In the first Female in Focus event, theDesk brought together thoughtful and successful women from the community for an open, sincere discussion.
They swapped stories, hopes and fears. They spoke about each other’s experiences and shared life lessons in balancing motherhood with personal and professional goals.
Moderated by Ainslie Young, mumpreneur and certified Life Coach based in Kennedy Town, the beauty of the discussion stemmed from the diversity of participants who came along, with women from Canada, Scotland, Russia, France and Australia.
Even more diverse were the number of countries where our participants had lived; from Moscow to Singapore, Toronto to Korea, Sydney to Paris.
Stages of life
Everyone was at a different stage of life. Some were working full time in challenging professional roles and thinking about starting a family in the future. Others were mums-to-be, expecting their first child and concerned about how they could strike a balance between work and home life when their baby arrives.
Some women had reached one of the hardest parts of the balancing act: they had babies or young children and were either back to work, or preparing to move back into the workforce in a new capacity.
“What works for me won’t work necessarily for you. You need to surround yourself with men and women who will support you. Because everyone goes through the same things.”
Others were past the transition to motherhood. With adult children or no children, they had a wealth of experience and shared lessons learned from running a home, raising a family whilst working.
No matter at what stage of life each person was, everyone had gems of wisdom to share. Or fears they wanted to discuss.
The myth of having it all
Being a ‘superwoman’ or ‘supermum’ often came up during the discussion. Is being a superwoman even possible? Many accepted that it isn’t.
“You can’t wear every hat at once,” said a mum of a six-month-old.
Another mum shared her honest account of having a baby and trying to start a business at home. At the same time managing the household by herself only a short time after birth.
“It was like a smack in the face. Trying to do it all and have it all is not the way to go. There has to be a compromise,” she said, “it came from a place of where I thought I can do everything.”
“I had to first ask for help and secondly be open to it. You know, it’s one thing to ask for help but then you say, I am fine, I am fine.”
“Across all aspects of my life, I really had to accept help, with my business and my personal life. That was a huge turning point for me.”
This resonates with the view of Katya Andersen, a thought leader in discussing issues raised by being a working mum. In a piece called ‘Moving Above and Beyond ‘Doing It All’.
Katya says, “A fellow working mother asked me the dreaded question ‘Can you have it all?’ three days ago. ‘I don’t,’ I was quick to say. My rational self years ago dismissed the trope of ‘doing it all’ as absurd and unachievable, but emotionally I still grapple with the feeling of falling short in the roles I play – professional, mother, wife, sister, friend, grown child of far-flung parents – as if I should be playing them all at the same time, perfectly.”
Another participant in the discussion had changed industries after having children. How had she juggled raising three kids with going back to university to facilitate her change in career? “Way beyond – far from perfectly,” she replied.
“You cannot do everything 100% all the time. When you have kids, you can decide to focus on that and manage your career, perhaps not as well, And then when your kids are older, you can really focus on your career 100%.”
Dealing with challenges and building resilience
The difficulties raised by the women were all too familiar. One expat mum had taken two years maternity leave from her professional life to raise a six-month-old full time. She was very honest about the struggles of early motherhood.
“I am no longer in the working world. I am in the home. I feel shelved. My skills are fading,” she said. “But then again, my priorities are realigning. And I think I am sleep deprived. You just can’t function without sleep.”
“In the first four months, I hit rock bottom and lost all my confidence. Over time I have rebuilt it. You have to be kind to yourself, but you also have to invest in yourself.’”
One mum-to-be worried about how she will cope with her demanding job after a relatively short period of maternity leave, “I am staring at my biggest challenge. Will it even be possible to go back after that time? I will need some form of help when I go back. I get really nervous, I don’t know how I will think about it or if I will cope.”
Other challenges were not as much about motherhood, but more about personal relationships. A common theme in the discussion was dealing with gender stereotypes within a relationship. What does your partner expect? What happens when you disagree about when to have children? When can I focus on work?
Read more: Recent Hong Kong survey shows family and work commitments continue to hold women back
One participant asked the group, “How do you communicate your wants and needs to your partner?” The insightful response came. “Start early, be honest, know your position,” she said.
“You have to know what you will accept and what you won’t accept before you start. Know your partner, care about their happiness, but also demand and expect your own happiness and your right to be valued too.”
Reflecting on her experience of having adult children, one mother said, “First, you can never plan anything. You never know what will happen in the future. It doesn’t always go to plan.”
“Second, no one is responsible for your happiness except yourself. You have every right to be successful, whether professionally or personally. You need a good partner who will always support you in that because someone that really cares for you will want the best for you. You do what you need to do to look after yourself.”
Everyone listened to each other’s stories and offered thoughtful suggestions to help solve or manage each person’s issues. The conversation touched on the importance of gathering the right network of female supporters.
“There are two types of women out there. Women who support you and who are interested in mentoring you. And then there are the women who are very competitive and interested in power play. You need to make sure you surround yourself with the right type of women.”
Read more: New US data suggests workplace equality has hit a roadblock
The process of getting together, connecting and listening to each other was for some, a benefit in and of itself.
“There is a great comfort knowing everyone goes through the same struggles in a different form,” said a mum-to-be, “No one deals with these issues easily.”
“And if they say they do they are probably lying!” replied a mum of a thirteen-month-old.
Share and support
How have you managed your career alongside your family commitments? What advice would you most like to share with mums and mums-to-be in the Sai Wan neighbourhood? Share your comments with community.
theDesk is committed to building inclusive communities in Hong Kong’s diverse neighbourhoods. And we are hosting the next Female in Focus event in December 2017. We’d love to welcome you. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
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