Research Paper By Cassidy Nasello
(Work-Life Integration Coach, GERMANY)
It’s not surprising that the arc of a woman’s career takes on a different trajectory after she has had her first child. What starts as a linear career path for professional women turns into a bumpy and unpredictable rollercoaster once she has had children. There have been numerous articles, books, and studies on the struggles of working mothers. While the awareness they bring to the forefront is helpful, every woman still faces the challenges of navigating her life after children–especially when it comes to working for a boss or answering to clients.
Cultural expectations, industry standards, childcare costs, and school structures are just a few things that continue to work against women going back to work in any emotionally and logistically smooth way. Of course, there are plenty of happy working moms, but the road to a fulfilling career as a mother is fraught with sacrifices and requires emotional, financial, and logistical support. In other words, it takes an army, or the money to hire an army of therapists and/or coaches included.
There are of course many happy women who choose not to return to work. However, this paper focuses on a very difficult journey for professional mothers who choose to do so. It specifically addresses the emotional shifts and external pressures that force them to reassess their goals, priorities, and expectations in a new role as career-oriented mothers. While this paper focuses on professional working mothers in managerial positions, it is critical to acknowledge the scarcity of choices often available to lower-paid working mothers, with correspondingly complex and difficult emotional pressures.
Stages of challenges working mom’s face
The challenges of working moms in the United States vary in difficulty and manageability based on children’s ages, career stages, degree of flexibility of the work environment, and income level. This paper will focus on the stages of motherhood throughout a typical professional career.
The dance of working motherhood steps off with prenatal healthcare. Leaving work for an hour and a half to get a five-minute sonogram can be quite stressful for mothers-to-be. Because it is entirely personal it can feel like playing hooky, in contrast to ‘legitimate’ work-related entertainment, like spending an afternoon’s golf outing with a client. Although she may still be on paid time, the mother-to-be often feels the need to make up the time at the end of the day.
Of course, as the pregnancy progresses, even in the absence of any complications, medical visits become more frequent. Women often feel the need to “pay it forward” by working extra hours before going on maternity leave and may even find themselves on their phone or attending to emails and to-do lists for both colleagues and clients from the delivery room.
In the United States, there is no federal policy for paid family leave. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have paid family leave laws: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables some employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave but only 60% of workers are eligible. Only 17 percent of workers currently have paid family leave through their employers, and only 39 percent have short-term disability coverage. Many professional women know they are lucky to get paid leave and therefore feel a sense of gratitude or even guilt. It rarely feels like an earned right in the United States as it might in other countries, such as Norway.
It is natural to expect working women to view maternity leave as the time to bond with their child and adjust to the newness of parenting, but it may not be long before laptops are opened and dialogues with bosses and colleagues resume. While people are pinch-hitting for women on leave, they still know things that no one else does, so work-related questions may begin to creep in, perhaps with a small apology attached, but clearly with an expectation that they will be answered. And while there is some small reward connected to feeling indispensable, women inevitably will want to retain their sense of work importance — and job security — by remaining responsive and feeling responsible.
No woman wants to let go of the feeling that she is essential to the organization, yet she also knows she is truly essential to her newborn. Women may vary in the degree of resentment they feel about being pulled away from their newborns and from their focus at work — especially depending on the boundaries that may or may not exist beyond working hours, but for all new mothers, this becomes the first taste of being pulled ‘between baby and boss.’ The same woman that was emailing from the delivery room may also start to feel anxious about the last few weeks of maternity leave evaporating. Her anxiety may mount as she tries to plan, both emotionally and logistically, for a new blend of domestic and work responsibilities.
Back at work
The Fifth Trimester, a best seller by Lauren Smith Brody, describes this stage as “when the working mom is born.“ Most highly educated professional women to return to work. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 4 out of 5 (81.9%) women with a graduate or professional degree who gave birth in the last 12 months we’re back in the labor force: 71.2% were working, 9.2% were on leave, and 1.5% were unemployed. And for many working women with a lower income, childcare costs can quickly outweigh income. Hiring a nanny comes at a steep price, averaging $43,992 a year in New York City. Daycare is less expensive but less flexible, and free childcare from family, such as grandparents, is uncommon and more of a backup plan for most families than consistent coverage. From a purely financial perspective, paid childcare is for many women a luxury that they may or may not be able to afford.
Once logistics are in place, women may experience a sense of excitement about being able to talk to adults again, but that is accompanied by a new set of obstacles, both physical and emotional. If the mother is nursing, where to pump milk is the first hurdle. Employers are “required to provide a reasonable amount of break time and a space to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother.”  Employers’ interpretation of those rules may vary widely, and the space made available is often make-do, with little privacy and the concerns about embarrassment. Pumping anxiety restricts milk flow, as the happy hormone of oxytocin is needed to release letdown. Doors that don’t lock or requests to use the space, unpleasant or cramped conditions, and time pressures are all real issues for pumping mothers. A study titled Impact of a Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace on an Employed Mother’s Intention to Continue Breastfeeding After Returning to Work made clear that mothers often abandoned nursing after returning to work. The study reported that among the 88.8% of 635 new mothers who initiated breastfeeding at the beginning of maternity leave, only 356 subjects [49.8%] continued to breastfeed for at least 1 month after returning to work, while almost 39% (635 – 356=279) discontinued breastfeeding within 1 month of returning to work.
One can easily imagine that as the workday winds down, a new mom might be hoping her boss leaves early so she can rush home to relieve the nanny. Often there is a quick turnaround to catch up on the baby’s daily details, then attending to her child’s needs, while in the back of her mind she feels compelled to finish up her day’s work and perhaps get a jump on the next to make up for the time she knows she will not have. There may be little time for personal winding down, or for engaging with her partner in a worry-free way.
Even with loving childcare in place, the emotional pressures of handing a child over to someone else can take its toll. Many working mothers experience “mommy guilt” when they feel like they are choosing work over kids. In this country, assigning major importance to parents for working mothers and fathers is scarcely the national norm. At a community level, full-time working moms may be viewed with suspicion. The emotional rollercoaster of motherhood, accompanied by its predictable hormonal shifts and then exacerbated by work pressures and conflicts often causes women to rethink their choice.
A new reality
Many moms of course settle back into work, just as other moms settle into a new chapter as a stay-at-home mom. Both sides come with their feelings of conflict, mourning, happiness, relief, guilt, regret, and confusion. Balance has been lost for many and sacrifice comes for most. As women do, they carry on in the name of financial need or professional fulfillment. All hope for an easier road ahead. Some challenges are expected and some come as a surprise.
One woman who had been back at work for many years made a famously hard choice to leave her successful position when her son was a teenager. The cover of the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic showed a photo of a toddler standing in an expensive leather satchel as the accompaniment to Ann Marie Slaughter’s provocative article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter described the challenges of a demanding job in the State Department in Washington D.C. Even with a supportive husband she was “finding it hard to be away from my son when he clearly needed me.” Slaughter, a Baby Boomer, also described feeling torn by her loyalty to the ideals she held for working women of subsequent generation groupings. She states, “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation.”
The good news is that with each generation, positive shifts have happened. Younger Millennials and Gen Z’ers have more flexible expectations and seek careers that fit their lifestyles rather than the reverse. More of them expect and demand elasticity — paid leave for a new baby, more generous vacation time, the ability to work remotely, flexible hours, or time for exercise or meditation. Still, these changes occur gradually and require businesses to adapt and cultural expectations to bend. Meanwhile, older generations higher up the corporate ladder still rely heavily on round-the-clock help. In a new book, Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home, the journalist Megan Stack examines this dynamic from the inside, telling the story of her own use of domestic workers and childcare personnel while she wrote a novel. So the struggle is still real and women will still have to make hard decisions until the cultural standards for working mothers have shifted into a more humanistic position. Until that happens, women will continue to fight to stay in their careers — or decide that it’s not worth it.
Things are also slow to evolve on the domestic front. Women’s invisible work at home is still like a second, yet unpaid, shift. The responsibility for buying kids’ clothes, managing meals, navigating sometimes delicate relationships with the people caring for her children, and finding time for her partner — all that is required of a functioning family — still falls heavily on her. Some can be delegated, some may be self-imposed, but she is confronted with the deeply ingrained expectations of generations.
As children get older, their demands shift yet again and bring on a new layer of emotional and logistical needs. Limited school hours present a new after school care challenge. Unlike daycare or nanny hours, moms of school-age kids need to stitch together a patchwork plan to ensure there is coverage for working hours. The emotional needs of the children also now include heavy homework loads, school functions, after school and weekend sports and activities, and the sometimes chaotic process of just growing up. Later childhood is filled with pivotal moments, and mothers may have to choose between their profession — with the risk of repercussions — and spending those moments with their children.
Motherhood contains stages directly correlated to her children’s’ age that require different skills to master. The presence of a career makes that mastery that much more difficult. Work demands similarly are not static, particularly for someone who aspires to advancement. The conflicts may be substantial and may at various times raise a host of questions: is the cost too high, would a life without a career — if economically viable — be satisfying enough, are there alternatives such as part-time employment or a new career altogether? Apart from those ‘objective’ issues, questions about herself are also likely to arise: has she chosen wisely, has she lived up to her inner standards? Such conflicts can be demoralizing when mothers feel trapped by a lack of choices, especially when they may be unclear about what seemingly incompatible demands are competing for their time and attention. It is exactly in this arena that coaching has a great deal to offer. Below are various scenarios that are played out through the lens of a coaching partnership.
Coaching application for professional mothers back at work
The coaching of working mothers often focuses on setting boundaries and clarifying realistic goals. Ideally, she can shift from operating from a victim mentality to one of empowerment and optimism. Helpful questions could be:
- What’s a way you can establish and honor a new schedule with your colleagues and boss? What new boundaries might need to be in place?
- Where can you find flexibility and where are there limitations?
- Where can you gain additional support?
- What can you put in place for self-care?
- What are other approaches you can take to your work that offer you balance and flexibility?
Coaching application for professional mothers reconsidering their job and career choice
For women who are questioning continuing in their same job or career, assessment of one’s financial needs, family needs, and inter-family support can be critical. Helpful questions to present this mother could be:
- What core values do you want to consider in this decision?
- How has your career supported or hindered your values?
- What do you need to resolve before starting this new chapter?
What does your ideal day look like? (Kids, work, location, etc.)
- If that includes working, what needs to be put in place to make that possible?
- What kind of time do you have to make this shift? (Financially, etc.)
- What resources do you need to see this through?
Coaching application for professional mothers working from home during COVID-19
Working remotely from home because of COVID-19 has added another layer of complicating factors. Decreased commute time has allowed for more hands-on parenting. However, in many states, kids are also home, learning remotely, and need parental attention. The separation of work and life has become further tangled, and the younger and less independent the child, the more mom is likely to become a sub rosa teacher’s assistant. A helpful and involved partner in the house can help in the tag-teaming game of work and homeschooling, but that requires strong communication and a clear set of priorities. Helping mothers troubleshoot these trying times through exploratory questions might help them find unexpected systems or resources to support their needs. Helpful questions to present this mother could be:
- What are you doing to enlist support?
- What are your expectations of yourself, your family?
- What assumptions are you making based on your expectations / unfulfilled needs?
- What is a way to set boundaries with your employer/children/partner?
- What is (not asking) costing you? What can it gain you and your family?
Coaching application for professional mothers who opt to stay home
Professional mothers who don’t go back to work by choice aren’t free from negative thoughts. They may miss the camaraderie of colleagues, feel a loss of the identity that preceded having children, fear a derailment of any future career hopes, harbor resentment towards their partner who gets to leave the house every day, long for financial independence or the ability to contribute to the family’s financial status, and may feel anxious about whether or not it was the right thing to do. In other words, no professional mother, whether she returned to work or not is free of complicated feelings. Helpful questions to present this mother could be:
- What do you miss from your career? Where else might you find that fulfillment?
- What might you need to resolve to let go of your past (identity) as a working professional?
- What have you gained from staying at home?
- Where do you currently feel valued?
- What can you do to change where you feel undervalued?
- What are some other options for your future that are less binary?
General coaching model
Regardless of maternal stage, professional status, or specific challenge, the FELT Framework has enormous applicability. In this coaching process, clients are asked to first get clear on the core values that they want their life to support. This may range from quality family time to professional success. Clarifying those values can permit better targeting of choices. For example, more flexible working hours might support the goal of more family time while also supporting the value of ambition. This might shape a mother’s search for companies that are progressive and forward-thinking. Clients are also asked to paint a picture of an ideal day, both professional and personal, which can help empower them to imagine a new work life. While this might feel idealized at first, it can spark ideas for new possibilities.
With 1) core values in place and 2) a picture of an ideal lifestyle, the FELT Framework can best serve professional women through its acronym:
Fresh Eyes come with a commitment to change. Envision your career as something that can serve you and your values.
Examine and Explore what thoughts, relationships, and actions are working for you and which ones hinder you. Consider what else could be possible as you create your new reality as a professional.
Let Go of obstacles and limiting beliefs that can derail and discourage you and that have limited your definition of yourself as a working mother.
Transform: Using resourcefulness, determination, action, and the support of others to help you turn your vision into reality.
There is much to be done to bring about the sort of cultural shifts that would reduce the conflicts felt by working mothers. Meanwhile, it is the task of Life Coaching to help them overcome these difficult issues, by enhancing their awareness of the choices that they are making, and by encouraging their exploration of new possibilities. The coaching environment can provide a non-judgmental setting in which women can feel prepared, supported, and empowered. The FELT paradigm is particularly well-suited to this task.
I’ve lived this story and could not have written it otherwise. I know there are always exceptions such as progressive companies that are empowering their working mothers to define their working hours.
Yet, I see no surprise in the faces of my fellow mothers when I tell them how I have expressed milk in electric closets (with no door lock and freezing temperatures). How I’ve fought tooth and nail for just a few weeks of paid maternity leave at organizations that sell products to women. That I’ve experienced the painful moments of handing my baby over to a near stranger, only to go to a job where I didn’t feel appreciated beyond my last client win.
I always thought my climb was a vertical one to the top. It took being at the top in a leadership position that was ultimately dissolved to jolt me out of my fixed expectations of what a successful career was supposed to look like. The work I’ve done to re-envision and recreate my own future as an ambitious professional can serve my clients as they navigate the murky and rough waters as career-passionate, family-focused women.
Dubin, Alesandra, “Why Working Moms Struggle the Most When Kids Start School,” Today.com, October 9, 2019
Smith Brody, Lauren, TheFifthTrimester.com
Kenny, Anne. Natalie Tulsiani, “How Invisible Work & Sacrifices Affect Working Moms,” Medium, September 25, 2018
Knop, Brian, Among Recent Moms, More Educated Most Likely to Work, Census.gov, August 19, 2019
Fannin, Kris, “Work-Life Integration: Meaning and Significance,” Intelivate.com
Elizabeth, Anna, “How Domestic Workers Enable Well-Off Women to Prosper,” The Atlantic, April 2, 2019
Glover, Emily, “What Moms Should Know about the Fifth Trimester,” February 21, 2018
Miller, Claire Cain. Sanam Yar, “Young People Are Going to Save Us All from the Office,” New York Times, September 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/generation-z-millennials-work-life-balance.html
Slaughter, Anne-Marie, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” The Atlantic, July/August 2012
Tsai, Su-Ying, “Impact of a Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace on an Employed Mother’s Intention to Continue Breastfeeding After Returning to Work,” Breastfeeding Medicine, April 2013
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Department of Labor https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/nursing-mothers/faq
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Benefits Survey, Table 32. Leave benefits: Access, Civilian Workers, March 2018,” available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2018/ownership/civilian/table32a.htm (last accessed July 2019); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Benefits Survey, Table 16. Insurance benefits: Access, participation, and take-up rates, civilian workers, March 2018,” available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2018/ownership/civilian/table16a.htm (last accessed July 2019)
Maternity leave: US Policy is Worst on List of the World’s Richest Countries, The Guardian 2010
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Benefits Survey, Table 32. Leave benefits: Access, civilian workers, March 2018,” available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2018/ownership/civilian/table32a.htm (last accessed July 2019); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Benefits Survey, Table 16. Insurance benefits: Access, participation, and take-up rates, civilian workers, March 2018,” available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2018/ownership/civilian/table16a.htm (last accessed July 2019)
 Impact of a Breastfeeding-Friendly Workplace on an Employed Mother’s Intention to Continue Breastfeeding After Returning to Work, Breastfeeding Medicine, April 2013
 Young People Are Going to Save Us All from the Office, New York Times, September 17, 2019
 How Domestic Workers Enable Well-Off Women to Prosper, The Atlantic, April 2, 2019