I‘m one of the missing statistics from the workplace – the army of women who disappeared to raise families, make homes, and try to stay sane, whilst balancing all of the demands and expectations of them.
My career break turned into more of retirement, the years passed and something else more important always came along – recovering from PND, juggling the needs of 3 young children, supporting my sister as her husband battled MND and died, absorbing every precious minute with my dad before cancer took his last breath and embarking on a ridiculously sh*t menopause.
And so eventually my career break became a way of life. A life that was full of really important stuff, like helping out at my kid’s school because they liked it, making a home that I loved, spending time with myself without any distractions, learning to be innovative to make the money go further, discovering my creative streak, having the time to get good at my favourite sports again and perhaps most importantly, not having to cram everything into the weekend before work beckoned on a Monday morning.
But it wasn’t perfect – I desperately missed the intellectual stimulation, having spare money, the external validation, getting dressed for work, and the ability to completely focus on something for myself without having to serve another’s needs. And I missed all of this so much, that I thought the answer was to go back to work, so I did.
And what I found was that you really should be very careful what you wish for.
Because the thing I had not taken into account, was that whilst my skills and my work experience had stood the test of time, I was a very different person from that woman who had walked away from her shiny office 10 years previously. So, yes the boxes were ticked for flexible working, the right money, and an exciting and intellectually challenging role, but there was a price to be paid that I had not predicted – that of my freedom and as a consequence, my mental wellbeing.
I was no longer available to myself or my family. All of my mental, emotional and physical capacity was completely absorbed by the job. Some of this was getting up to speed with a demanding environment and some of this was about overcoming the internal demons of self-doubt and a loss of confidence, after so long away from the workplace, but most of this was about proving to myself and others that I was still good enough, I still belonged, that this was still my tribe and that I could do it all – career woman, mum, wife, homemaker, friend, sister, and daughter.
But of course, I couldn’t, ironically exactly the same realisation I had come to 10 years earlier, although back then I didn’t have the advantage of self-awareness, it was the PND that forced my hand.
And so the reality sunk in about the choices I would have to make, should I want my career back. And that is when I realised that I did not actually want it quite as much as I had thought and more importantly, that I did not have the mental or emotional capacity to meet its demands long term. You see much of my freedom is not spent on frivolous activities, but on deep, meaningful stuff that is critical for my wellbeing. The moment I lost the ability to balance and nourish the different facets of me, was the moment I realised my new career was simply not sustainable – not for me on a personal level, nor for my family in terms of our quality of life. And so I took the decision, to step back from my career once again, pause for thought and think about a more sustainable way for me to serve in this world.
We need to honour our needs, our choices outside of work, just as much as we do our work commitments.
So, my problem was not opportunity or money, but balance. And it seems to me that a lack of balance in our lives is actually at the root of much of our unhappiness. We are all many things to many people, including ourselves. It is not possible, nor should it be, to simplify ourselves to fit into one box. We need to allow, accept and nourish all of our different parts and that is when we become the very best version of ourselves and can create the most value in this world. I think the bottom line is, we need to work less to achieve more. We need to honour our needs, our choices outside of work, just as much as we do our work commitments. And I do not believe getting women back into the workplace is simply a matter of flexible working or opportunity, it is about a much wider conversation that applies to everyone – how much of our time should really be spent at work and how do we achieve a much better and more respectful balance with the rest of our lives.
Equality gives birth to diversity. Balance gives birth to contentment. Freedom gives birth to creativity. All of the things we seek, will not be achieved by a quota system aimed at persuading people to enter a world, which simply swaps one set of problems for another. No, if we truly want to create a diverse and creative workplace, which enables people to reach their full potential, then we must address the issue of balance. We must give people more freedom, work less, and re-define the outdated expectations we have of what constitutes a successful career. Success is not defined by huge personal sacrifice, it is defined by being honest with yourself and accepting all that you are, irrespective of what others think.
So, for now, I am pausing to think about how I can be all of that I am, to create the most value in this world, and to stay well by keeping my balance and being honest about what that means with others.
And right now I do not have the answer to this difficult and complex question, but I do know that it needs asking and the conversations need to be had. And it is only then, that we can hope to define a new reality, where balance is key and our different roles and needs in life can each find their own space, without stepping on the other.
And I hope you can join the conversation too.