Work-Life Balance Profile #3 – Marsha*
This Work-Life Balance Profile tells the story of a high-flying City professional turned stay-at-home-mum, Marsha, who found working part-time after having children to be the “worst of both worlds”. After a devastating redundancy, she did not return to the workforce and has devoted the past decade to her family’s care.
Does full-time motherhood facilitate a guilt-free existence? Is it enough to keep a woman once totally dedicated to her job fulfilled? How common is it for the workforce to lose talented women in similar circumstances, and once you step off the career treadmill, what does it take to get back on again? Such subjects, and more, arose during my interview with Marsha.
Marsha, I should disclose, is not the real name of this story’s protagonist. At her request, her true identity has been kept confidential and some small details have been changed. The rest, however, is a true account, and one that I imagine will resonate with many.
Marsha’s reaction to reading the draft write-up of her interview was notable in of itself. Reading the anonymised version had a totally different effect on her to reading it in her real name. Perhaps that speaks to one’s natural inclination to empathise and feel more kindly towards others than towards oneself. And also to how viewing a situation with some detachment can provide a sense of clarity that is so hard to find when you, as the protagonist, are emotionally caught up in the midst of your own story.
Work : Life Ratio
0 : 100
*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes
Marsha said it was easy to put a figure on her work-life balance ratio. A former investment banker, she was dealt a brutal redundancy shortly after her second maternity leave and has since not returned to paid work. So a ratio of 0:100, she says, was a no-brainer.
Such a ratio may imply that no work is all play. But with three children and a busy home to run, “life” is pretty hard work. Nevertheless, being at home full-time has been meaningful and purposeful, and where she has wanted to be.
Both a creative and business-minded person, Marsha has considered alternative “family friendly” careers since leaving her City job, dabbling in converting her artistic skills to kitchen-table business ventures. As yet, none of these projects has borne fruit, partly because she hasn’t invested the time they’ve needed, pausing them to prioritise her family’s needs.
She is married to a free-lance IT professional, whose income is dependent on his workload. Coronavirus has put a strain on the family’s finances and, now that her children are older, the pressure is on for her to contribute financially. Doing so would involve stepping out of her comfort zone and shaking off an inertia and fear of failure that has anchored her for years as an accidental “stay-at-home-mum”.
“I never decided to become a stay-at-home-mum; I just decided not to go back out there looking for work”, she says. And though her life is incredibly full, she says she no longer finds it fulfilling. “I’d hate for this to be it; I hope there’s another chapter for my career. I have to make that happen”.
It’s got to be perfect
From the way that Marsha describes herself as a school girl, I can imagine an immaculately dressed child, with neat hair and a straight back, sitting at her desk, pencil in hand. Of her schooling, she says that no expense was spared: she was sent to the best schools, supplemented by home tutoring and musical instruction. Her father was a diligent professional who worked long hours to provide for the family, while her mother was at home full-time. A traditional and supportive unit, Marsha’s parents had exceptionally high standards and expectations for their children to succeed.
As an adult, Marsha now perceives that the standards expected of her were so high that she wasn’t ever really entrusted with anything, even though she was the eldest of three siblings. She wasn’t consciously aware of it as a child, but on reflection she recognises that there was little confidence in her.
Amid these privileged conditions and high expectations, for as far back as she can remember, Marsha has harboured a deep-rooted fear of failure. Even as a child, she would refuse point blank to undertake challenges that risked resulting in failure, for example, not completing homework she found difficult rather than attempting it and getting it wrong.
Nevertheless, she accomplished a great deal through her studies and, as a graduate, threw herself into her career, taking up the exciting opportunity to live and work in Geneva for a few years, where her career really started to take shape. Her social life was integrated into her work and she was 100% committed, loving the purpose of “getting the job done” and power-dressing every day.
Love for her job only began to dwindle after she had children and returned to work on a part-time basis. In a male-dominated industry, part-time working patterns were far from the norm. Marsha found that after having children, people at work perceived her differently and it didn’t take long for her to notice that she was being kept off some of the more interesting and career-advancing projects.
Colleagues continually talked to her about her children, which implied to her that they had stopped taking her seriously as a professional. When a senior male colleague prophesised that “women just don’t come back to work in the City after having children”, Marsha was not insulted. She knew he was not being intentionally cruel; it was a fact that part-time working mothers at that time did not last long in the City.
But neither was she goaded on to become an exception to the rule. That would take a fight and, after years of having her energy and confidence eroded, Marsha was not up for that. So, when the bank seemingly engineered her redundancy shortly after her second maternity leave, she walked away and didn’t look back.
Home is where the heart is
The discrimination that Marsha experienced at work cut deep and even now she feels emotional talking about the betrayal and injustice she endured from trusted colleagues, who she feels turned their back on her and manoeuvred her exit from the workplace. Much as it hurt to be cut off from the career she had previously been so dedicated to, it actually suited her to be at home full-time as she loathed being separated from her children.
Marsha had found part-time working to be the worst of both worlds. She’d struggled miserably to maintain her own high standards in either place, and constantly felt like she was playing catch-up. And, as a rule, if she can’t do a job perfectly, she’d rather not do it at all. Something had to give.
During our interview, Marsha struggled to find the words to describe the overwhelming sense of protection and possessiveness she felt over her children when they were babies. Aware that the dread she felt when others held them was illogical, she couldn’t help feeling distracted and anxious until they were back in her arms. Even when she knew that no harm would come to them, she could not relax. There was no rhyme or reason for this behaviour. It felt primal.
Marsha concedes that she is a controlling person and that goes some way to explaining her attitude towards wanting to be the exclusive carer of her babies. Brought up by a mother who did not work or have career aspirations, the idea of doing the same was not entirely alien to Marsha and it certainly never occurred to her to hire a nanny to take care of her children while she returned to work. That would have provoked disapproval by the other women in her family, not that Marsha was concerned with pleasing others.
She wanted to be there for her children and staying at home with them gave her back the sense of control that was lacking in her part-time working arrangement. She is incredibly grateful to have had the means to allow her the “luxury” of being able to make this choice. That’s not to say that it was easy, by any means. But home was where she wanted to be.
The conflicting tides of passivity and control
When I asked Marsha how long it has been since she worked, she had to think hard and do the mental arithmetic. She was taken aback somewhat when she realised that a full decade has passed. For someone that likes to be in control, it seemed remarkably laid back that she would not have been monitoring the passage of time more closely.
At this point in our conversation she paused. Exhaled. And said, more to herself than to me, “I’ve lapsed having control of my destiny”. This is not news to her; she has long mulled over the rut she finds herself in, feeling as though she is letting time pass but doesn’t know what she is waiting for. Such passive behaviour sits in conflict with the controlling nature of her personality, and it is something she harshly criticises herself for.
Within this conflict, her self-esteem ebbs and flows too, with the threat of failure lingering at every turn. On the one hand she still visualises herself as a high-achieving City worker and she’d consider returning to work and being anything less to be a failure; and on the other hand, self-doubt plagues her and the risk of trying something new and failing is terrifying. It’s almost easier to just keep her head in the sand.
She is content to be at home and care for her family, and enjoys throwing herself into home projects and voluntary work. But she has noticed lately that she has stopped using her brain and is not as fulfilled by it as she used to be. She has no regrets that she devoted her time to looking after her young family all these years, but the need is less pressing now that the children are older and they too are keen for her to find a vocation, at times coming up with ideas of what she could do. She says she never really understood what her mum did all day when she was a child and is conscious of the example she is setting for her children.
Marsha feels guilty about the financial pressure her husband is under. When they met, they were both high-earning individuals so being the sole breadwinner “wasn’t what he signed up for”.
In fact, she says she feels guilty a lot of the time. She berates herself for not being more organised with her time, and for lacking the confidence to pursue her ambitions to start up her own business. And she feels guilty when she indulges in any recreational pursuits that don’t directly contribute to the family’s well-being.
The only pastimes she allows herself to indulge in are cooking and exercise, and even those, she calculates, are good for the family in the long-run. She muses that if she was bringing in an income, perhaps then she would feel entitled to reward herself with doing things for her sake alone, whether that be pampering herself or carving out time to pursue a hobby – things that at the moment she feels she doesn’t “deserve”.
Returning to work is harder to visualise with every year that passes. But Marsha is adamant that she doesn’t want to look back at her life and wonder “what if…?”. Stepping out of her comfort zone is going to be far from easy. Yet in reality, that comfort zone is less comfortable than it once was.
Marsha’s eyes lit up when she started talking about her ideas for building her own business and the promise of earning an income and taking some of the burden off her husband. The courage it will take to face her fears of failure and take back control of her destiny are significant, though not insurmountable. But no one can do this for her. It is something she knows that she must confront and conquer alone.