Motherhood: Time to Lean in or Lean Out?

“I have too many balls up in the air, so for now I decided to focus only on my children and my work.” “I will not be renewing my professional network membership, because I am pregnant!” “I’m going to focus on my family for now, while I prepare for giving birth and spending quality time with my baby.” While the above intentions are totally understandable and laudable, the reality of life and purpose is more complex. In fact, if we try to find our purpose in motherhood alone, we may find ourselves empty and exhausted ten years down the road. So what should we do when we reach this critical phase in our lives? Is there only the option of either “leaning in” or “leaning out”?

At the time of its publication Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” was an eye-opener for many ambitious women in the workplace wondering how to get ahead and “do it all”.

Not only did the book draw the attention to some obvious gender inequalities in the workplace and the fact that the workplace still is, in many ways, a “man’s world”; it also came with a more provocative message. Could women inadvertently be undermining themselves by self-doubt, impostor syndrome and withdrawing from their career progression at a critical time? The latter she called “leaning out” and her message was for women “to lean in” instead.

Recent research and writing has pointed out that the reality is infinitely more complex. Even when women demonstrate similar behaviors and attitudes as their male counterparts, the perception of their behaviors and attitudes is different.

An example of this is that men are known to be promoted on potential, whereas women are promoted on past performance – making it much harder for women to advance in their careers. A lot of research and discussion has pointed out the impact of “unconscious gender bias” affecting how the performance and the potential of the female workforce is assessed. Interestingly enough, unconscious gender bias is not prevalent only with men, but also with women. After all, we are all products of our upbringing, our socialization in mostly patriarchic societies.

One thing that has become increasingly clear is that although motherhood is no longer the end of a woman’s career, it is the turning point in a career trajectory.

Our future career progression and success is largely affected by this decision of motherhood and we need to understand the impact of how we handle it and how our professional environment responds to it, on the rest of our professional lives. The baby time does blow over and five to ten years down the road, it seems like a distant past. Yet the choices we take at that critical time and the reactions of the work environment around us can lead us to very different career outcomes.

What should we be mindful of when we reach this point in our careers?

The environment: the motherhood ‘penalty’ & the fatherhood ‘bonus

Talking to younger women who are in the pre-baby period, I detect the dread and the fear of what is to come. As if the end of life as we know it, of our career as we know it, is imminent.

While in a few specific fields this may still be the case (and while unfortunately there are still too many women dying in childbirth today), I would like to reassure young women – the days when you really had to choose between either a career or a family are over. Working mothers are part of the workforce and they are needed there.

That does not mean it will be smooth sailing.

Any woman who has gone through this period anywhere in the world knows this… from the pain of leaving your infant at home or in the care of strangers on that first day of work, the pain of overfull breasts and the occasional leakage of breastmilk, the awkwardness of pumping breastmilk in inappropriate places, the quickly diminishing supply of milk, to the sleepless nights, it is a hard period.

While all of this is going on, you may go back into a position where you have been demoted or where that employee you hired is now your boss. You may need to compete with men who are working twice the hours than you can manage to invest in between feedings, doctor’s visits and daycare pickups.

Sometimes, there is no longer a job to return to. Whereas fatherhood is appreciated by employers (it makes men seem more serious), motherhood is not so welcome. Working mothers need intricate systems at home and allies on the job, to make it all work.

Ourselves: cutting back or pushing forward …or something else?

The first priority in the first 1000 days of your child’s life is obviously your child.

It is important that your child gets the nutrition (including breastmilk for as long as possible, but at least the first six months), the care and love that it needs and obviously as a mother your importance should not be underestimated.

That said, we do not always have a choice. Sometimes the household income depends on us as breadwinners or sometimes the additional income pays the rent or the food and clothes. Whatever the case, staying at home or working part-time may not be an option at all. So we exercise the rights we have in the workplace, we use our support system and we get back to work.

Interestingly enough, we often get back into the workplace as better project managers through an experiential crash course in motherhood – which makes you a teacher, doctor, project manager, peace builder and so much more all at once.

So now we work and we mother – and that is where we draw the line. Having two balls up in the air is overwhelming enough, so why add more?

In fact, it might be easier to keep those two balls up in the air by adding a third. This seems counterintuitive, but to get things done in life we need people – whether at home, at work or elsewhere. To get from first-line management to the C-suite, we also need people – people who know us, trust us and can vouch for us. So when we cut off the professional networking and the social activities, we think we are focusing on what matters most – work and family – but in fact, we are undermining those very areas.

To be truly successful in running our families and our workplaces we need people and for people to come to us, they first need to know us.

Marshall Goldsmith once wrote a book entitled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful”. While hard work and focus generally do help you make that first step up the career ladder, for the next steps you need more – you need a network. Staying at home, won’t get you one. This does not mean you should be a night owl and neglect your children – not at all. There are times, places and ways of socializing. Get more intentional in your planning and activate the home front too.

Away from the individual and to the common experience: an alternative solution?

Back to Sheryl and her suggestion: is “leaning in” the only way to go?

We now know that women’s individual behaviors are not that different from men’s behaviors, but that how they are perceived in the workplace is very different.

Leaning in is not enough in and of itself, because it does not fix unconscious gender bias for starters. The very real obstacles that still make today’s workplace work better for men than for women are not going to magically disappear either.

Yet there is one way I have found that we can overcome many of these individual issues: by women collaborating with one another and understanding that the challenges we face are not necessarily of our own doing or fault, they are the same obstacles we all face.

So when women empower each other, we can go very far. Together, we can act against the obstacles we face on a daily basis.

The answer then, is not to lean in or out, but rather to reach out… to reach out to one another!

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: and +250783719431

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