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I’m collecting myself and trying to hold it together during a break at a strategy session with one of our long-standing clients.  The MD approaches me and asks, ‘Would you agree to coach our Head of Operations? She knows you and trusts you.’ I agree to look at my schedule and connect with her. 

But, I don’t. In fact, I feel a bit ill at the thought. What is going on? 

I keep telling myself the story that I know everyone is aware of: ‘I’ve done this work for years. I’ve built my career on a solid track record and strong client relationships. I’ve had my three children (thankfully in only two pregnancies) – my youngest is already 18-months-old, so I’m all set.’

But my inner voice is not hearing this familiar story. Rather, self-doubt creeps in and questions me: ‘Who am I to sit in front of senior executives and coach them to enable new perspectives and make behavioural shifts? Who am I to sit at the table and advise on strategic alignment?’ And more fundamentally… ‘Who am I?’

Thankfully, I had a supportive peer group in the leadership development space with whom I could thrash this out. From this, I realised, I had generous support and understanding on my return to work after having my three kids (all within a two year period), but it wasn’t the weeks and months after my immediate return to the working world which were the most challenging. Actually, it’s the 18 to 24 months down the line when people aren’t as ‘understanding’ or aren’t even aware you are a mother dealing with a whole new world of physical and emotional demands.  The broken sleep of a couple of years has accumulated and the strain of carrying two very demanding roles is taking its toll.  

This phase, I have recently come to learn, is known as ‘Returnity’.

Let’s just take a moment to understand these factors: the impact of sleep deprivation, the dual role of power woman at work and super mom at home, and co-workers that appear low on empathy.

Sleep deprivation:

The research is clear that the physiological and mental impact of continued sleep disruptions or deprivation is hugely destructive. This is a very real phenomenon for parents and without acknowledging the impact this could have on an individual, the mitigating measures for dealing with this can go completely unnoticed and unattended.

 The dual role juggle:

Managing the dual role of employee and mum is relentless. The increasing demands of work – managing work deliverables, people dynamics and navigating the complexity of today’s corporate environment coupled with the assault of the relentless fight for attention of one or more small children the moment you arrive home – are brutal. There is an unspoken expectation that women need to deal with this reality if they choose to have children even if the reality of the early years can be physically, emotionally and psychologically crippling. There is no magic solution here, however, it is vital to be allowed the chance to rationally step back and see the situation for what it is, enabling choices that are in service of this reality rather than unconsciously fighting against it day after day.

 Lack of support:

The felt experience of apparent low empathy from co-workers who have either not yet embarked on this life-stage, or have chosen to not have children, to the men who are blind to the reality of the impact Returnity has on women, can be toxic contributors to the mental anguish working mums face.  There is no judgement or blame on those individuals, yet they are there, and are unknowingly (or unfortunately in some cases, not so unknowingly), chipping away at the fragile exterior of many working mums doing their level best to hold it all together.

These are not necessarily the experiences of all women returning to the workforce or perhaps not the time frame that it happens in. They are, however, the experience of many. There is no pixie dust that will magically solve these challenges, but there are things that can mitigate the impact, both for mothers in the workforce and for business leaders with an eye on productivity and performance.  Let’s look at two key factors that can be done with relative ease.

 Acknowledgement:

At an absolute minimum, acknowledging the reality of these challenges in the workforce is crucial – both for the returning mum, and for the organisation.  Removing the stigma of being a working mother, allowing this to be a safe subject and for women to have an accessible and constructive forum for raising the challenges they face. The mental strain that develops can be hugely corrosive on relationships, overall work performance and broader people and team dynamics. For leaders to create a space of psychological safety is crucial to enable a sense of belonging for working mothers.   

External Support:

Providing the opportunity for professional counselling, therapy or coaching for women dealing with Returnity has the potential of high return for both the individual and the business.  These hugely valuable forms of support meet women exactly where they’re at and allow for a unique process to help them navigate Returnity effectively.

But what’s the point of this if post-baby women are the damaged goods they appear to be? Why would we want them in our businesses, particularly in senior roles? Here I’d like to share my own experience with you.  As soon as I had the opportunity to realise what was going on and had support around me to work through my own mental blocks of why I deserve to be at the table, I came back with more grit and resilience than I’d ever demonstrated in my work previously. The limiting internal dialogue I had been carrying with me after having my kids was merely that – a faulty message.  

If this process is not lead consciously and with strong support from leadership, the impact of this damaging narrative wreaks havoc at both an individual and organisational level.  It potentially entrenches incorrect assumptions that new mums are not able to step up and deliver the goods.  The travesty is not only that this is not true, but that the converse is, in fact, the case. In most instances, women who make the decision to take the time out to have children and hold a career, return to the workforce armed with three invaluable and refined strengths:

  • a renewed purpose as they sacrifice a lot in choosing to return to work;
  • a laser-sharp focus as efficiency really matters in their time-pressured environment; and
  • a new-found, and often unconscious, level of grit and resilience to enable clarity and drive to balance their two important roles successfully.

Leaders that are focused on building depth of capability and sustainable performance in their organisations, while supporting the well-being and true inclusivity of their businesses, need to sit up and pay attention.

The potential loyalty and drive of these power women returning to the workforce is no trivial thing.  With a considered approach from leadership and commitment to the requirements of acknowledgement and support, a significant and lasting impact on the organisation awaits. 

Should you wish to explore this element of your leadership, please contact Annie Hanekom on annie@lockstep.consulting to learn more about our leadership approach. 

Annie Hanekom

Annie Hanekom

Annie Hanekom is a Senior Associate at Lockstep and is currently based in Cambridge in the UK. Annie is an executive coach, facilitator and leadership practitioner and has spent more than 16 years in the consulting and leadership development arena both in the UK and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Annie serves global clients in both locations. She has coached and advised on leadership, team and personal effectiveness and focuses on building deep self-awareness in individuals.

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