Mothers in professional roles tend to face some kind of a delay – we either delay becoming parents until after we have attained a certain level of achievement and job security, or we delay our professional aspirations until after our children have grown more self-sufficient. Some even do a combination of this in between children.
I became a mother at a relatively young age for a professional, and at a rather inconvenient time. As a recent graduate just entering the foray of temporary and precarious employment, the unexpected onslaught of another human being’s dependence on me for survival had an enormous effect on my priorities. Suddenly, job security and benefits became so much more important than things like achievement, satisfaction, fulfillment, challenge, or having nice things.
Around the time I was returning to work after having my second son, I watched a documentary on CBC titled “The Motherload” which profiled working mothers and the challenges we face.
We often hear about the glass ceiling – the wage gap between men & women. This gap exists much more dramatically between Mothers and Others. ‘Others’ being anyone who isn’t a mother – including fathers and people of any gender who do not have children. I was not surprised to hear that Mothers make, on average, 20% less than Others.
In my experience, the reason for this gap has not been that employers are unsupportive. In fact, I’ve been absolutely awestruck on a number of occasions by how much understanding and support I’ve received from every supervisor I’ve had since becoming a parent.
In my case, part of the reason for the gap is that I self-selected for a roles with more flexibility, consistency, security, and with fewer responsibilities. Quite understandably, this correlates with a lower wage and less challenge. There have been plenty of opportunities that looked like my pre-parenthood dream job, but I didn’t even consider applying because it just didn’t seem possible to meet the responsibilities while still meeting my parenting goals.
The deeper reason is a bit more complicated, and a bit more personal. So let’s explore it publicly.
Parenthood teaches us very early on to put the needs of another human being before our own. Some of us learn to do this so well that we lose sight of our own needs altogether, nevermind anything we want, and eventually, who we are.
Pre-parenthood Liane used to have hopes and dreams, visions of things she’d one day learn and accomplish, and all the people she’d help along the way. Liane the Mom, on the other hand, believed that none of that was possible anymore, at least not for another 18 years. Further to that, it just wasn’t important. I’d made my choice in my life’s great family vs. career debate – I’d chosen family and that was the end of it.
Only, that wasn’t the end of it.
It turns out, you can’t do anything well without knowing who you are and why you are doing it. This is true in both your work and your relationships. Even in parenthood, one of the most self-sacrificing roles a person can serve, you cannot be effective without nurturing a strong sense of self. Your hopes and dreams are a part of who you are! If you continuously give yourself away and put yourself aside, you will eventually have nothing left to give.
And that’s exactly where I was two years ago, when I was asked to help out with a few extra projects at work. These were exciting projects – projects where I got to be creative, I got to learn new things in order to complete them, and the end result would have a significant impact on our operations and, ultimately, our students. These projects awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. I was actually proud of myself and my contribution.
One year ago today, these projects had led me to the ultimate challenge of my life’s great career vs. family debate: I got to make the choice to pack my things, kiss my babies’ little foreheads, leave them in the capable hands of their grandparents, drive in the opposite direction of the pull of those guilt-laden heartstrings and into a 4-day-long conference to tell the story of these work projects I’d been so excited about. It would be the longest I’d ever been away from them, but I chose my own personal and career development over the comfort of my children, and I attended the OACUHO Spring Conference of 2015 at York University.
When I got there, I was a little surprised to find I wasn’t the only Mom. Granted, there weren’t many of us (that I knew about), but there was one very notable Mom who made an impression on me. The closing Keynote speaker was Janet Morrison, Vice Provost Students at York University. You can see her give a similar talk here, but it actually had nothing to do with being a working mother. She did tell a few stories about her children towards the end of her talk though, and I have to admit, I was very surprised to hear it. It just didn’t seem possible for a person to be so passionately involved in such a significant and demanding role while still being an apparently nurturing mother of small children.
And yet there she was, right in front of me – living proof of what was possible.
While I don’t see serving as a Vice Provost, Students as a specific career goal for myself currently, the role modelling in that last hour of the conference has continued to help me challenge my still-narrow view of what’s possible in my life to this day.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the OACUHO Spring Conference of 2016 at Western University with a lot less guilt than last year. While I’m still reflecting on the lessons learned at that conference, I want to tell you a bit about what I’ve learned over the past year.
I’ve learned that life isn’t so black-and-white as choosing work or family. There’s a whole lot of grey in between. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact a lot of the learning I engage in for professional development as an educator is directly applicable to my role as a parent. Also, my children teach me things every day that help enhance my perspective and understanding of human development, which is helpful in any educational environment. It’s a win-win.
Further, there are more than two endpoints on this work/family spectrum. One notable difference in my world-view is that I’m actually in it now – a whole vertex to myself. It looks more like this:
Where I sit on this spectrum changes on a daily basis, depending on what aspect of my life needs the most attention at the time. Sometimes work is going well and my family life is in chaos. Sometimes the kids and I are happy happy happy, but I feel like a failure at work. Sometimes I’m totally on my game at home and at work for a little while, but then it all falls apart because I’m not taking care of myself.
It’s all constantly in flux, always seeking but never quite finding equilibrium. While I still feel like I can’t ever really have it all together, I realize that balance isn’t a real thing anyway. Even on a good day, it seems impossible to be doing well in more than 2 of the 3 areas. And that really is enough. In fact, I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling like I couldn’t possibly take on one more challenge or responsibility lest the wheels come off this bus, that’s exactly what I need to do in order to remind myself of what’s possible, and let it be.
I’m learning that no matter where I am on the spectrum, the only limitation to what’s possible is what I tell myself about how I’m doing.
These days I’m living the dream – constantly learning, accomplishing a reasonable amount of things, helping everyone I can, and although I’m never quite balanced, I’m doing just fine.