Journalist and marketing manager Amanda Connolly on the realities of the loss of identity faced by working mothers…
11 months and 11 days.[restrict]
That’s how old my daughter was when I returned to the paid workforce in February 2021 following my maternity leave. It’s also more or less the number of days I spent worrying about when that uninterrupted time together would end. I still remember kissing her little head goodnight with tears in my eyes knowing that when she woke up, her whole world would shift alongside mine.
This wasn’t because I disliked my job or felt like it was too soon, it was because I would miss our time together and I felt like my brain wasn’t capable of moving at the same pace anymore. I thought I had “mommy brain” or “baby brain” after almost a year off. I was more comfortable with nap techniques and weaning than metrics and meetings.
When two worlds collide
Returning to work after having a baby is a pivotal time for anyone. Suddenly, two very distinct parts of your life collide and you feel the need to be able to switch your brain back and forth on a daily or even hourly basis.
This sudden collision of two identities is jarring and can result in feeling like you’re not operating professionally at the same capacity as you were before becoming a parent.
Well, recent research shows that this feeling isn’t unwarranted. Our brains really do redesign themselves after giving birth. Baby brain is real but it’s not actually a bad thing.
The study, which was conducted at the Autonomous University of Barcelona assessed the brains of women throughout their pregnancies and for two years after. It found significant grey matter changes in the regions of the brain associated with social cognition and theory of mind — the ability to understand what others might be thinking and perceiving following childbirth. This is how mothers instinctively understand the different cries of their babies.
This reduction in grey matter is similar to what can be seen when a child is going through puberty and the brain essentially has a clear-out of unnecessary connections to make room for new streamlined processes. However, in the case of becoming a mother, some of the connections you lose might be ones you previously used to do your job.
This doesn’t mean you suddenly draw blanks at certain aspects of your job (although it can feel that way at first), it simply means you now look at things and assess them differently than you would have before.
I remember talking to a female colleague I admired for being so good at her job, as well as being a seemingly fantastic mother. I told her I felt like my brain was going in slow motion that first week back and she told me how after three children, she knew that by week 2 or 3, I would suddenly start to feel like superwoman as my brain seamlessly adjusted to navigating both my paid work and the unpaid work at home simultaneously. She was right.
The maternal struggle
Sinead O’Moore had a demanding career in advertising and media for a decade before becoming a mother.
“When I’d sit in a taxi and be asked what I did for a living, I was always so proud to respond with, “I work in an ad agency”. The people I met, the experiences I had, the ideas, adventures, anxieties and confidence all wrapped up in my professional identity. Until I looked around one day and I realised there were no mothers where I worked. There were women and dads.”
“It was then the identity crisis began and I plunged head first by pivoting into parenting media before I had even pee’d on a stick. I knew I wanted a family, I knew I wanted a career and I knew I would operate best if I could layer them together,” says Sinead.
Following the birth of her first child, Sinead returned to work citing feelings of both guilt and excitement simultaneously.
“Still breastfeeding, my boobs pumped anxiety through my veins crying out for me to find my baby. But my headspace needed my work. My new reality meant I understood the audience more. My new impatience and intolerance for time wasting meant I achieved more.”
Like many, the pandemic saw Sinead’s career and home life come together and ultimately gave her the push to take her career in a new direction by launching her own business – The Brand Story.
“Starting my own business – working for myself wasn’t an ambition, it was a necessity.
It was the only way I felt I could do the work that I craved, afford the minimum days of childcare I needed and see my babies who had been stuck to me throughout those months (years). My identity was no longer working mum or at home mum – my identity is now layered.”
Navigating your new identity
Returning to the paid workforce can often result in experiencing a sense of liminality. This is where you feel as though you exist neither fully as a parent nor fully as the employee you once were. You are not the same person you were before you had children and you have no idea who you are going to be. This can be a really trying time.
Sinead Brady is a career and coaching psychologist who helps organisations support women and parents in this season of their life. Because that’s what it is – a season. A transformational season, as Sinead explains:
“You are already having to navigate all of the different rules that are out there about how you should perform motherhood when suddenly you’re back in the workplace and there are all these other silent and invisible rules that you now also have to contend with.
Women constantly have to consider if they say ‘I can’t go to this meeting’ that they’ll be seen as less inclined towards their career or face similar assumptions when they have to take time off to care for sick children.
But that is life. And it’s a season of life where if employers want to hang onto their brilliant female employees, they will absolutely have to support them”
Sinead’s advice for anyone experiencing this feeling of liminality, dreading the thought of going back to work or someone just embarking on the journey of motherhood is:
- Know your tribe. For the first time in your life, your career is now interdependent on other people – your child, your partner, your childminder, etc. Every member of your support circle is now integral to your career and they should be made aware of this and their roles. Similarly if there are people in your circle who are unsupportive of you working or cause you stress, don’t go to them for support.
- Divide and conquer. Returning to work means there will also be a shift in how and when household jobs like cleaning or even grocery shopping gets done. This might seem menial but sitting down with your partner and explaining how things were while you were off and how they will be going forward will be time well spent. Apps like Our Home will allow you to create a family account where all of the household tasks can be assigned and ticked off.
- Know your worth. It is an employee’s market right now so you don’t have to settle for anything less than you are entitled to and deserve at work.
Women represent nearly half the global workforce so when it comes to creating an equal and supportive playing field, it really is the workplaces that need to understand the realities of life for working mothers and fix their policies and practices, not the other way around.