Last week I took my six month old baby to a seminar. I took a photo of her there and posted it on LinkedIn. And the armchair warriors of the world accused me of ‘child abuse’, ‘bad parenting’, ‘unacceptable risk taking’, ‘vanity’ and ‘indulging in women’s luxuries’.
Like many of you, I have a family and I have a career. The two are integral to my self-identity and I have learned lessons as a parent that no amount of time in the office could possibly have taught me.
I am currently on maternity leave from my part time role as an Executive Director in the Queensland Public Service, to care for my second child. As many of you know, being on maternity leave is a tough mental gig. You’d never change that time for anything in the world but it does come with a certain erosion of your self-identity. For me, part of managing the psychological side of maternity leave has been to read articles relevant to my work and start posting on LinkedIn as way to engage with these ideas. Taking my fully breastfed baby to a seminar at my old work was not a big deal, and was simply me trying to keep my baby and my brain fed at the same time.
So why ever on earth did posting a picture of my very content baby lying on a rug on the floor at the back of a conference room spark such outrage? Sure, the internet is full of trolls, but this was LinkedIn, where people are meant to put forward their professional brand. I mean, people were really passionate about what a horrible mother and exploitative worker I must be!
The truth is, in many parts of the professional world, people who seek flexible work arrangements (by and large, women) are considered to not take their careers seriously. I know because I’m guilty of thinking that once myself.
In my previous role as a lawyer at Minter Ellison I was privileged to have an exceptionally talented female boss. Many years ago there was an opening for a new partner and I remember discussing with some colleagues who we thought it might be. We discounted this woman because she was ‘part time’…and we were wrong! Her skills spoke more loudly than her ‘part time’ status and she was made partner.
My own experience continues to teach me not to discount flexible work arrangements. I did not expect to be appointed to an executive director role because I wanted to work part time: I assumed the two were mutually exclusive. However, there were people at the department who saw in me skills and potential that – like my old boss – spoke more loudly than my ‘part time’ status.
That’s not to say working part time is easy. In some ways, it’s harder than working full time. For me, working part time is a choice: I want to spend time with my ‘obnoxious and smelly’ children. The trade off is lots of juggling priorities, regular moments of self-doubt and a disproportionate amount of overtime. No one has ‘figured it out’ but it makes a lot more sense to support each other in this journey than condemning someone who does it differently.
So, here are a few things I’ve learnt since becoming a mum that I hold onto when the going gets tough:
- Forget your limits – just because you think working part time or flexibly excludes you from a certain job or promotion, doesn’t mean it does. How can we challenge the world’s notions of what is possible if we remain restricted by our own, self-imposed limits?
- Stop apologising – if you have flexible work arrangements in place there’s no need to apologise. Obviously, manners dictate you should apologise if you must leave a meeting early to pick up the kids. I’m talking more of that completely self-deprecating thing mothers have a tendency to do. You have no more reason to be ashamed of leaving for family than someone else has in order to get to the dentist.
- There’s no such thing as work/life balance – that implies the two are separate and can be placed on either side of a set of scales. I think of it more as ‘work/life integration’ – if you have to take your kids into the office to make it to a really important meeting on your day off, that’s what you do. Likewise, if it’s your day off, stop checking your emails every five seconds! Be clear about expectations, but also learn to give and take.
- Get a mentor – or ten. Preferably someone who really believes in you but who will be honest with you when you need it. You can’t have too many mentors: everyone has a story you can learn from.
- Be grateful. I read an article recently saying we should stop feeling grateful for part time work. While the author made some great points I disagree on that one. We should all be grateful for our jobs, our colleagues, our children and – those of us who have them – our life partners. When you stop being grateful you open the door to bitterness. Just stop apologising.
Despite the extremely negative comments, my photo on LinkedIn has received thousands of likes and a huge number of both public and private messages of affirmation. That confirms to me that my decision to take my baby to a seminar really isn’t that bad a thing after all!
Karen Walters is the mother of a precocious little boy and a sweet baby girl, and wife to a majestically bearded gentleman. At the time of writing this article, Karen was Executive Director in the Queensland Public Service, she is now Corporate Counsel at global engineering firm and huge flexible working advocates AECOM.