“You’re on this Committee and didn't you just say your youngest son is nine months, AND you’ve got a two-year-old AND you’ve got a new role as a Chief Exec? I think that’s amazing; you must be Superwoman.”
I’ve had this conversation a few times. I take it as a compliment and I am hugely flattered by it. Who doesn’t like to be described as a superhero? Yet at the same time, there is a little lady inside me, wearing her “equality for all” baseball cap, and screaming, “would you think that if I had a penis?”
In August, my second child will turn one. In the same month, I will take up a new role as CEO of the Small Charities Coalition. A few months ago, I wrote a blog about whether becoming a mother had made me unemployable. The feelings that I expressed in that blog were true; I was worried that some people would not recognise the achievements of my CV. However, at the same time, I knew I was also writing it to be provocative. I wanted to get people talking about the reality of what having children means for an ambitious woman in the 21st Century.
My reality is that a year after finishing work to have my second child, I will go back into employment in a role that is both challenging and exciting to me. I have worked hard, and been lucky with timings, but I am not Superwoman. There is of course no such thing as Superwoman – except in comics and movies. It’s questionable whether it’s a useful or helpful as a label in the workplace.
We were all created as equal. But some of us do not find ourselves in circumstances which help us to achieve our aspirations through no fault of our own. Those circumstances can include our environment, gender, educational opportunities, self-esteem, mental health – and many other things. How we react to those circumstances matters. Put downs - or false expectations - due to our gender can be especially unhelpful.
There are other people who have played a vital role in the upbringing of my children. My partner works flexible hours, and has taken three months of shared parental leave over the last year. My four parents are all very generous with their willingness to babysit. My oldest son goes to an amazing nursery for three days each week, and there is a wonderful lady in our lives who does ad hoc childcare as and when we need her to. I see them all as superheroes; they see themselves as doing roles they enjoy. All this has meant I have been able to find the time to volunteer and do some freelance work, while spending most of my year being a breastfeeding Mummy[i], who needs to react to the word “Superwoman”.
Some women don’t like me
I have faced criticism from other women for what I have written publicly. I have been told that, by sharing my accomplishments, I risk normalising the pressure on women to work through their maternity leave and that this makes things worse for everyone.
The last thing I want to do is to put any pressure on any parent, regardless of their gender, to focus on work if they want to focus on their children. Indeed, before I take up my new role, I will be going on holiday with my sons and my partner for four weeks. During this time, I have told my new team at the Small Charities Coalition that I will not be sending, or reading, work-related emails. I want to have some time to focus on my family before I start a job that is likely to be quite intense.
I appreciate work-free child-focused time as much as anyone else. But having children has not reduced my ambition or my enjoyment of work. During parental leave with my first child I learned that I was a more-balanced, happier, and healthier mummy if I had some time to myself to write blogs, network, and continue to work with, and help, some of the charities that I care about.
I therefore now find myself in the position that, at the end of a lovely year with my second child, I will be starting a job that I am really looking forward to…and I want to share my reality with others. I do not want to judge, I do not want to brag, and I do not want to suggest that my lifestyle should be the aspiration of all parents. I am ambitious for others too. I am ambitious for my family – and all the members of it - as well as for the people that I will be working alongside. I therefore think it is important to normalise the fact that women can have children and a career, men can take time off work to look after their children…and neither of those things should make us superheroes.
[i] I mention breastfeeding as it is something I feel very lucky that I have been able to do. I am not suggesting that other mothers have to do the same. It is your choice.