How to balance family life whilst pursuing a demanding career, with often long work hours, is a concern for many women aiming for – or already in - leadership roles. In a recent WITSEND meet-up, we discussed ways to manage the juggling act.
More than 80% of women in the UK have a child or children by the age of 45. The latest stats show that fewer than 1 in 10 mothers are “stay-at-home” mums but that, on average, women still take on by far the majority of the childcare in the UK. For the women who decide – and are in the position - to choose both a career and parenthood, the question of finding the “right” balance can loom large. And, whilst this something with which almost every working parent struggles, it regularly comes up as a critical concern for those who wish to stay on a leadership track or build a business as a founder whilst having a family.
A good proportion of the WITSEND members are mothers; the 9 WITSEND founders alone have 17 children between us. As leaders in the workplace, members are often asked for advice on how to run a business or pursue a senior leadership career at the same time as raising children (hopefully happy children with whom you have a great relationship). So, on one of our WITSEND zoom calls this year, we shared experiences, notes and tips to help each other and to share with other working parents (or parents-to-be) who hopefully might benefit.
Some of the main takeaways from the discussion were:
1. Don’t try too hard to optimise for “the right time” in your career to have children. It’s impossible to plan timing of babies precisely; getting pregnant can take seconds(!) or it can take years. You’re better off having kids when you feel ready and finding a way to make it work with your career at that time.
2. Have a conversation with your partner / co-parent (ideally before kids arrive) about both of your career aspirations and how you are going to split the work at home. People find the mental load is often the toughest challenge of combining work and parenting, so prepare by discussing in advance with your partner / co-parent not only childcare but how you can fairly share all the tasks involved in running a household and a family. Agree how you will split responsibility for all the time-consuming tasks - from Christmas shopping to laundry to bills admin, including finding help or picking up the pieces when the help falls through - or risk doing a lot more than your "fair" share.
3. You can outsource a lot. Remember: Help is good! Asking friends and family for help or, where you are able to afford it, paying for extra support when you need it, was actively recommended by those on our call; there are no prizes for doing everything yourself and no one is judging. Apart from help with childcare to supplement school or nursery hours, many on the call had paid for support with household tasks to help manage the load while working in a demanding role. Au pairs - if you have room - can also be a godsend at any age; lots of people had good experiences to share here. One member quoted the best advice she had received on this topic: “If you’re struggling to balance, first try to outsource anything that doesn’t involve eyeball to eyeball contact with your child!”
4. Talk about your children at work. And try to get to their most important events. It matters to everyone – them, you and the world. You can’t make it to every hockey match but no one ever regretted making it to Sports Day or their daughter / son’s school play. Making it to particularly special events means a lot to your children and will mean a lot to you. But it also means a lot to your more junior colleagues.
Role modelling at work is genuinely important. So many people on the call agreed that it is really critical in general for parents in senior roles (not just women) in a company to talk about taking time for the kids so it doesn’t feel frowned upon.
“Before I had kids, I was always impressed by parents who admitted they couldn’t make it to XYZ very important thing at work as they were at Sports Day. It made me know it could be done”
When discussing advice for the different stages of raising a child, the following points were made on our call:
Take the maternity leave you want to. Taking 6 or 12 months of maternity leave for each child didn’t seem to affect people’s careers in the long run. On the other hand, don’t feel guilty if you prefer to go back to work sooner and get on with things – it has to be the right decision for you. No one really remembers, a few years down the road, how much time you took off and it becomes irrelevant in a 30 to 40-year career.
If you’re a founder, it’s hard to know when to tell your investors you’re pregnant, especially if you’re raising money. Founders sharing notes on the WITSEND call brought up worries they had experienced about investors’ or potential investors' assumptions about their commitment to the business when they got pregnant. Stories of wearing baggy dresses until months 7 were shared! Clearly our hope is that one day soon this stops being an issue - and the more examples we can share to end this prejudice the better. Until that day, timing this conversation with investors is one founders/CEOs will have to play by ear but hopefully it helps to know that, in the end, all those on the call who had been concerned had managed to raise funds during and after pregnancy.
There are often ways to organise your work week to be there for bath / bedtime in the early days for some lovely bonding time. While most working parents on the call found childcare to cover their (long) working days, many managed to organise their work to get home for this time on at least some weekdays, perhaps then working again in the evenings. Hopefully, this is easier post-Covid, with some days working from home, meaning no commute to manage around.
One person with a senior job in sales and partnerships recommended making breakfast meetings special to avoid constant dinner meetings. She found most clients and partners actually preferred this, and it meant she could get home for bath and bedtime with her children.
School aged children
Get on the class WhatsApp! The advice on the call was to make sure you get on the WhatsApp group of other mums and dads in the class or befriend at least one parent who is able to be more on top of things school-related than you have time to be (there’s often a “class rep”) and can keep you in the loop. Buy them wine / chocolates at appropriate intervals!
Find the right childcare for what you need
Even with after-school clubs, school hours may not cover the entirety of your working day. These mothers all spoke about adapting childcare for school-age kids:
“Schools have long holidays and finding childcare just for the holidays is really difficult, so it’s better to have someone consistently if you can” CEO/founder and mother of 2
“Since the kids became a bit more independent (7 and 9) we switched from having a nanny to having an au pair who takes them to activities and cooks (and babysits a couple of nights a week so we can have date nights)” COO, mother of 2
“I switched my nanny for a cleaner once all the kids were in senior school” CTO, mother of 3
The teen years
Those on the call with older children largely felt that the teen years might actually matter most for you – as parents - to be present. Teenagers are often faced with moral issues they need to sort out for themselves and being around when they feel like opening up can feel really important.
“A woman I admire told me ‘you can outsource almost everything when they are small but you can’t outsource a conversation with a teenager about sex’ – so I am around more now than when they were tiny”
By the time you have teenagers, you should hopefully have a bit more say over your own work hours, giving yourself the ability to take the time when it’s needed. Perhaps you can work from home sometimes, so they can drop into your “office” for a chat after school or find time for a walk or lifts when they might open up. Many people found keeping a family dinner time and eating together ideal for keeping up with their teens.
Being a role model and showing your children that it is possible to have a fulfilling career and be a decent parent is not to be underestimated either. Every person on the call with older children felt they had good relationships with them, no matter that they had balanced their upbringing with a career!
The journey’s different for everyone but it is perfectly possible to emerge with a career you’re happy with and a good relationship with your kids. However it looks from the outside, most people are muddling through, and nobody believes they’re getting it right. The reason everyone feels the same way is because doing both things well is very hard work but ultimately – for those that actively choose this route to pursue a senior career or start a company – also the only option that feels really fulfilling. You will sometimes have a child without a costume on World Book Day or in tears over a friendship issue which you wish you could have consoled them over at 3:30pm instead of at bedtime; you will sometimes turn up to an offsite with baby vomit on your jacket or madly swapping messages with the nanny about where the school shoes could be. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Love your kids fiercely. But don’t feel guilty about asking for help or offloading to your friends. Your children will be better off with a mother that not only loves them deeply but also feels fulfilled herself. And, after all, it takes a village…