There has been a lot of talk about burnout recently, from millennials to managing directors, with Jennifer O’Connell’s recent piece in the Irish Times citing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on not really believing in the concept, O’Connell reminding us that Mayer herself had returned to work after two weeks maternity leave. The Irish Times may have made the case that burnout is not necessarily a new thing, but it most definitely is a real thing. And if you are talking about modern stresses, then working mothers must be up there in the most squeezed category.
Clare O’Hagan of the University of Limerick in her book ‘Complex Inequality and Working Mothers’ published in 2015 found that work and motherhood in Ireland basically just didn’t go together. And anyone who has experience of it would have little issue with that claim. It’s the reason that 43 percent of women with kids under three don’t work. Ever wonder why when you go to the playground at the weekend it’s full of dads? That’s why. When you pick up your kids from school, it’s basically all women at the gate.
But what is frustrating is that we still hold up those rare instances of working mothers who reach top levels, such as Mayer, as being some kind of taliswomen for success. What about quantifying it differently? I am not convinced that somehow because a tiny percentage make it through the needle of an eye, that we all should bow down at their shrine. Don’t get me wrong, I do subscribe to the philosophy, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. I am in favour of gender quotas and female leaders in all walks of life, it is just that mostly when it’s shown to you as an example of what can be achieved, it is someone who may be so far removed from your own situation it just isn’t a plausible option. Someone with that extra support, and a better wage.
For mothers who feel like that is out of reach, what I think happens is that being shown these high-powered examples actually makes you feel worse. It is too rarified. For every über achiever, I give you eight more women who are just keeping everything together with sticky tape and Krazy Glue. These are the women whose triumphs may not make the news, or be the stuff of a compelling biography, they are the grafting silent majority, who to me regularly achieve great feats of everyday heroism. There should be an award to any parent or parents who have managed to keep everyone well body and soul on an average industrial wage.
For every super mum they hold up, I give you eight women who are just keeping everything together with sticky tape and Krazy Glue.
The reason it has struck me so is that even on my own course, I realised that the pre-programming to take every career opportunity I could, as well as having children alongside it, didn’t necessarily always serve me well. I was a different person after my second child; I was a different employee. I needed someone to take me aside and have a word, to catch me and say, “You can’t just keep ploughing on as if everything is the same. That promotion? Maybe not the right time, and that’s okay. There will be other opportunities.”
It is a tough thing to do. Our value as women is rarely recognised for the work we do inside the home, often least of all by the people who are inside it with you. We all now worship at the alter of career highs, and they are to be commended and celebrated. But there also things we need to value more highly, like sanity, and reality, the reality that somebody has to mind the small people in your life, not just whatever daycare you can manage but someone has to have the headspace, just the mental and emotional capacity to manage a bunch, of lets face it, highly volatile individuals and their welfare.
So the Marissa Mayer’s can keep their two weeks maternity leave and their inspirational speeches, I’ll take a year’s maternity leave please and a nine-to-five day with no emails at night. I’ll take a minimal amount of after-school activities, and swap them for everyone maybe just taking some time out and eating cereal in their jammies and watching Saturday morning TV. I will raise a glass to those women just getting it done, those women who work a 40-hour week, and then get up at the weekend and do the hovering, the laundry, clean the toilet bowl, check in on everyone’s state of mind, and try and be a bit of craic in the middle of it all. You are superstars, the world just needs to know it more.