Before motherhood, I subscribed to the familiar notion that my best creative ideas came to me during the daily dog walk or morning shower. Now it's when I am reading bedtime stories to my three-year-old.
Before anyone starts questioning my commitment to bedtime or being fully present during this sacred period, let me reassure you how my 'mom brain' works magically.….
I am animated as the Gruffalo's Child hunts for the big bad mouse. I am not frightened by life as we pour over Maya Angelou and the art of Basquiat. When Frida has an 'owwweee' or Nelson is locked in prison for 27 years, I am there for the significant conversations around life and death, the good guys and the bad. Even though I most definitely do not like green eggs and ham, I keep apace. And when Elmer is putting the little elephants to sleep, I have perfected my s-l-l-l-o-o-o-w-w low reading voice until 'Zzzzzz.' He's gone.
Throughout all of this, there is a part of my brain that alights with creative ideas so precise and finessed I sometimes wish I had a notepad handy to scribble down. But I would want to refrain from interfering with my primary function here as the chosen one or Chief Bedtime Officer. Instead, alongside story time, I will keep the ideas visually afloat or describe them back to myself, hoping that when I creep out of the door, they will still be in front of my mind and land perfectly on the page.
I use this everyday parenting example to illustrate how as a mother, I feel like I've expanded my potential - it's as if there are now two 'me's' (mom & Casey), and they blend and separate as the daily tasks evolve. No, this dichotomy is not always easy, and of course, not having kids doesn't somehow make you less than others. But when it comes to experiences of motherhood, what I feel and understand to be true is not unique to me.
And it's why I will champion (and forever be in awe of) mothers - recognise the strength it demands, whether in the workplace or life. It's why, with a lens on work, every leadership team needs mothers.
My senses have deepened and sharpened. Where empathy was something I regularly leaned into, and I generally tried to lead with kindness, I could also find myself becoming impatient during a process or perhaps even with an individual. Now empathy takes on a whole new visceral level, and my patience has expanded. I have at my fingertips more tools to solve a problem rapidly (time is not always on mum's side, so we work swiftly) and different ways to pose questions or stimulate understanding from colleagues or clients. I am more confident in my ability and voice than ever before while also knowing that I've shed my ego - which we need so much more in our industry. I have a higher tolerance for discomfort and sometimes-difficult conversations without falling into a combative or passive position. I realise better and quicker when and where to ask for help and change tact on an idea or approach.
A huge one for me has been letting go of what I now recognise as both destructive and illusive in work (and life) – perfection. Motherhood can drag you to the brink of yourself and, in some respects, see you reborn - it's extraordinary and humbling.
This subject becomes even more fascinating when we bring science alongside the anecdotal. Despite the limited research into this territory, there is now a scientific consensus that pregnancy impacts the architecture of women's brains. Scientists working in this field have captured data demonstrating that, amongst other things, pregnancy reduces gray matter volume in regions subserving social cognition. Interestingly MRI scans provide all that a doctor needs to determine if a patient is a mother. Before we start linking the reduction in gray matter with mothers literally losing their minds, Elseline Hoekzema, a neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who led the unprecedented study, speculates that the gray matter losses might confer an adaptive advantage. Noting that a similar decline occurs during adolescence when neural networks are fine-tuned for more efficiency and more specialised functions.
What strikes me most with this research being in its infancy is that simply understanding and appreciating that the physical impact of pregnancy changes a woman is a valuable insight into how we can further support them on their journey back into work.
Some interesting data on mothers returning to work - only 24% of women return to work full time after having children, and 57% leave within two years, many due to redundancy or ill mental health. Women in management roles drop by 32% after having children. I found these statistics staggering, and their value brought me to the conclusion that if we think 76% of mothers don't want to return to work full-time, then we hugely underestimate women. And I add that in no way implies that not wanting to go back full-time is terrible. Flexible working is the future, but the structure of work as a whole and filtered down into business (of all shapes and sizes) are simply not designed to adequately support mothers returning to work.
Jessica Heagren of That Works for Me, who recently led a report on women's careers after babies, offers up why this matters...
"To put it into perspective for you, 86% of women will be a mother by the time they turn 40. That means that by not thinking about working mums, you're not thinking about 47% of the working population."
Mothers don't continually transform into superheroes single handily, although most are capable (I tease somewhat). But clearly, the road to getting there can be made easier in many spheres of life, with work a critical one to focus on. When I think of myself a couple of years ago, as a new mother (keenly) returning to work within the creative industries, I picture a set of scales. On one plate, I am curled up in the foetal position; on the other, I am smiling and standing firm. The truth was somewhere in-between these, and by that, depending on a day or week's experiences, it could be either somewhere in the middle or perhaps I'd simply fallen off a plate momentarily. An employer (and company culture) that is confident enough to hold you and navigate this contradiction, whether you're full, part-time, contract, or freelance, will allow you to shine and continue in a role or career you love.
Undoubtedly the shoulder of this crisis doesn't sit purely on businesses. It's the Government that needs to be leading the charge through better funding of childcare and legislation. Still, companies are responsible for the culture they create and how they perceive returning mothers. So here is my advice on workplace etiquette to those lucky enough to be welcoming back a new mother or perhaps hiring someone while pregnant (kudos) and looking forward to her joining;
- Give her the safety net to be vulnerable, and don't assume her sometimes lateness, tears, dark eyes, or otherwise are a sign that she wants to be elsewhere. Hold back from commenting on these factors also. Talking about someone's postpartum appearance, positive or negative, is just a no-go zone.
- Let her lead as she once did and still be a part of the relevant projects. Value her voice even if her words are not yet fluent or her thinking as razor-sharp as they once were. This will come back, don't worry.
- Try not to make too many assumptions about her experiences or what shape she wants her career to take. Mothers are not monolithic, and motherhood isn't a precursor to a lack of ambition. Asking considered questions, genuinely listening, and applying empathy are your friends. Talk to her and co-create a plan of action with plenty of flex built during those first few months.
- Your culture of championing mothers returning to work will reassure them that she has the time, space, and support to find their feet again without being micro-managed or having their responsibilities reduced. It will also encourage other women in the organisation that this is a safe space to build their careers should they decide to have children.
- Embrace the new version of her while acknowledging that she is, in many respects, the same person she was before. The same talent you employed.
Finally, consider promoting her!
I dare you.
Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 6931 (2022) - Mapping the effects of pregnancy on resting state brain activity, white matter microstructure, neural metabolite concentrations and grey matter architecture
Report by That Works For Me - Careers After Babies, the Uncomfortable Truth, 2023
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