It’s a fact. A lot of mothers find it hard to get back to work after a break. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says, “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.” If we could put it all down to a strong maternal instinct, that would be OK. But it’s not just that. The socio-cultural landscape we live in doesn’t seem encouraging enough of the aspirations of new mothers to have their children and a high-growth career. Unfortunately it seems to be a foregone conclusion in some places that a woman can either choose motherhood or a high-growth career but not both. That is not the best choice we are offering women of today who are well qualified to do both.
Sandberg’s stats sound familiar to those of us closer home. Even in India, a large percentage of qualified women quit work after their first child in order to spend more time at home. An ASSOCHAM study conducted in August 2015 states that 25-30% of women in metro cities, who recently had their first child, quit their jobs. The sad part of the story is we are talking about highly qualified women who work in large Indian and multi-national companies.
Clearly, taking a break to nurture a child isn’t as significant or as glamorous as taking time off to pursue a doctorate or backpack across Europe to study and practice art. Why is that the case? What is the root of this double standard in perceptions of a break? Doesn’t raising a child demand as much time, patience and skill as a doctorate or a European art sabbatical? Why is newfound motherly wisdom not as valuable as knowledge acquired in the Alps or in a university? This is the flaw of the culture we live in.
But to reverse all that would be to boil the ocean. So we must start with small but concrete steps. We can start by understanding that a lot of women quit during or after pregnancy not only because they feel the urge to be full-time mothers for a while but also because of disabling factors in the socio-cultural landscape:
1. Lack of mother- and child-friendly company policies
2. Lack of safe childcare facilities
3. Lack of parental support for childcare in many cases
4. Regressive mind set of family and society that makes the journey back to work difficult
5. Failure to reduce or better manage a new mother’s stress at work
6. Failure to actively provide a healthy work-life balance for new mothers
At the same time, there is good percentage of mothers who opt to take a career break voluntarily so they can watch their kids grow during the critical years. These mothers, when they return to the work scene, often find it hard to justify their time away; an unfair place to be in. Shouldn’t motherhood and the discovery of its joys and responsibilities count as a valid life stage we all should accept, perhaps even learn from?
Hence, a lot of these women come back to work only when the child is old enough. As a result they lose time to build their careers. New diversity policies in many companies are making it easier for women to have a child and a career. But there is still a long way to go.
As a coach, I am interested in the psychological aspect of this story, and in helping new mothers navigate this path with the right story in their heads. Because often, if you’re a new mother and taking a break to raise your child, you tend to have the wrong story in your head. You tend to think you are losing time, or becoming irrelevant, or worse, you think you can’t have a child and a career. You must choose. But this kind of thinking is wrong and purely conditioned by the environment we have been raised in. As a coach, I want every mother on a work break to be proud of her choice and confident about her chances in the marketplace when she returns. And I have some tips for them to feel and act better along the way:
– Stay determined: During the break, most mothers become complacent and start enjoying the break. The stress-free life can become addictive. If you want to get back to work, stay relevant by updating your knowledge and skills.
– Stay motivated: One must be motivated to get back to work after a break. Choose a job that means something to you. Don’t end up building your life around your child.
– Stay connected: Though you are on break, stay in touch with old colleagues, bosses and other friends who are still working. This will help you be ‘in the circuit’ for work opportunities that may be good for you.
– Stay flexible: When you get back to work don’t be hung up about what you can and cannot do. Be open to new ideas. You never know where your next wave of growth is going to come from.
– Know where to draw the line: Just because you took a break doesn’t mean you are vulnerable to exploitation or discrimination. Know your rights and demand them.
– Ask for support: The first few months after joining back work may be overwhelming. Have a friend or a coach to keep you anchored.
Our culture doesn’t as yet make it easy for every woman to both be a mother and be an equal opportunity employee across the board. Changes are being made but you need to stay ahead of the game if you want both. Correct the story in your head. You are not lesser than those who choose not to take a break. You are on par, if not better. Keep learning. Stay connected. Appear confident always, despite inner and external doubts. And your transition back to work will be smooth and successful.
About the Author:
Sandhya Reddy is a leadership & transformation coach based in Bangalore, India. She is the Founder and Principal Coach at Chapter Two Coaching, a coaching consultancy that enables everyone from CEOs to work-from-home parents to achieve their goals by replacing self-imposed limitations with enabling stories.
Many of us in our thirties experience a disquieting realization: what brought us to middle-management may not take us to senior-management. This is true. To chart a new career path, one needs to think and do things differently. This is where Sandhya can help. She is a coach. Life coaching, executive coaching, business coaching, personality development, leadership coaching… they are all part of her forte. Her Executive coaching programs helps tomorrow’s leaders set new goals, make new plans to achieve those goals, get that elusive promotion through a blend of knowledge, action and image-building, enhance influence among the leadership team, be more productive, get more out of one’s team, and be known in the company as an indispensable performer and future leader.