Guest Post by Anne-Sophie Erlandsen Olesen.
Our local online parenting group had an interesting thread recently: a working mum was asking for advice about how to manage a potential career break. My advice, as a (happy and fulfilled) stay-at-home-mum, was very off the cuff but must have struck a nerve as it received an avalanche of “likes”.
So, what did I say?
My advice was 3 fold:
1. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you need to show performance in your new ‘job’.
Success in parenting is not like success in the corporate world. Your child’s behaviour/grades are not a reflection of your performance as a parent. Neither is the state of your home / body / <insert any traditionally female domain likely to be shamed>
2. Make sure you don’t get lonely.
When you work in an office, you often take time to chat with colleagues, have a coffee break, go to the gym in your lunch hour, etc. Make sure you do that with your ‘new’ colleagues or you will go nuts.
3. Assess regularly whether the set-up still works for you, your partner and your kids (financially, emotionally, etc).
Thinking back over the advice I gave, I would like to add a Number Four.
4. Do not think that you need to account for every minute of your day.
So, what is this full-time, stay-at-home parent doing giving advice to busy work-outside-the-home parents? I’ve been there and got the t-shirt. I left my job at a strategy consulting company after the birth of our first child over 10 years ago and have never looked back.
Now you might be picturing me as a high-maintenance, manicured and blow-dried yummy mummy, floating in Mahabi slippers from pilates to coffee mornings, feeding her children only organic perfection and effortlessly imposing zero screen time. Any of my friends reading this will have tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks as nothing could be further from the truth (and, while some of my lovely friends do fit parts of that description, none of them tick all of those boxes).
But one thing I am, is this: a much, much happier person for having the choice of doing what I love and being with those I love.
“The break itself needs to be a success”
Most threads and articles and friends’ advice on this topic tend to focus on how to make a success of a break from the perspective of the CAREER: how to make sure you have one to come back to; how to find a different one while you are taking time out; how to use your network; etc. These are all extremely important and relevant, but they tend to jump the gun: the break itself needs to be a success, and therefore you need to define what a ‘successful break’ looks like for you.
I’m guessing there are two main reasons for considering a career break (assuming you are on maternity leave or are back at work after the birth of a child). Perhaps you are unhappy in your current career and need some distance and perspective to either get your career mojo back or find another career that suits you better. Or there are family issues/considerations which could be better addressed by someone being at home full-time for a while. Or maybe it’s a mix of both these things.
Either way, you should be prepared for the family dynamic to change. It is a big change for someone who has had her own career – and, let’s face it, her own money – to leave that part of her identity behind (at least temporarily).
Photo Credit: Anne-Sophie Erlandsen Olesen (Instagram @HaveKitchenWillCook)
“What Do You Do All Day?”
To avoid frustration and resentment, I recommend that you don’t set the bar too high at the start. If a break is needed, some initial downtime and reflection might be more beneficial – to you and your family – than you decluttering your whole home in the first week after you stop working. But it can be hard to break the pattern of busy-ness, and hard not to feel like you need to justify your time.
I have learned from experience that when the other parent comes home at the end of the day, you do not need to feel guilty if your home is a mess and dinner will be leftovers or toast (again). Some days this might happen. Other days, you might instead be channeling a 1950s and there might be tidied toys, angelic (sleeping) children and a hot dinner for your partner to come home to. On still other days, you might have taken time to go to a museum with a new friend, and discovered something you didn’t know about your own interests or theirs (one such friendship started because we both enthusiastically enjoyed an exhibition on engineering at the V&A). Another day you might have tried a new workout which gets your endorphins going and, as a result, you are a much more pleasant person to come home to… no end-of-day glass of wine required. The point is that all of these – or other things – are possible, and that every day can be different.
“It can be hard to break the pattern of busy-ness, and hard not to feel like you need to justify your time.”
A truly supportive partner will understand that you are not just ‘not working’ (a term sometimes used as code for “doing nothing”) but that you are also living a life, and hopefully one that makes you feel fulfilled and happy. After all, in the words of that 1950s ideal “a happy wife makes a happy life” or, perhaps with a more modern spin, “happy parents make a happy family”.
Career Breaks Should Be Like Sausages!
Whatever you do during your break doesn’t need to go on your CV. Be bold and consider it a ‘black box’: something goes in at one end and something different comes out at the other end. But the process itself can remain a mystery (much like making sausages). And therefore there are no performance requirements, not even when it comes to your children. Especially when it comes to your children.
We have two children. One child is performing really well, for which I take no real credit other than encouraging her, but my full-time working husband does his share of encouraging too. Things just come easy to her. And one child is performing at his own pace, for which I feel no guilt (and neither does my husband), as he is happy with his achievements. He has discovered the virtues of hard work all by himself. And, by the way, they have the same challenging behaviour and delightful moments as their peers who don’t have any stay-at-home parents.
And finally, a point which can really be applied to any family set-up, assuming you have the luxury of choice: review it regularly. At every major milestone we have asked ourselves whether this set-up was still working. When our 1st child started school. When her younger brother started part-time nursery. When he started school. When my husband was sick and tired of his job and I felt guilty for not being able to take over as the working/earning partner. When I was offered a part-time job.
For now, it still works for us: my hard-working feminist oft-travelling husband; our pre-teen daughter who thinks after-school clubs are a particularly nasty kind of torture; her easy-going cuddly 5 year old brother. And me: a 45 year old raging feminist activist, 100% financially dependent on her other half, who loves to: cook and blog and Instagram about food (www.facebook.com/havekitchenwillcook/); be deeply involved in the local community; manage the marketing aspect of our family businesses (a French antique shop www.abc-chevalblanc.com , a long-let holiday cottage business www.auvergnecottage.com and a boutique real estate www.auvergnerealestate.com); read.
Notice how all these interests have nothing to do with children? And they are all interests that not only keep me sane, but can take up as much or as little time as I want them to, depending on various other commitments. But notice also that I couldn’t do any of all of this without the 100% enthusiastic consent and support of the three other family members.
Will I ever go back to a career? I really don’t think so. Will I ever earn money again? Why not? My own mum was a stay-at-home mum until my dad retired and now they run their own business together and love it.
Who knows how long my career break will be? But for now, I’m enjoying it far too much to consider a career break “break”.
Note from Kath: Thank you so much Anne-Sophie for sharing your personal insights and experiences. At Runneth, we are huge believers in the power of choice, and believe that for working lives – as with parenting choices – there is no one right way. The right way is the one that works for each person and their family. I am sure many people – stay at home or working, mothers or not – will find your insights and tips interesting and helpful. Thanks again, Kath x