Work-Life Balance Profile #2 – Sheara Abrahams
Why is it that when discussing careers with full-time working mothers, invariably the conversation turns to childcare arrangements and relationship dynamics? Is it just me or are these topics slower to come up in similar conversations with full-time working men?
My impression is that however much progress has been made towards gender equality, women who raise children in partnership with men still tend to carry most of the mental and practical load of childcare.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many women I know (myself included) choose to be their children’s primary care-giver and wouldn’t have it any other way. But what of those women who choose not to – by design or necessity?
What drives some women to break conventional maternal expectations and delegate the care-giving to others? What thought processes lie behind the detachment it takes for a mother to spend more time on her work than with her children? And does having the freedom to focus a majority of time on career development leave women in this situation feeling like they “have it all”?
These are some of the questions that arose when interviewing my blog’s latest guest, Sheara Abrahams, a full-time movie costume designer/supervisor and mother of two.
The Coronavirus lockdown has spun some of these gender conventions off course, particularly in situations where both working parents are now home-based. It will be interesting to see if this prompts a long-term change in the distribution of parental responsibilities. Sheara’s lockdown experience provoked an unexpected reaction, which has shifted her perspective on the work:life balance ratio she has strived to establish over the years. Here’s her story…
Work : Life Ratio
70 : 30
The figure that first came to Sheara’s mind when weighing up her work-life balance ratio was 80:20, but she settled on 70:30. Sufficed to say, she works incredibly long hours, often leaving her house at the crack of dawn and returning well into the night. A costume designer/supervisor in the movie industry, her work is mostly project-based and requires full-time commitment, sometimes working abroad on location for weeks on end. Married with two young children, Sheara is the main breadwinner of her family.
The demands and inflexibility of movie-making schedules means that work often comes first. Nevertheless, Sheara’s home-life and social calendar are busy and colourful; she contributes to the communities and charities close to her heart and makes time for the hobbies that she loves too, finding a creative outlet in them and even earning additional income through artwork she does in her impossibly sparse spare time.
Being furloughed on lockdown has given her a new perspective and, though she can’t put a figure on her ideal work:life balance ratio, she feels that things have got to change and she would love to spend more time at home. Affecting change will require reassessing her priorities and challenging the behaviour she has learned to expect – and accept – from her male-dominated industry. “I need to be stronger to leave work on time”, she says. “I love my job and dedicating so much time to it is no hardship. But for me it’s not about racking up a bookshelf of Oscars by the end of my career; when all is said and done, family is what matters most. I know what is important in life.”
Rebel with a cause
Sheara was working on her first movie when she got engaged to her now-husband. The reaction of a senior colleague – who cautioned that she was “committing career suicide” by settling down and planning a family – has stuck with her. Not one to take kindly to being told she can’t do something, Sheara has since orchestrated her plans to enable the pursuit of both dreams: career and family.
It’s not just her stubborn and headstrong attitude that spurred her on to prove this colleague wrong. The secure foundation of her loving and supportive family, together with her innate ambition and determination to be the best she could be, seem to have equipped her with the confidence it takes to face life’s big decisions with clarity of vision and self-assuredness.
Growing up in a liberal and vibrant family, Sheara developed a rebellious streak from a young age. Her independence was encouraged and she was given her parents’ “permission” to choose her own path. At school she was never shy about challenging convention and was selective in what she worked hard at, channelling her energies into the things that she loved and letting the rest work itself out. The same could be said of her today.
Her mother, who worked full-time throughout Sheara’s childhood, and whom she describes as eccentric, fearless and full of self-belief, surrounded Sheara and her sister with feminist rhetoric and the virtues of women’s liberation. She invested all she could in her daughters’ education so that they could grow up to be financially independent and fulfilled. Her father’s academic and professional accomplishments as a pharmacist also taught Sheara the value of hard work and career commitment. A spirited home, often full of guests from all different walks of life, showed her that there was more to life than just work, and that family and community matters too.
Overall, it seems that the message that permeated was that there is value in seeking personal fulfilment: be free to do what makes you happy because you are worth it and in control – and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because you are a woman! This seems to have built up Sheara’s self-esteem and set her on a course to follow her passions and hold fast to her principles; to give herself permission to pursue her heart’s desire and remain true to herself.
Who run the world?
As a young graduate, Sheara was dedicated to her career and the rebel in her rejected the expectation that marriage would mean changing this to conform to the traditional roles of the sexes. She has always been upfront with her husband about her work values, and describes their partnership now as a “double act”, acknowledging that their family can only function as it does because he has been accepting of her career ambitions and open and able to adapt his career to work around their childcare needs.
That we delved to such an extent into the dynamics of Sheara’s marriage is in itself telling of the disparity of responsibility taken by the sexes over their mutual childcare demands. It also indicates Sheara’s reflex to justify or explain their unconventional family set-up. This results from years of being subjected to the judgements of others, often women, who have been critical or confused by her willingness to delegate the typical maternal duties. At times comments have been hurtful, but mostly it’s the double standards that infuriate Sheara, an ardent advocate for gender equality.
Much as she describes herself as maternal, Sheara says that she is not possessive over her children; it’s enough for her to know that they are taken care of – she does not personally need to be the one providing the care. So, for example, when she was offered an 8-week project in Prague ten months after her second child was born, she took it. Encouraged by her husband to go for it, she says that leaving their baby and toddler at home in his sole care for this period was “not a wrench”.
Sheara’s choices around work and motherhood are undoubtedly influenced by her own childhood experience. She has fond memories of being cared for by relatives while her mother went out to work so it stands to reason that once she had children of her own, she would have no expectation of doing all the child-rearing herself.
Being a stay-at-home-mum, she told me, is not something she has ever entertained, preferring the intellectual challenge and excitement that work offers to the tedium and ordinariness of childcare. That her work pays the family’s bills also plays a part, of course. But Sheara clearly values many more facets of work than just the income. Lockdown has challenged this stance somewhat as she enjoyed being at home and home-schooling her children more than she would have imagined. Nevertheless, she felt a constant sense of guilt that she wasn’t doing, or being, enough while she was off work. I could empathise with that and described experiencing similar feelings in my maiden blog.
Sheara observes her children’s adaptability and love of school as proof that they are not missing out by her absence, though concedes that she feels bad about missing some of the childhood milestone events like first days of school, or causing her family to make sacrifices to accommodate her work schedule. In the long run though, she is hopeful that she will be a positive role model for her children as they get older.
You’d think a woman with such a free and packed life would consider that they “have it all”, but Sheara seemed stumped when I asked her if that was the case. After a moment of reflection, her answer was no, guiltily adding: “it’s probably not good that I always see room for improvement and am never fully happy, even though I feel incredibly grateful and lucky to have all I have”.
It is perhaps indicative of Sheara’s artistic temperament that she is self-critical, never satisfied and always striving for more – not just in her work but every aspect of her life. This is indeed part of her charm and the catalyst for her rich and varied life. She says she likes to be busy and certainly isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
In some ways she is spoilt for choice. Yet being free to say “yes” to some things invariably means saying “no” to others, so the compromises are incessant and guilt and worry often linger for her in the background. Compromises don’t get much bigger than working motherhood, whichever way you cut it. So, whilst Sheara is confident that her working pattern is not to her children’s detriment, she still worries that they will one day resent her for not being as present as other mothers they know. Consequently, she often compensates for her absence by organising extravagancies at home during her time off work. And so her to-do list ever expands.
Sheara has been inspired by the new generation of millennials entering the movie industry, who turn their noses up at the all-or-nothing culture, brazenly content to walk away from a project if it does not suit them. It might take some doing to stir up the rebel inside her to find the strength to emulate their sense of entitlement and reaffirm her priorities in pursuit of a preferable work-life balance. There are no promises that doing so will leave her satisfied and guilt-free. But it might just give her the permission she needs to stop striving a while and recognise a good job well done.
If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. Subscribe or follow this blog, A Fine Balance, to receive further updates.