Paula Sheridan

‘Career first? Or baby?’ You’ll have no doubt heard the endless discussions. Or, you may even be personally grappling with the dilemma that so many female professionals in their 20s and 30s face, especially as family and friends incessantly remind them of their ‘ticking biological clock”.  We’re also all too familiar with the motherhood penalty in the workplace and want to mitigate it.

But such discussions miss some key points. I believe what’s likely to make a more material difference to your career and family life is whether your partner spends a period of time at home on their own looking after the family. Let me explain why.

Women are often the IT and Payroll departments of the household

We live in a society where women typically carry the bulk of the unpaid labour burden in families. It’s not even about the cleaning and laundry. That’s the easy bit to share. It’s about all the other ‘stuff’, including:

  • meal planning and food shopping
  • playing taxi
  • managing the entire family’s diary, including booking dentist appointments
  • paying for childcare and the afterschool clubs
  • participating in multiple WhatsApp groups
  • organising birthday parties, including sending out invitations, baking, making decorations and buying the presents….

You get my drift? It’s all the mental energy that keeps a household functioning smoothly. All this ‘stuff’ is referred to as ‘the mental load’ and if left unchecked can be relentless.

Most non-birth parents (usually dads, sorry) tend to be oblivious to such ‘stuff’. It’s invisible, like IT or Payroll departments. For those inside the departments, it’s huge. Everyone else, meanwhile, fails to notice. As if it all just happens, like magic. Until of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Dads are usually happy to help with chores when they’re asked to. They want to do their bit. But it’s ‘when they’re asked to’ or ‘help’ that this can become the issue in its own right. If your partner is ‘helping’ or needs to be asked to do a task, they tend not to take ownership, meaning it ultimately remains your responsibility.

Don’t be the only person who knows ‘how it works’

So how do some of us end up in this situation?

During maternity leave, mums spend months learning how to look after their babies and for many this also ends up with them running their households around it. It’s trial and error for the most part and we learn by making mistakes. You only allow a baby or toddler to nap beyond 3.30-4pm once. I could tell you why, but it won’t REALLY mean anything until you make the mistake for yourself.

The number of fathers taking significant parental leave following the birth of a child is roughly 2%. Even lower if you include the men who take time off when their partner isn’t also at home. In short that’s just 2% of mums, with a partner who knows how it all works and are able to effectively share the load.

So, when mums return to work, they’re likely to still be the only ones spinning the plates and just adding their jobs to the mix. As any project manager knows, if you increase the scope of what someone is trying to deliver then, unless you add more resources, time or cash, quality will drop. Something has to give. And sadly that something is usually the mum’s career.

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies

Can’t we just show men what needs doing to fix it? Many women have unwittingly trained their partners out of contributing their fair share of work to the household, simply by insisting things are done their way. If you tell your partner they’ve done it incorrectly and worse still proceed to re-do the task yourself… they’ll quite reasonably never offer to do it again.

We are our own worst enemies! We get so used to spinning plates, we don’t want to let go. Often, out of fear the tasks won’t get done to our exacting standards.

What’s the alternative?

If after you go back to work you plan for your partner to take time-off at home on his own, this will give him a fair chance to learn how to do it all. To anticipate the nap times. To plan the meals and food. To understand why your baby is crying. And why it shouldn’t nap after 3.30-4pm.

The more that men do this, the more it becomes the norm in the workplace. We have to start somewhere! No one ever asks expectant fathers how they’re going to balance work and home. It has to be dads who start that conversation.

Career first or baby? Or a different conversation?

So, the timing of family and career is obviously important, but it isn’t the only consideration. I recommend the model for family life is set early: so start as you mean to go on – with equality. What’s the conversation you’ll be having about planning a family? Is it about timing? Or is it ‘How much paternity leave are you going to take when I’m back at work?’

Paula Sheridan works with frustrated professional women to help them get off the mummy track and excited about their career again.  She was recently featured on the BBC talking about the unequal division of labour in the home.