The 21st-century motherhood dilemma – an opinion piece
Why don't you want me to work?
An opinion piece by a mother of a 9-months old
It’s 2020 – the year I realized that we are still living in the past. What did I do? I dared to apply for childcare.
2017 I quit my corporate job and followed my husband abroad for an expat assignment. In only a couple of months, I learned that the role of the expat partner comes with some really fundamental obstacles. As a consequence, the majority of very well-educated women are not working during their time abroad. I have already written about this topic in numerous posts. The ones summing it up the best are this blog post and is this opinion piece here. Back then, I realized that 80% of expat partners are female. This proportion does not seem to change very much over the years and when I am in contact with women who became an expat partner decades ago not much has changed. This was my first realization about the difference between my husband and me. Same academic degree, same passion for work but different struggles.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I am finding myself back in our home country with a beautiful and perfect little baby in my arms. The best souvenir I could have ever imagined. Out little American baby girl that is not so little anymore as she has grown into a very active, joyful, and also demanding personality of a 9-months old. In case you pictured me typing these words with a quietly smiling or sleeping baby in my arms think again. This baby is using me as a giant rock to climb on and instead of sitting still the power outlet on the other side of the wall is inviting her to test her boundaries.
on social media!
My endless quest to organize childcare
I knew I wanted to get some help. Help to be able to get back to work. During my time abroad I started my own business coaching and consulting expat partners and now that I became a mum I was even more eager to help those women who feel lost. I noticed that having those international conversations with women around the world is giving me a sense of fulfillment, belonging, and value. I am actually able to help other women to feel better and encourage them to work on their goals. This helped me also being a better mum to my girl as I was embracing motherhood just like my business.
I also noticed that my baby is doing great with others and is enjoying the company of other people in her life and not just me 24/7.
On my quest to organize childcare I encountered so many unexpected obstacles. I also heard numerous opinions on this topic (most of them I have not asked for). A couple of months into my search I found a solution. However, it came at a price and by that, I do not mean the monthly fee but more so the feeling of disappointment that spread throughout my inner core.
Although I organized childcare starting when she will be one year old, a part of me feels defeated and disillusioned. By whom you might ask? Not really sure! By the government? By society, we are living in? By our neighbor? By my former colleague? By the older lady at the supermarket? By my in-laws? My husband? I can’t pinpoint it. Although I am a confident mother and strong-minded woman I can feel the judgment in the air around me. It is now the perfume I am wearing whenever I am leaving the baby to do something for myself.
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So what happened?
It all started when I decided to organize childcare for our baby girl. We just came back from a country where it was totally normal for mothers to go back to work only months (or even only weeks) after giving birth. Do not be mistaken: Childcare in the US is a luxury! If you have lots of money you organize a nanny. You can feel less guilty for going back to work as you give your child into the hands of an adult who is giving all her/his love to your child for 100%. If your budget is a little tighter you organize a spot at a kindergarten (still very expensive though and it will take a huge chunk out of your salary). If you are not so fortunate to afford this but lucky to live nearby relatives your best bet is your family. And you cushion this with a support network of babysitters ready to take over when your mum is not able to take your little one.
Here in Germany, the state is helping you with affordable childcare! Childcare is subsidized by the government meaning you only have to pay a fraction of the price and the rest is paid by them. How modern! What a huge help! So I immediately applied for kindergarten and Tagesmütter (qualified nannies who look after 5 children in their own home). It turned out that the application process is very similar to the job-hunting process. You write a CV, in this case, I designed a one-pager with all the information about our family a stranger might want to know. You contact several places (in my case I contacted 13 Kindergarten and 14 Tagesmütter). Those 27 places have been the ones that are in reach of our apartment so I have contacted them all. I got 7 responses telling me that they have no capacity. I never heard from the other 19 places. The 24th application I sent out was our lucky number. A family is about to move to another city so I had 1 visit and 1 night to decide whether I wanted to give my baby girl to this woman. Thankfully, it was a lucky choice and I could not think of a better place for my baby. However, I am very much aware of the factor of luck in this scenario!
This application process took me a couple of weeks and in those weeks I hardly heard back from anyone. I started to do some research and the secret seemed to be begging. Mothers told me that they called the places again and again, explaining their situation in tears. I was shocked to hear that. From my coaching and also private conversations with other mums, I am aware of the fact that most mums struggle with continuing their career out of mum guilt and the felt need to care for their child. So a woman who has reflected on her needs and is coming to the conclusion of wanting to re-enter the workplace is then forced to beg for childcare? How is that resulting in a higher rate of females in leadership roles? You know the answer.
How much time should you spend with your child?
So while I am beyond grateful to have found a spot for my baby, I am also furious inside for the fact that there are way more children than spots. We are discussing forced proportions of mothers in the workplace in so many areas but we are lacking behind right from the start.
In a perfect world, mothers should stay at home when they want to and they should be able to get back to work if they want to. It should not be about childcare but skills, individual happiness, and contribution to the community.
If you look at how parenting is done around the globe you see that there is not this ONE single correct path to raise a human being. There are more factors than time spent with your child. A child might have wonderful or sadly a horrible childcare regardless of the time he or she started childcare. It is about each individual family and their very own decision of organizing work and family life.
After getting the spot the beautiful journey of bureaucracy started. We applied for all kinds of wonderful tools by the government to support families. Elterngeld, Kindergeld, and support for the childcare fees. While it is a huge help financially for many families living here, it has also a very traditional role model touch. Every phone call and every letter came with many comments (mostly comments in a subtle manner). A mother who is planning to work with their child being younger or around the age of 1 is encountered with question marks. Women who I do not know personally shared their opinion on my decision over the phone. A constant reminder that my decision was out there for public discussion. I had to explain my wish to work. I had to explain the amount of hours I work (not planning to work in the future). Hence, there is this sentiment that you are only allowed to get childcare for the hours that you are working but not more than that. It feels wrong to take this snapshot and decide on your childcare arrangement for the upcoming years. It offers little room to growth personally and professionally and is no motivation to invest in yourself.
the two sides of the spectrum
Interestingly enough, there are two sides of the spectrum of being a working mum and when you find yourself in the middle there is a fun (irony) game going on.
The one part of the spectrum will ask you WHY you want to go back to work.
The other part of the spectrum ask you WHEN you are gonna go back to work.
On one day you will justify why you go back to work although you have a baby and on another day you find yourself arguing why you won’t go back earlier. One day you are starting to have self-doubt about your decision to go back. The other day you question whether your career break might be too long. One day you are feeling bad for giving away your child for 7 hours a day, the other day you start to realize that most jobs require a second childcare arrangement as 7 hours is just not enough. Bottom line:
One day you are a great mum but not such a good role model of a self-assertive woman, the other day you are a selfish mum but are not throwing away your career.
You are defending your decision every day. On some days you feel confident about your decision and on other days a comment hurts and make you question your whole plan.
What about him?
The not so funny thing here: Never ever was my husband asked WHY or WHEN he will go back to work. Sure, he never left work so there is no need to return but I hope you get my point. In all these conversations, I was in the spotlight. It seemed to be my decision. I managed all the application steps along the way as my partner was working crazy hours. While his life has not changed that much, my future was discussed at the market square.
I am lucky to have a partner who looks at me at eye level. A partner who wants to see me happy and flourish and who listens to me and not the more traditional voices around us. He never doubted that I am a great mother nor has he ever seen my professional aspirations in conflict with us raising a happy daughter. However, he is still not able to lift the weight from my shoulders. I am thinking about all the single mums, all the mums who are planning to go back to work with a partner that is not on board with their decision. How heavy must the weight on their shoulders feel!
Let's be a cheerleader for one another
So what can we do about it? What do we have to change so a mum who decided to stay home with her kids does not feel the need to justify this decision? What do we have to do that a woman who returns to work is also not forced to explain this decision again and again?
While I can’t change the number of kindergarten spots overnight I can change how I talk to other mums. I can raise awareness by writing about it. I can bring relief to another mum by listening to her decision without jumping in right away to share my evaluation of her decision. I can bring women together and create a safe space to talk about all these topics (mastermind groups).
Let’s be each other’s sounding boards. Let’s ask other mums how they are doing. Let’s be open-minded to mums who have decided against our very own path. There is no general right or wrong path. But it can be a wrong decision to go back to work if you are not at all ready or stay-at-home when you are not feeling fulfilled and are passing this feeling along to your baby. If you find yourself at this point in your life try to reflect in a very honest manner without permitting underlying beliefs or fear to take over. (Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel the need to talk to someone who is not your partner or close friend!)
So how can we support other women? How can we develop an open mindset?
You might have your very own experiences and facts and figures that support your decision of going back to work or staying home. Take in mind that if you look abroad or even just back in time there are so many different parenting concepts. Each parenting concept has its supporters. Some might be outdated, others are very much based on the local culture.
The only constant is the crucial component of love by the parent/parents which is never questioned. I am personally a firm believer that I can give more love when I am at peace with myself. When I am acting alongside my beliefs and values, I have the strengths to love no matter what. No matter the amount of sleep I get nor the sacrifices I bring throughout the day. I do not have to prioritize my child. It comes naturally. But although she always comes first I put quality over quantity.
So while I am tired of the fact that I still have to explain myself as a woman, as a mother, as a working-mum in the year 2020, I am also positive that the attitude of each individual can bring change and perspective.
I keep smiling at other mums no matter if they agree with me on parenting or not. Because it does not matter. It does not matter if I agree or not. But it does matter whether I make someone feel small or cheer someone up!
Disclaimer: I am aware that I am writing this text for a bubble. Not everyone has time and energy to think about this. For many others, going back to work is a necessity without question. There is not the luxury of thinking when might be the right time. However, everyone has her own struggles and they are all legitimate. This is me helping someone who might be in a similar position. In the sense of Share-the-Love, I am aiming to help those who are searching for their identity as an expat, as a new mum, as a career relauncher. If you have something to share please use the comment section below. You can also get in touch with me via email@example.com
Let’s be each other’s cheerleaders!