Work-Life Balance Profile #17: Adunola*
*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes
Work : Life Balance Ratio
Married with two pre-school aged children, Adunola runs her own business as a sole trader of bedroom furniture, whilst concurrently developing a new textiles business. Her work is almost exclusively conducted on her phone via trader platforms and social media, and she manages her calls, texts and emails around caring for, and entertaining, her children.
Other than a few hours of childcare provision, Adunola’s children are exclusively in her care every day of the week. Meanwhile, her husband, the main breadwinner in their family, works full-time mostly from home as an IT sales manager, and contributes to some childcare duties in the margins of his work.
An average day for Adunola begins with her baby’s early wake-up calls and, while her husband sorts out the children’s breakfast, she steals a quick hour on screens doing business. With no interest in styling her hair or applying make-up, from thereon Adunola launches into her day. Driven, self-motivated and energetic, she claims: “The moment I’m out of bed, I’m ready for the day: to go for it!”.
With both kids in tow, she drops her son off at nursery before taking her daughter out for an activity and then home for lunch.
The rest of the day is dictated by the children’s routines and, amidst it all, Adunola continues trading on her phone. “I’m always online”, she says, pointing to her adeptness at multitasking effectively. During a babies’ soft-play session, for example, she’ll be working on her phone while her daughter interacts with other children; or on the odd occasion that she leaves her daughter at crèche for a couple of hours, Adunola will sit parked in her car outside: working. As such, Adunola’s work and childcare blend seamlessly together.
Adunola is adamant about maintaining her career. She loves her work and is driven by a staunchly proud and devoted work ethic: “Work is my hobby; it’s a passion of mine. I don’t know how else I would spend my time if I wasn’t working”. Yet, more than that, earning her own income provides Adunola with a financial independence over which she is as fiercely possessive as she is of her children. Her mantra stems from a lesson drummed into her by her father from a young age: never to be financially dependent on a man. “Not working has never been an option. I can’t not work. I’ve never not worked”.
It’s all about the money
Adunola owns a Gucci handbag, which she’s had in her possession for over a year. It has sat in her wardrobe, unused, since she bought it. “I’ll let my daughter have it when she’s older”, she tells me, looking downwards sheepishly, as though she expects some kind of disapproval.
This typifies Adunola’s perspective on spending money. If the purchase is for her children, no price is too high to pay. But when it comes to herself, she has no interest in indulging in material possessions or wasting money on frivolities. As our conversation progressed, a reflection seemed to crystalise for Adunola, who has always been an avid saver: “I actually don’t find it fun to spend money on myself”.
I’m opening here with a reference to money, which those British readers amongst you might find vulgar. Yet, the subject of money prevailed from the very start of my interview with Adunola, and continued throughout, so I can’t think how else to open this Work-Life Balance Profile.
Even in her introduction, Adunola stated the impact that money has on her sense of balance, for example, through the value she places on remaining financially independent of her husband: “I never have to ask my husband for money”, she proclaimed with a hint of pride, followed shortly by the admission that “it bothers my husband that I’m not relying on him”.
This isn’t the first time that money has arisen as a theme in my blog. For example, in Ali’s story, she described how limiting it can be for women to rely financially on their husbands.
Adunola is of the view that her family could survive on her husband’s income alone; but she would never consider not working. “I would feel guilty asking him to do that”, she said. And besides, she enjoys being able to afford “nice” things, particularly for her children, without having to justify her expenses to anyone.
As well as being passionate about her job, the financial independence that comes with earning her own income is invaluable. So, working is both a means in itself, and a means to an end. “I don’t want to feel trapped”, she says. “I love my independence”.
Nothing is more precious to Adunola than her children. Unlike other working mothers I’ve interviewed that are content for their children to be cared for by others, Adunola is adamant that she is almost exclusively the person best-placed to look after her children, and she described how “panicky” she feels leaving them in the care of “an outsider”. She even opted to stay at home while her husband attended a recent family celebration alone so as not to leave the children with a babysitter.
“I worry”, she explained. “No one else can look after the children as well as I can do”.
This is partly, she explained to me, a result of her upbringing. Adunola grew up in Nigeria in the care of her polygamous father and his four wives, none of whom was her biological mother. Materially, she wanted for nothing: maids tended to her needs at home and she attended a fee-paying boarding school.
She acknowledges that her mother’s absence has influenced her approach to motherhood and to developing a strong attachment to her children. She prioritises being with them over almost anything else: “I want every minute with them to count”.
Everyone is replaceable
Whilst she is undeniably indispensable in her role as care-giver at home, Adunola has learned the hard way that in the workplace, there is no such certainty in job security. Everyone is replaceable.
One of the lowest points in Adunola’s life was when she felt obliged to resign from her job because, on returning from maternity leave, the company would no longer accommodate flexing her working hours around her childcare needs.
Adunola had worked for this company for over five years and, following a change of management, she was asked to increase her hours. She took on as many extra hours as she could manage, but still failed to meet her employer’s expectations until she felt she had no choice but to leave.
“The company put their profit before their employees”, she reflects, which was crushing. “I’d given them my all. I loved that job and was so committed. Friends used to tell me I might as well be married to it. But it wasn’t enough”.
To add insult to injury, one of her senior managers suggested that a solution would be for her husband to quit his job to enable her to work longer hours. “Is he going to pay my bills?” she scoffs as she remembers the anger provoked by his audacious comments.
“He clearly did not understand the pressures of balancing part-time working motherhood alongside my husband, whose full-time income my family relies on”.
Much as she is able to reason that the business decision that precipitated her departure was “not personal”, the sense of her employers’ betrayal hurt deeply. She suffered from severe anxiety as a result, and experienced trouble sleeping, all of which put a strain on her marriage.
“I never thought I’d be one of those mums”, she muses. By this she means a woman forced to curtail her career ambitions in order to fulfil her motherhood desires. My blog on Marsha’s story depicts the kind of scenario that Adunola is alluding to. “I used to feel sorry for them”, she says, “but now I know what it feels like to be in that situation. It really was the lowest time for me”.
Now self-employed, Adunola channels her energy into the sales targets she sets for herself, and continues to be driven by a gruelling work ethic. She prides herself on an ability to multitask effectively, and has no qualms about working in the presence of her children:
“It’s really important to me that my children understand that when I’m on my phone, I’m working to earn money in order to provide for them”.
She gave me a recent example of a time that her four-year-old son asked her to put her phone down and play football with him. “I’m working”, she explained, after a short kick-around. She is confident that her children are capable of understanding the importance of her work.
Other working mothers I’ve interviewed, such as Sarah and Jhilmil (who, coincidently endured a similar experience of job loss to Adunola), have expressed a sense of guilt about working around their children’s needs, as though they are meeting neither demands adequately. Adunola, on the contrary, expressly does not feel guilty:
“My son gets what he wants; If I wasn’t earning to spend money on him then I would play football with him. But I’m doing this for him. I don’t feel guilty for that. If I was spending time and money on myself then maybe I would feel guilty”.
Adunola recounted similar complaints from her husband for the attention she gives her phone, particularly during the time they spend together as a family. She told me, for example, that on a recent ‘staycation’ holiday in the UK, she continued spending as much time on her phone as when at home. “I’m working”, she says, “I have to work”.
Whilst it might bother her family, Adunola does not feel the need to switch off from juggling work with her home life. “Selling and buying is how I like to spend my time. It doesn’t bother me not to switch off. I don’t know how to switch off!”, she explains.
Working overrides her pursuit of any other personal interests for pleasure or relaxation: she doesn’t have any hobbies, or partake in sports; nor does she feel that she is missing out by not taking any up. “I suppose the only time I’m not working is when I go for an occasional meal with friends”, she considers.
“It’s fair to say I don’t do anything for myself. Maybe I’ll have a different mind-set about that when the kids are older. But for now, I don’t consider that a sacrifice. I don’t see the benefits of switching off; it would just feel like I’ve missed out on working and have to then catch up. I honestly don’t know the meaning of switching off”.
We shall overcome
Adunola does not equate professional value with educational attainment. After a reasonably successful time at school, Adunola obtained a place to study at university. She says that she studied as hard as she could there, but didn’t feel a sense of belonging and was not a remarkable student.
She stayed in education to “keep [my] father happy”, and kept a part-time job on the side. After meeting her husband, she became convinced that it was not necessary to be a university graduate to be successful. So, with his approval and encouragement, she dropped out of her course:
“People more senior than me were learning on the job. There’s lots to learn from people that haven’t got a degree but have got life skills. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t go to school”.
Her perspective stands in stark contrast to the last time I blogged about this issue, following my interview with a woman called Susan, a single, part-time working mother of two. Susan had left school at sixteen with basic qualifications and was plagued with ‘imposter syndrome’ for most of her adult life, describing an inherent sense of shame and inferiority amongst her university-educated peers.
Adunola conversely disagrees that getting a university degree is the ‘be all and end all’ of having a successful career:
“I have no regrets about not getting a degree”, she asserts. “That’s the way life should be – you work hard, earn your own money and become a better person. Giving your all to your work will take you where you deserve to be”.
Adunola felt satisfied to stop studying and start earning; and she hasn’t looked back. She admires women like Oprah Winfrey that have overcome adversity and risen to the top out of sheer hard work and tenacity. “Nothing stopped her”, Adunola beams, recognising the similarities in her own determined attitude.
Like Oprah, she has faced some racial discrimination over the years, though it hasn’t diminished her spirit. “I don’t have time for people that discriminate against me because of my race”, she states, as she recounted a string of examples including one of a customer that refused to be served by her, and of a stranger that told her to “go back to your country”.
“I don’t let comments like that get under my skin and I didn’t report that. The more time I spend on those things, the more unhappy I feel. It’s easy to dwell on things, but those people don’t have an effect of my life”.
Adunola describes her resilience in terms of prioritising self-preservation, and focussing her strength on pushing forward rather than being held back. She has put this into practice when faced with workplace challenges, which has stood her in good stead. “I’m tough”, she says, though that toughness doesn’t extend to her disciplining her children: “I see myself in my little girl; I can’t tell her off too sternly!”, she laughs.
Much as Adunola is attached and devoted to her children, she believes in the importance of not delaying the pursuit of her career ambitions until they are older: “Children grow up so fast; women have to come first”.
“Do what you have to do”, she urges other working mothers: “It’s important for women to be strong-willed. It’s easy to settle for less”. Adunola acknowledges that when it comes to her biggest life choices, she hasn’t always chosen the easy path. But, she argues, “life wouldn’t be so interesting if I had“.
Adunola feels assured that no harm will come to children whose mothers work around them, as long as they are shown that they are cared for and loved.
“Everything I work for is for my children; they will understand how hard I am working for them and they won’t remember the time I spend busy on my phone”.
Despite the relentlessness of her routine, Adunola possesses a notable peace of mind: “I am happy with the way I’m doing things. I don’t feel guilty at all”, she says. With a self-perceived 50:50 balance, this is the first time a Work-Life Balance Profile subject has claimed to have attained an exact equilibrium (though Sarah described coming pretty close on average).
This seems to only be possible because of Adunola’s contentment for the lines between her roles as “professional” and “mother” to be intrinsically blurred, with little room for anything else in between. It wouldn’t suit everyone, of course. But for Adunola, that’s the perfect balance.