A message to all the women who are beating themselves up right now.

Gen Ys never really leave home.
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Gen Ys never really leave home.

“Birth, death, illness…sometimes they have to take priority. And you need to try and be OK with that.”

There is a lot of pressure on women to be everything. Have you noticed? If you’re single, you’re constantly asked why. If you don’t have kids, people want to know why not. If you take time out of your career to have a child, people want to know when you’ll be back. If you come back quickly, people ask “but how can you leave the baby?”.

Of course, there’s also the incessant pressure to be thin and beautiful and young AT ALL TIMES which hums along in the background.

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“But mostly, the biggest pressure on women comes from ourselves. Internally.”

But mostly, the biggest pressure on women comes from ourselves. Internally. To be everything. To do everything. And when we can’t (or don’t want to), we feel ashamed or guilty. We freak out.

In the past few months, I’ve had so many conversations about this with friends and women I work with. All of them are smart, talented and ambitious. They love their jobs and they’re bloody good at them. But life has thrown them some curveballs in the past year and they’ve been forced to take an unexpected step back from work.

Some of these curveballs have been happy – new babies or pregnancies both expected and unexpected. Others have been more challenging – the illness of a family member or their own mental health challenges. Then there are those who’ve just been hit by the reality check of having small children and trying to work full time or part time and realising something has to give.

Without exception, all of these women have spoken to me in hushed tones of their concern, their fear, their frustration and their reluctance about stepping back. “I just want to be able to do my job the way I used to at the same level as the other women at work,”  one friend told me sadly. “But none of them have one child let alone three.”

Another confessed she was worried about the impact on her career after having to move interstate so she could look after her sick father. “I don’t want to change jobs but what can I do? My Dad needs me.”

We employ more than 90 women of all ages at Mamamia Women’s Network and we’re constantly recruiting more, so I have these conversations every day. The women who want to work full time but can’t because they are caring for young children or elderly parents. The women who want the job or promotion they’ve been offered but have to say no because they know their family situation or their mental health won’t allow it.

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“I love that book…Women SHOULD lean in when they can. Sheryl Sandberg is spot on.”

These women have all read Sheryl Sandberg’s brilliant book Lean In where she exhorts women to keep their foot on the accelerator of their careers instead of slowing down in anticipation of a future life where they may not be able to sustain that higher speed.

I couldn’t agree more. I loved that book. I keep it in my office and it’s full of underlined paragraphs. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Women SHOULD lean in when they can. Sheryl Sandberg is spot on.

But when your “future” becomes your present and you’re faced with very real reasons to take your foot off the accelerator, it’s OK to do it. That’s a conversation we need to have in parallel to the Lean In one.

Because there are times in every woman’s life when you can’t Lean In. Or if you try, the cost to you and those you love is very real and far too high.

I’m not advocating Leaning Out and leaving the workforce altogether or indefinitely. Gah. That isn’t just risky, it’s dangerous. A few years ago it was trendy for younger women to loudly announce they were quitting their jobs forever after getting married or having kids in order to embrace homelife with an enthusiasm bordering on delusion. “We’re domestic goddesses” they chorused, while baking and wearing cute aprons in a memorable 60 Minutes segment on this social trend. “We hate Germaine Greer because she told us we should have it all and we don’t want to! We just want to stay home and bake stuff!”.

I’m paraphrasing but you get the idea.

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“A few years ago it was trendy for younger women to loudly announce they were quitting their jobs forever after getting married or having kids in order to embrace homelife with an enthusiasm bordering on delusion.”

Alarm bells went off for me at the time (as they always do when I hear of women who exit the workforce permanently or never enter it in the first place) and it has nothing to do with judging stay at home mothers or women who don’t work outside the home. I actually worry for them. What happens if their husbands leave them? Or go broke? Or die? What if these women have been out of the workforce for years and find it near impossible to get back in? What if they can’t earn a decent living when staying home is no longer a positive choice?

The irony of Sheryl Sandberg’s personal circumstances couldn’t be more poignant. The Lean In author, and COO of Facebook suddenly lost her husband in a tragic accident earlier this year while her family was on holidays. Sometimes life is shit.  Sheryl was fortunate (if that word can ever be used in such circumstances) in that she didn’t have to worry about money. She can and will be able to support herself and her two small children forever.  But I know other women who have lost their husbands to cancer or suicide who are in a far more precarious and vulnerable situation. They haven’t worked for years. They thought they wouldn’t have to. Now, they don’t know what to do.

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“The Lean In author, and COO of Facebook suddenly lost her husband in a tragic accident earlier this year while her family was on holidays.” Image via Facebook.com/SherylSandberg

The importance of maintaining some sort of connection to work throughout your life is absolutely crucial for women. Not because of feminism but to ensure your security and the security of your kids if you have them.

So I would never ever advocate a woman Lean Out completely. But there are times in life when leaning back is not only OK but necessary.

Birth, death, illness……sometimes they have to take priority. And you need to try and be OK with that.

One of my friends who was feeling miserable about how hard she was finding work during a difficult pregnancy rang me a little while ago for a pep talk. She wanted me to pump her up. Tell her she could do it. I told her the opposite. I told her she couldn’t.

“This is not the time to be climbing the ladder. You can’t compete with your co-workers right now. You can’t put your hand up for that promotion. That time will come again in the future but what you need to do now is lean back. Chill out. Work at a different, lower level as you grow a human inside your body.”

I was trying to make her feel better although maybe not in the way she’d expected.  I wanted to give her permission to stop leaning in for a bit. And to reassure her that it wasn’t the same as giving up. “Angel, sometimes your life doesn’t let you choose the timing of having a baby or a breakdown or caring for someone who needs you.” I said. “Work isn’t going anywhere and if it does, stuff it. You’ll pick it up in a different place at a different time that works for you and your family.”

When you love your job, leaning back can be even more difficult because it raises questions of identity.

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“A few of my friends have been baffled that their ambition and drive appear to have gone M.I.A after having a baby. I feel them. The exact same thing has happened to me three times.” Image supplied.

A few of my friends have been baffled that their ambition and drive appear to have gone M.I.A after having a baby. I feel them. The exact same thing has happened to me three times. “Who even am I?” wondered one of my closest friends out loud recently while contentedly nursing her baby. “I don’t even want to check my emails.” This woman is one of the most driven, hard-working people I’ve ever known. Fourteen hour days are her norm and have been since she left university. But since the birth of her son, her connection to work has frayed, something she finds confusing because that connection has always fulfilled her in a way nothing else ever could. Until now. Until her baby. Now she’s consumed by something altogether different, mind, body and soul. Would she ever feel that same drive, she wanted to know.

Well, yes and no.  I can only speak for myself but yes, my ambition and my love for work did come back a year or so after giving birth to each of my kids. And no because I have never been able to give as much of myself to my work as I could before I became a mother. There just aren’t any additional hours in my day and yet the demands on my time and my mind and my heart have grown exponentially. My head, my heart and my physical presence are forever cleaved between work and family. It’s not always easy. In fact, it never is. But it’s totally worth it – for me. And I do my best, which some days is terribly. And I try hard to be OK with that even when I’m not.

To every woman beating herself up about work and family and mental health, please remember this: life isn’t linear and neither is work. There will be times when you lean in and times when you lean back. Accept that your ambition and your career trajectory may ebb and flow. 

The key is to try and park your self-judgement and just go with that flow. 

On the latest ‘I don’t know how she does it’ podcast, Mia shares the routines and life hacks that let her get it all done. You can listen to it here:

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