Is the choice for women a career or motherhood?

Parenting, Teaching

Career vs MotherhoodA few days ago, I started following @manwhohasitall on Twitter. It seems a strange thing to say, but it made me really aware of how women are treated and portrayed in the media, especially working mothers. His tweets mock the kind of advice that is geared towards working mums, who are usually doing the bulk of the household management and childcare as well as working. Recent tweets include:

“Working fatherhood doesn’t HAVE to turn you into a stressed, tired and anxious wreck. You just have to know when to ask for help.”

“Working husband? How do you juggle kids, job, tupperware & yoghurt? Dean, age 48, “I keep one eye open all night”. What an inspiration.”

“RISE & SHINE BUSY DADS! Saturday is YOUR day. Ask you wife to take the kids to the park to give you a break from the housework. Lucky you.”

I usually enjoy reading things aimed at working mums, and have even been known to write a few. I do spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make our lives easier (my laundry system revolutionised my life). But somehow, this twitter account has made me really re-think all of this. Just because I’m the mum, the female parent, why do I have so much more pressure on me than the dad? (I’m not saying this specifically about my own marriage by the way, more about working mums in general.)

Then, this morning, I read this article in the Telegraph. A friend of mine on Facebook had linked to it. To summarise, a top headteacher (a woman) of an Independent Girls School has said that we need to teach girls that there is a glass ceiling, and that having children will compromise your career. She says in a quote, “I’m sorry, I’m not a feminist. I believe there is a glass ceiling – if we tell them there isn’t one, we are telling them a lie…Women still have to plan for a biological fact – i.e. motherhood.”

That’s very true. Personally, I have compromised my own career for motherhood. I started teaching 10 years ago and within a year had additional responsibility. I then worked as an acting head of department before moving to an Advanced Skills Teacher role. The next obvious step for me would probably be to take on a permanent Head of English role before moving into management. But instead, I chose to work part time. When we moved here, despite going back to full time teaching, I chose a role with no additional responsibilities. Effectively, I had “gone back” 10 years in my career. When additional responsibilities came up, I didn’t apply for them: I didn’t think I would be able to cope with the day to day demands as well as a young family.

I don’t know what will happen to my career when I go back to work. Ideally, I’d like to work part-time when the children are small. But when they are in school, what then? Would it be possible for me to start climbing the career ladder again? Or would I find the – frankly ridiculous – demands of teaching too much? I look at some of the women on senior management or headteachers at the schools that I have worked at and wonder what they have sacrificed for their position. At my current school, none of the women on senior management – or even female heads of department – have children. At my previous school, just one did, that I was aware of.

So does becoming a mother mean that we have to be content to settle, career-wise? Is it just about finding ‘balance,’ whatever that means? It brings to mind another tweet from @manwhohasitall:

“If I had to embrace a definition of male success, it would be that success is about finding balance and being absolutely okay with that.”

The thing is, I don’t know if I am actually that ambitious, or whether my ambitions have changed with age and circumstance (or if I’m just becoming more disillusioned with teaching). I am content with my situation right now, because it’s what’s best for my family. But I’m a good teacher, and I think I could be a really good Head of Department if I could throw everything at it… But in 5 years time, say, will I have the opportunity?

And therein lies the rub: when you pause your climb up the career ladder, or take a few steps downward for a few years, can you go back to climbing again?

There are certainly things that would help me, and other women I know in my situation. For instance, childcare fees are prohibitive, and often stop one parent (usually the mother) returning to work. Yes, the government gives us 15 hours of free childcare when our children reach 3, and will raise this to 30 hours. But actually, we need the help when the child turns 1… or when maternity pay runs out. That’s when we’re ready to go back to work, perhaps part time. If we have to wait until the child is 3 for any support with childcare costs, that’s 3 years that women could potentially be out of work. 3 years is a massively long time, and it is very easy to become de-skilled in that time. Rather than increasing the childcare provision to 30 hours a week (which, personally, I feel is a bit too much for most 3 year olds), perhaps they could increase it to 10 hours a week for 1-2 year olds? That’s where it would make the most difference in helping women go back to work.

Secondly, we need to make it easier for people to work part-time when they have small children. It is so difficult (and guilt-inducing) to do a good job at work and be a good parent when you are working full time. However, part-time allows you to continue in your role, while giving you time to parent. I loved working 3 days a week, and felt it made me not only a better parent, but a better teacher.

We also need to make sure that it is possible to have a career break when your children are small, and then to return to ladder climbing, if that is what we choose. I know this will be specific to different careers, but I honestly believe that I became a better teacher when I became a parent. We need to celebrate that more, and make sure there are systems in place to support parents when they return to work.

As a teacher, I think we do have a responsibility to teach both girls and boys about the glass ceiling. Yes, it’s there, and it’s a real problem. But we must equip young women to push against it. What Jennifer Lawrence did a few weeks ago, writing openly about the Hollywood Pay Gap is important: she is a celebrity young women genuinely relate to and respect. We also need to inform young women about the reality of having children and a career and equip them to do something about it. Whether that is ensuring they know their rights in terms of maternity leave and job security, or including this aspect in career advice, or encouraging them to forge careers that will be conducive to parenting. But we should give the young men we teach the same information.

Another aspect of career education I think we need to consider is facilitating career changes. Once we become parents, many of us want to re-think our careers. For me, I resent the amount of time teaching takes away from my family. Many women retrain, if they are lucky enough to be able to do that.

That said, mothers are a vital part of the workforce. I’ve taught successfully for 10 years, and theoretically have another 37 before I retire. If I do not work in education for at least part of the next 37 years, I won’t be fulfilling my career potential. I know other women, working in similar professions, who face the same choice. If it’s not possible for women to have a career as well as being mothers, then society will be missing out!

I do want it to be possible to have a successful career, and to be a mother, not by having it handed to us on a platter, I know there will have to be sacrifices made, but because mothers are a vital part of the workforce.

These kinds of thoughts are why I love the Internet. It genuinely makes me think about things that I should think about, that I need to keep myself informed about. This is relevant to me, now, and will be relevant to my children, both my biological children and those I teach. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know the answer for myself. I do know we are incredibly lucky to be living in a time when women can be educated and have a career, but I can see we have a long way to go before we truly have equality with men in this area.

By Naomi


  1. Reply

    Thank you for this post! My husband and I have been talking about this recently as we prepare to move areas and I’ll have to find a new job. However as I have a 3yr old and a 6 month old and I’m not confident we can afford childcare or how I’ll juggle it. (And the burden will fall mainly on me as my husband works shifts and frequently antisocial hours.)

    I think your suggestion of starting subsidised childcare earlier is a good one instead of waiting till the child is 3. The U.K. has a problem with productivity and getting experienced workers who want to work back into their jobs would be beneficial!

    1. Reply

      Oh my goodness, finding a new job when you have small children is so difficult, especially as you’re moving areas – we did it a year ago and it has been such hard work, for both of us. To be honest, the cost of childcare has determined when we have chosen to have our second child – the more help we can get, the better!

  2. Reply

    […] I blogged about women having to choose between their career and motherhood. You can read that post here.  Over on my Facebook page, it sparked a lot of discussion. But one aspect of that post triggered an […]

  3. Reply

    Great post Naomi. I spend a lot of time thinking about this actually. There is generally a much bigger work load and expectation placed on mothers. I love hearing about families who manage to balance things well as it isn’t something that comes easily even in this day and age. We talk about there being equality, but it is still a long way off. I want our kids to grow up and have that equality and to be aware that it is okay. There are so many gender stereotypes that kids are learning to accept. Yesterday I was taking some time to read on the couch and I overheard my husband as he encouraged the kids to clean up after dinner time with him. The kids said ‘We are doing this to help Mum’ and He replied ‘No, we are doing this because we are a team’….honestly it meant so much. I almost cried haha. I hope when I go back into the work force that we are able to make it work for all of us. Until then I will take in the wise stories and thoughts from people who have been there like yourself. Thanks so much 🙂

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