Tuesday 20 November 2018

‘Know you are not alone - thousands of women are struggling’ - Portrayals of high-achieving 'supermums' are peddling a lie, says author

Portrayals of high-achieving 'supermums' are peddling a lie, says author Christine Armstrong. Here she tells Arlene Harris why working mothers need to open up about the daily difficulties they face

Working mum Ivanka Trump with two of her children, Arabella and Theo
Working mum Ivanka Trump with two of her children, Arabella and Theo

Arlene Harris

We've all had those feelings of inadequacy when hearing a superwoman describe how she gets up at 5am for a 10k run, then rustles up a healthy breakfast for her family, prepares a nutritious dinner and drops the kids to school before heading to work as the CEO of a successful global company.

Obviously, she manages to get home in time to eat with her children and husband, who is incredibly supportive and also does his equal share of the housework and child rearing.

When the rest of us are struggling to keep up with the demands of a busy work and family life and hardly have time to run a brush through our hair in the morning, hearing about this sort of brilliance - which is supposedly the norm amongst high flying business women like Ivanka Trump (above) - is downright depressing to say the least. But Christine Armstrong does not believe the type of parent, who thrives on four hours' sleep providing they have a kale smoothie and an hour of weight lifting before work, actually exists, and says many women are painting a totally unreasonable picture of what life as a working mum is really like.

The mother of three has just released her book The Mother Of All Jobs in which she reveals that many women, in order to keep up the façade of effortless success, are not telling the whole truth about how they are struggling behind the scenes.

"As I failed to make a full-time job with one and then two children work, I decided to get some advice from people who knew what they were doing," says Armstrong, who is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a business which brings together experts in change and communication. "So I started to interview women with big jobs and small children for Management Today and discovered they couldn't tell the whole truth as their partners, bosses and competitors would be reading (their answers) and the story was more complicated behind the scenes.

"I realised that these relatively successful women had advantages many others don't and that the bigger story was actually about how average families cope with the time demands of modern work."

A combination of her own experience and real-life stories of the difficulties working mothers face, Armstrong's book aims to dispel some of the guilt which most women carry around like a mantle. The 44-year-old says while she used to feel guilty about not being there for her children, writing the book helped her realise that everyone is going through a version of the same thing.

"I used to be crushed by the pressure of not being home and also floundering at work because I felt I wasn't there enough," she says. "But I feel much more in control now because as I interviewed families, I started to see ways which work better and now I try to live by them. It's not perfect, but it works much better than it did."

Indeed work comes in many different guises and while some women are out of the house all day every day, some work part time and are available to collect their children from school, while others, like me, work from home.

I had many frantic days over the years; conducting an important phone interview while sitting against the door to prevent my kids charging in, losing hours of work I hadn't saved when a child accidentally switched off my computer and watching my toddler make his way through hundreds of Smarties which he discovered while I was interviewing an eminent professor over the phone - there was nothing I could do but watch in despair while he grinned his way through several packets.

These days, the house is quiet but when my children were young, caring for them while trying to work was a tense juggling act - I worked through it, but I wasn't afraid to let friends and family know there were moments when it all looked dangerously close to collapse. And this, says Armstrong, is key - if women are more open about the difficulties of combining a job with family life, then it would reduce the unattainable strive for perfection.

"A lot of women - and men actually - want to tell the truth, especially privately," she says. "Of course, a few are showy or insecure, but I am interested in the ones who want to tell the truth but fear it would damage them, their career and their reputation. This is, I believe, partly down to the fact that our stereotypes about mothers and good motherhood have changed very little even though the expectation that both parents work outside the home has grown."

But while her husband Chris does his fair share, she doesn't think that targeting men is the only way to make women's lives easier.

"A lot of mums I interview are so frustrated by their partners and complain about how little they do, but I am very lucky not to be in that situation," she says. "But I don't see men doing more as the only answer. Yes, in some cases, men are doing less, but for them to do more, we need social structures that make this possible: sensible exceptions of working hours which align in some way with childcare and the school day, equality of parental leave and pay and social expectations which are more open to different roles for both parents. I see fixing this as a matrix which includes: support for whichever parent takes leave after the birth, management of hours, flexible working practices, limits on expectations of being 'always on' and support for all families through good quality childcare."

Since an excerpt from her book was published in the Sunday Times magazine, the author has had thousands of messages of support, many from women in senior roles who are struggling.

"Know you are not alone - thousands of women are struggling," she says. "If you talk about your experiences, people will relate to you. Maybe your kids or partner can do more or maybe you're setting your standards too high, but being sane and happy matter more, for you and your kids, than anything else."

The Mother Of All Jobs by Christine Armstrong is published by Bloomsbury and costs £12.99.

Irish Independent

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