How can we ensure the transition to working parenthood is not a personal crisis? asks Christine Armstrong in her new book.
Work is “eating family life” as it becomes more and more intensive just at the time more mothers are joining the workforce. It’s a recipe for discontent and mental health problems, says a new book.
In The Mother of All Jobs, writer, speaker and business advisor Christine Armstrong who wrote a regular column for Management Today on women and work, writes: “The challenge is that more mothers are joining the workforce at exactly the same moment that the working ‘day’ has become the working day, evening, night, weekend and holiday.”
She says too many professional women currently feel as if the transition to parenthood is a personal “crisis” and says this experience has a huge impact on equality in the workplace.
Armstrong, who went on to set up a flexible working consultancy, describes how she asked the editor of Management Today if she could research a column on working mums in an effort to understand her own struggle to come to terms with a demanding job and children, something that was making her miserable. She recounts, for instance, going to the US for work shortly after returning to work from maternity leave and the distress of finding that her breast pump had broken.
After interviewing mums in senior positions for a while she realised that there was a gap between what they said on the record and what they admitted in private. One woman, for instance, described leaving work via the fire escape so she could see her kids before they went to bed without her colleagues finding out that she was ‘leaving early’.
The book is a compilation of women’s experiences before and after having kids, from deciding to get pregnant through to children leaving home. It does not attempt to tell mothers what to do, but outlines what others have done and what general conclusions Armstrong has drawn from that.
On deciding to have children, she suggests preparing well: talking to your partner about everything, enjoying time to yourself, adjusting to the idea of growing up, saving, asking for advice, embedding yourself in your local area and checking your employer’s maternity policy to see if pay is enhanced.
On pregnancy, Armstrong advocates trying not to be in control of everything, avoiding assumptions about how things will work and being alert to and seeking early help for mental health problems. She cites a consultant who says that professional middle class women are the most likely to commit suicide in the first month after birth.
Other advice includes exploring the possibility of a gradual return to work, focusing on what you will deliver rather than the hours you will work when negotiating flexible working, forgiving yourself and setting boundaries.
There are chapters on the pros and cons of dads as lead parents where she advises parents to accept that this is a harder option than traditional ones simply because of social expectations; and on alpha/alpha couples where she talks about the need to take control of the things you can, such as having a meeting-free day where you can have time to think, scheduling social as well as work things; and being open to changing working hours and alternating the pace so you can each have the ‘lead’ job at different times.
She adds that shortening the working week may not be a panacea and is particularly wary about the four-day week which she says can easily end up being working full time for 20 per cent less pay unless you are very disciplined and able to make it work for you.
There is advice on dealing with schools and with teenagers – Armstrong cites an expert calling this stage the most challenging and difficult for parents [also because it may coincide with caring for elderly parents and the menopause] and counsels seeking help from a trained third party if you need it.
She says that she would like to see dads to speak up more about the whole working parent issues and for parental rights to be equalised. She adds that there are no perfect solutions – what is important is to be clear about what you want and to figure out how to get there.
For Armstrong, the working parent dilemma is a broader issue of what we need to flourish as humans, enjoying full lives alongside work, whether or not we have children. She says this is more important now given that work is likely to occupy more and more of our lives as retirement ages get more distant. In short, her book is about “corralling work back into its rightful place – our working hours”. The happiest working families, she says, are those where both parents choose and are able to opt out of modern corporate hours.
What is needed is to change society and stand up for the things we value. The book ends with a rousing cry for parents to be role models for their peers in terms of flexible working and to promote other role models to show how it works. “It’s the only way we’ll change the world to make it better for our children,” she says. “And their parents.”
*The Mother of All Jobs by Christine Armstrong is published by Green Tree, price £12.99.