cafes. Now, after arriving back in Singapore, despite having the backup of extended family nearby, I have not yet decided to return to the workforce.
I’ve been told outright not to waste my talent and education.
I’ve been warned that I might be in dire straits if something happens to my husband and I’ve got no career to fall back on.
Many joke that surely, having work outside the home is necessary for my own sanity.
It’s funny that after struggling to come to terms with relinquishing my professional identity, I am seriously embracing at-home motherhood and have discovered that actually, I love the company of children. I’ve had time to reflect on these past few years and am looking to those who are further along life’s journey to get some long-term perspective. Here are some reasons why I’m still at home.
1 ) The early years are the most important, and they do go by pretty fast.
If you’re going to invest some time and energy into raising kids, these are the years to do it. The WHO calls these early years a “time of vulnerability and opportunity”.
I too have a working mother, who had a great career, worked long hours and supported extended family members. She did, however, take a 5-year career break when I was a child.
The Harvard Grant study (one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development) is often cited in the quest to discover what really makes people fulfilled in life. One of the findings was this:
“We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment.
(The study followed only men, but overall suggests the impact of parent-child relationships and the home environment lasts well into later life.)
2) Thinking about what really matters at the end of the day.
Obama has said it…
“I’m old enough where I, sadly imagine my own mortality, If I think to myself, what’s the thing I’m going to remember on my last breath? It’s not going to be anything to do with my office. I’m not going to think about Grant Park and me getting elected, I’m not going to be thinking about me passing healthcare as important as that’s been, what I’m going to remember is holding my daughter’s hand.”
People on the death beds have said it…
You might have heard of the palliative care nurse who wrote a viral post on Regrets of the Dying back in 2009. I guess it caught the world’s media attention because people are desperate to know what their priorities should be. “I wish I didn’t work so hard” is at number 2.
There’s a famous quote about it:
‘Nobody on their deathbed has ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”.’
Rabbi Harold Kushner
It can be useful to glean some wisdom from those who have gone before us, and many admit that at the end of the day, investing some time into our relationships really matters.
3) Parenting impacts future generations
At some point I realized I am shaping the lives of future generations as my daughters will, to some extent, end up passing on my values, beliefs; my ways of doing, when they come to lead their own families, and so on. As a Christian, my perspective is eternal. And that magnifies our responsibility all the more.
4) The upward trend of lifespan and retirement age
A generation ago, taking a decade off to look after your kids might not leave you with much time to build a career afterward with retirement kicking in around 60. But who knows when (or if) those of us in our thirties these days expect to retire? Possibly a few extra years off the ladder now might not matter so much if I’m going to be working into my seventies. With Clinton gunning for President at age 69, there’s possibly a lot of mileage left in my working life. Perhaps there is time both to watch my kids grow up and enjoy professional achievement – just not all at the same time.
5) Last but not least, Daddy Chu is very much in favour of me staying at home
Although he is very much hands-on with the kids, he has no desire to split work and family life 50-50 with me for the sake of gender equality, and feels less burdened knowing that I have the freedom to prioritise the children. Having said that, he would also be supportive if I wanted to go back to work. But we both know that this will require significant outsourcing of childcare.
As you can probably tell, I write this as much to placate myself of my own circumstances as anything else. I am loving this season of being at home but I still browse job ads now and again. There are great reasons to stay home and there are great reasons to work; some of which are outwith our control. All we can do is make as well-considered a decision as possible, at each stage of life.
Wishing all mothers a Happy Mothers Day this weekend!