I’m about to go into a client meeting when my daughter’s nursery calls to say she has a temperature and needs to be fetched. For the next week my husband and I operate a work–sleep rota that revolves around our sick child, broken sleep and trying to maintain the function of work and daily life. Recently, my daughter has been in childcare six days a week, sometimes has a sandwich dinner and has more screen time than my pre-parenting-self vowed I would allow.
1. It’s not a ladder to success
The first thing to understand is that the corporate ladder is not an ever-upward, rung-by-rung, progression. Sometimes you move upwards, but other times you may choose to move laterally and broaden your skill-set or stay at your current level and allow yourself to focus on a different set of priorities.
2. There is a give
Given that we can now expect to live longer lives and retire later, we can still make significant headway in our careers through our fifties, sixties and even seventies. The late honourable Ruth Bader Ginsburg told of how her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 – when she was 60 – raised questions about her age. She went on to serve the Supreme Court for 27 fruitful years.
3. Guilt and reconciliation
“My biggest piece of advice is to recognise early on that there will be guilt about something in your life – sometimes I miss one of the kid’s parent–teacher interviews or a sporting event because of work – other times I have to decide to miss an important work meeting because I’ve committed to one of the kid’s school performances, and I know there are judgements made about how committed I am”.
For some, the guilt and reconciliation is harder. I have colleagues and friends who have missed out on motherhood entirely by prioritising their careers and ‘running out of time’, as was very nearly the case for me. Others have had families but have had to go down the stressful route of IVF, single parenting or surrogacy. In the end, combining motherhood with a demanding career may mean making difficult choices.
4. It takes a village to raise a child
We’d be wise to heed the advice of the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. These days ‘villages’ can come in the form of au pairs, nannies, babysitters, nurseries, obliging family members or even friends.
Share the load at home: Given that working mothers are generally putting in at least twice the amount of domestic and care time compared to their male counterparts, the single most important thing you can do is to enlist the support of your partner in sharing more of the load. And in a year where gender equality has suffered a blow in so many ways – with the UN recently predicting coronavirus could wipe out 25 years of gender equality gains - sharing the domestic load is now more important than ever. 
Reconcile the guilt: Most working mothers I know feel guilt – either about their work or their parenting, or both. The guilt goes back to expectations, whether led by society, our work culture or ourselves. As for my concessions to extra screen time and the occasional sandwich dinner, I’ve come to accept that sometimes 80% is good enough.
Be clear on your boundaries at work: Identify the things you are not prepared to compromise on – whether it’s doing the school run or making sure you’re there to read the bedtime story – and then look at ways of enabling it. It could mean being there for the bedtime routine but logging on afterwards to check your emails. If your team and your boss know where you are prepared to flex and what your boundaries are, you are more likely to get support from them.
Invest in your identity outside of work. This is even more important for women who may be dialling down their career focus. Investing in your interests outside of work will help maintain a sense of balance in your life and remind you that you are more than just your job title.
Prioritise your physical and mental well-being. Balance is not just about scheduling time for a daily run or mediation, nor is it about taking the occasional work-free weekend away although that can help. Too often our stress comes from daily mental overspill – we’re with our family but thinking about work, or vice versa. By mentally immersing and being fully present in what we’re doing we’re more likely to be productive in the job at hand, whether it’s parenting time or work time. And by increasing our productivity and the quality of time spent we can reduce crossover stress and mental fatigue.
So, can we have it all? Personally I believe we can, but generally not all at once. In the words of Gillian Anderson:
“We have been striving to have it all and we can indeed have it all, but once we do, we realise that it can be at the expense of quite a lot, including our sanity”.
For me, it’s about making deliberate choices of where we spend our time and about engaging others to support us in these choices. Rather than striving to have it all at once, let’s recognise the value of having it all over time, for our health, wellbeing and sanity.
Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of accelerating more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.
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Coronavirus and gender: More chores for women set back gains in equality https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-55016842 (26 November 2020).