Career vs Baby – is it one or the other?

Embed from Getty Images

As a working mum – is it really possible to “have it all”? The women that we work with at Mumager are often concerned about how they can balance having a fulfilling career and quality family time. Many mums have worked really hard to get to where they are and are reluctant to let all their efforts fall by the wayside.   Yet when they have a family they are no longer willing or able to do the hours that they feel is expected of them to be able to advance in their careers.

At the end of 2014 we were invited to attend a discussion on Prime Time about gender quotas for women in the workplace. What struck us was that on the panel of speakers, one woman had given up her career as a barrister to be at home with her children. The other worked full time and her husband was a stay-at-home dad.   For us at Mumager, this summed up perfectly the two extreme choices that the majority of women are facing today in Ireland.

A recent report by the Corporate Leadership Council found that the ratio of males to females is 50:50 in general employees. However by the time you’re looking at being a manager or department head, the ratio has shifted to almost 70% male and 30% female. At executive level the number of women falls to just 20%.

This raises some interesting questions. Is it that women are opting out and taking themselves out of the running because of their family? Is it discrimination against women? Or is it because of a lack of flexible work opportunities?

According to Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook and author of ‘Lean In’ its because we “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Whereas journalist and writer Lisa Miller in her article “Stop Blaming Women for Holding Themselves Back at Work” believes that women don’t achieve as much as men in their career simply because they are women and that companies need to try harder to support them. Hillary Clinton is another passionate advocate of working mums and has spoken out recently that “women shouldn’t have to choose between their careers and motherhood…..we still have a lot of cultural, customary, even attitudinal, psychological barriers to equality

More heartening are recent findings from the Harvard Business Review. Following research that spanned three generations and 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School they found “no correlation at all between career success and decisions an individual makes to accommodate family, by limiting travel, choosing more flexible hours, or moving laterally within a company”.  In fact the research found that successful individuals had actually demanded more from work in terms of flexibility.

Here in Ireland there seems to be limited opportunities to work flexibly. Many employers are reluctant to even discuss the possibility of it – forcing many women to make the choice between their family and their career – in effect saying ‘no – you can’t have it all’?

But this doesn’t have to be the case.   At Mumager we believe you can have both. There are much larger economic issues such as affordable childcare and paid maternity leave have a big impact on the choices that women make about their careers. There’s also the issue of deep-rooted culture and traditions that dictate how we should be working.    Taking on the culture of the company that you work in can seem daunting.   But as an individual you are the culture of where you work – and the country you live in.   We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to find a way of working that means we can have a fulfilling career and be there for our families too.

So to help us have it all, here are some practical things to think about:


  • Don’t apologise. For being pregnant. For taking time off to go to hospital appointments. For going on maternity leave. For using your parental leave to do reduced hours.   Its not money that makes the world go round, its people. And as women we play a crucial role in that.


  1. Define what ‘having it all’ means for you. There’s no one size fits all. Once you know what this means for you and your family you can make choices about the boundaries that you have around work and home and what you’re willing to do. Be confident in the choices you’ve made and avoid comparing yourself with other mums.
  2. Be realistic and manage expectations. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be made senior partner in your firm by working a 3-day week, term-time only. There are certain roles or positions that will require you to show your commitment, and that often equates to hours as well as output. Think about what is going to work for you and your boss, and then what that means for you.
  3. Focus and be present. Whether at home or at work be fully there in mind, body and spirit. Many women say that they feel torn and are often thinking about work when at home, and sometimes vice versa. Make the most of where you are in each moment.
  4. Think of your career as a long-term project. The choices that you make in the next few years don’t have to define your whole career. When your children are very young, it’s easy to think that life will always be this way. As we know they grow up so fast. When they start school you may find that you have some more time, energy and flexibility to work differently.
  5. Ask for flexibility. HBR found that those people (men and women) who had achieved senior positions had demanded more flexibility in their roles.   If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Present a compelling case that showcases your value to the company.
  6. Avoid projecting about the future and the impact of your choices. Worrying is pointless and delays action. Often we imagine worse case scenarios – all the things that might happen if we ask for x or y. Force yourself to think about the best case scenario too. It’s likely that things will never work out at badly as you’ve feared.
  7. Build up contacts – in and out of work. This helps with career choices, support networks and is vital to opening up your eyes to the new possibilities. Look for role models that you can ask for advice e.g. how they got their boss to say yes to flexible working, or how they balance work and home.
  8. Keep your online profile up to date. You never know what new opportunities may arise by having a strong profile on sites like LinkedIn.
  9. Be a leader. If you are in a position at work to support others get flexible working then stand up and be counted. Just because your organisation ‘never did this before’ it doesn’t mean they can’t change. Take an active role in supporting or mentoring other women and highlight issues and challenges to senior management.

Re-establishing relationships at work

Embed from Getty Images
One of the biggest questions that the mums who come along to our Mumager workshops have is how to manage relationships with their boss and colleagues when they return to work.

A recent survey showed that the average office worker clocks in an extra 10 hours a week – that’s an additional 3 months a year. Many of us fall into this pattern without even thinking. It’s just what we, and everyone else ‘does’. Unless we have a compelling reason to leave work on time, often there are no clear boundaries around our working hours. That’s until you have a very compelling reason to leave on time – a baby.

It’s at this time, as mums return to work, that their working hours often become an issue. Many mums just aren’t able or willing to put in the hours that they used to. This can be for very practical reasons – they have to pick up their children from crèche or a child-minder at a specific time. Or, it may be that priorities have shifted and they want to get a better balance between work and home.
This can often cause tensions with bosses and co-workers. Research by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) found that over 31% of new mums said that their relationship with their boss had deteriorated once they came back from maternity leave. Additionally another study found that 64% of parents feel childless colleagues are unsympathetic to the juggle they face. Tensions in relationships can be challenging to deal with at the best of times. Add in the fact that a third of mums said they felt less confident going back to work – and suddenly it can feel like a major problem.

Before we get into solution mode and start to look at what we can do, let’s take a step back and look at the situation. Chances are that before you had your baby you were willing or able to do whatever hours you needed to. Maybe you were usually one of the last people to leave at night and could always be relied on to respond immediately to emails? Now your job may no longer be your priority, leaving your boss or colleagues wondering where they stand. It may feel that the old you has been hi-jacked and replaced by a different person. Some of the bosses that we work with have said that they’re not sure how best to handle mums who have just returned. Some mums want to be treated exactly as they were before, whereas others welcome some recognition of their changed circumstances, which can be tricky for a line manager to get right. So what can you do to manage expectations and make sure you continue to have good relationships with the people you work with? Here are just a few of our suggestions.

1. Be clear on your values. What is most important to you right now? You may be the main earner in your family, or you may decide that now is the time to ‘lean in’ as you want to reach a certain level in your career. So perhaps for you you’re willing to do whatever it is you have to do. Or you may decide that you want to ‘lean out’. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up work – it can mean being happy with the level you’re at and not actively seeking advancements right now. Or, you may decide that you’re ‘leaning sideways’. You still have career goals and ambitions but are limiting the time you’re investing in the right now, and are accepting of the fact that they may take a bit longer to realise.

2. Set realistic boundaries. Once you know what you value, decide what you are and aren’t willing to do. What hours are you going to work? Are you contactable in the evening or on your day off? Think about what is going to work for you in your job and how responsive you need to be e.g. if you have an important project at work you may agree that you will need to do some work in the evening.

3. Manage your boundaries. No-one else will manage them for you so make sure you start as you mean to go on by leaving on time and only checking emails out of work if you’re expecting something urgent. If you are going to work in the evenings set clear parameters and agree these with your partner. Many people find setting a timer for 30mins helps them to focus on urgent tasks and then reminds them to stop and step away from their phone or laptop and be present at home.

4. Be upfront. It can be a minefield of assumptions when you return to work. Some people may assume that you’re not as ambitious as you were pre-baby. Some may assume that you can still do the hours that you did before. Share with your boss the boundaries that you have e.g. if you have to leave at a certain time. Pre-empt any objections and share what you will do to work around this e.g. you’ll be in earlier, or will check emails at night at an agreed time to pick up anything urgent. Agree with your boss and colleagues what constitutes ‘urgent’.

5. Be confident. Avoid apologising for leaving the office on time. If you show people that you are confident that you can complete your work in reasonable hours, then it will help them trust you. You’ll also be a good role model for others in the office too.

6. Show your commitment. Many working mums say that they are so much more productive when they return to work – so show that to people. Talk about what you’re achieving – something that many of us aren’t good at. If you’re in early, send emails to remind people that whilst you leave on time you’ve been in long before they’re having their first coffee of the day.

7. Give and take. Are you the type of mum who automatically expects everyone to make way for you just because you’re pushing a pram? Don’t be that person at work. As far as some of your co-workers are concerned you’ve chosen to have children so therefore have to deal with the consequences. So think in advance what you’re going to do if your child is ill – will you and your partner share responsibility? What back up do you have in place? If you do end up taking time off (which you inevitably will) be upfront and agree what you can do to cover your workload rather than someone else having to pick it up for you.

8. Be patient. It’s likely that it took you and your partner some time to re-negotiate your relationship after you had your baby. The same may be true for your relationships at work. If you hit some bumps along the way try to be patient and see the situation from the other person’s perspective.
9. Get perspective. Remember that when this is a phase that you’re in, and like teething it will pass and get easier. When you return to work it’s a time of re-adjustment for everyone. What may feel like a huge issue or concern right now, will only be a memory later on.

10. Have confidence. That you are still really good at your job. That you’re a valued part of the team, and that you’re doing the very best that you can for you and your family. Above all make the decisions that are right for you and try not to compare yourself with other people, or particularly other mums. We’re all on our own path following our own star.
For more advice on being a working mom, speak with our back to work experts.

For more advice on being a working mom, speak with our back to work experts.
Mumager, our back to work experts, run workshops throughout the year. For more information contact them via their website.