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Blog: What is a Working Mum?

5-min read:  Facing difficulty getting back into the working world?

After a recent appearance as part of panel tackling women's careers with The Women Xchange in Dubai, our Training Lead Archana Bhatia put pen to paper to debunk and re-frame many of the issues and myths surrounding women who've taken career breaks.  Here she runs through how her own experience has shaped her views and approaches, and what you can do to push forward.

"I read (and re read) “Unfinished Business” by Anne Marie Slaughter and it moved me in a profound way.  Of the many wise suggestions and insights offered, the part that resonated deeply is where she writes that we often underestimate the power our children can have over us.  I was determined to re-join work within 3 to 4 months of having my daughter and I have no clue how this stretched to 14 months. I was fortunate to return to work as an HR Consultant in a “psychologically safe” environment where my worth was measured by my output/ ideas and not my “facetime”. But I eventually had to leave the safe cocoon of the office to meet clients. That first day I clearly remember asking my-self if the period of motherhood had lobotomized my brains! I couldn’t follow large chunks of the conversation – the discussions were peppered with jargon that I didn’t totally comprehend. I went back home sad, disheartened and feeling ignorant. I eventually overcame it with support from colleagues, pushing my boundaries, expanding my knowledge and sometimes by simply asking, “what does that mean?”

In hindsight I realize that mine was a relatively “soft landing” – partly due to the organization that I (re) joined and my own scaled back ambitions. But not all women need to or want to do that and may nurture ambitions for senior positions and attractive remuneration. Wherever we are on this continuum of ambition, getting back to work can easily become an all-consuming hairy audacious goal for many reasons.   

1.     Policies and regulation: Maternity leave and agile working policies in most countries (Europe being an exception) is so abysmal that it imposes a “forced choice” on women – work or child but not both. This forced choice does not work in anyone’s favour– women crave for what they don’t have, the organization doesn’t have a fully engaged employee and even the child may not see the best version of their mother.  


2.     Myths: Negative stereotypes abound with regards to career breaks. Women fall off the “fast track” on the faulty assumption that when they return to work, they will be distracted or out of touch and assigning them to less challenging roles minimizes the risk to the organization. This is known as “second generation gender bias” and it stymies efforts at breaking the glass ceiling


3.     Self-image: My coachees confide their fears of being judged as being less committed and being out of date with trends in their area of work and technology and this diminishes their self-confidence. Interestingly, very rarely do they voice concerns about their ability to manage the working hours, the pressure and the time away from home.

During my transition to various countries (Thailand, China, USA and UAE) as a relocating partner, I have tried to achieve a (precarious!) balance between fulfilling my need for intellectual stimulation and financial independence. AND I want to be respected, accepted and trusted as a working parent. Now add flexibility and telecommuting to this “recipe for success” and you can imagine the mental, emotional and physical energy this requires. I don’t have 10 commandments but I do have 5 that have worked for me and enabled me to spread my wings to the extent that I desire to.

1.     Career as a jungle gym: Accept that your career trajectory is not the same as others. There are ups and downs and a career break is just that - “a break” and not a giving up


2.     Manage expectations: There will be a period of chaos at home when you return to work and not everything will work like a well-oiled machine. Accept it – that is the new normal


3.     Engage with low stakes/ casual network: When my coachees draw up a list of people they will seek as allies in their quest to find suitable work, 80% comprises of close and trusted friends. But a recent article in New York Times illustrates lucidly how weak ties can offer strong rewards. Expand your circle of friends, re-connect/ network with people who work and that you meet casually. Get a flavour of work routines, challenges and politics at the workplace and potential job leads


4.     Give and take: In asking for flexibility, be prepared to also be flexible. For example, being called to office at short notice, joining a late night conference call. Some boundaries can be laid down but demonstrating an openness to working arrangements can smoothen the journey of returning to work and help build equity within the organization


5.     Skills and experience inventory: Not all of our skills become obsolete and irrelevant and knowing what you know can give a shot to your self -esteem.  Be a spin doctor (but also authentic) – articulate new skills you’ve acquired and demonstrate your learning agility. Showcase any activity and I mean ANY activity that can be positioned as a learning experience. For example, writing and speaking engagements, courses pursued, events organized or languages learned.

When all is said and done, finding meaningful, well paid work is a combination of luck, numbers, networking and taking accountability. Or as Dr Suess says in Oh the Places You’ll Go “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

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