Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Making the Mommy Case

I have recently found myself in a couple of frustrating situations that have led me to question at first myself and then, with more objectivity, those around me. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a workaholic.  

I started working my very first semester at university and by the time I was done with my studies, I was already out of the country on a great venture and missed my graduation. Not that I regret it. I actually never thought about this as a "miss". I guess at the time, I had already moved on to exciting professional opportunities and I did not think twice when I could not make it back on time for what seems like just a party. By then some of my best friends who were older had already graduated before me and I had made new connections and welcomed new people into my life. Work and this fresh start seemed so much more important. And in retrospect, it was. 

I met my husband at that job, so I guess this decision also shaped my entire life as I know it today. It helped we have the same work ethics and he is as much an addict as I am. We would reach the office first and leave last. We literally had the keys to the door. I loved it. Back then, I remember well how I used to think: "even when I have a family, I will never stop working". How could I? 

Work was literally what defined me as a person

I feel like I married young. Or at least way younger than I had planned and that is why I never thought of having kids from the get go. I used to feel like I had so much growing up to do myself, I was not about to take that leap yet. In fact, it wasn't before I turned twenty-nine that I started to sense something was missing. I don't know if getting closer to thirty had anything to do with it, but none of that matters now. The bottom line is: we tried twice and ended up with two back to back miscarriages in less than a year. 

This is when the shift happened. This is when I understood that to me, jobs and work and promotions were all exciting and rewarding but that they would never be all that there is. In fact, what had always been my number one priority had not only lost its place, it was nowhere to be found on the grid. And this lasted for quite some time. 

I am quite proud of what I have achieved professionally. I was young and given heavy responsibilities and I raised to all the challenges that came my way, with distinction if I may say so myself. And this is an enormous and crucial part of my person and my life. I would not change a thing.

But when starting a family proved to be difficult and the need grew stronger than anything else (blame it on the hormones, blame it on emotions, blame it on depression, or on that primitive instinct to reproduce and save the specie from extinction, I don't know) everything fell into place differently. 

Six months following my second miscarriage I got pregnant and this time, I needed it to happen. And it did. We were blessed with the most beautiful and loving daughter anyone could ask for. 

My pregnancies are quite challenging physically and even though I thought I could continue working, I quickly realized the only places I would be going were my bed, the bathroom and my bed again. Basically, each time I got pregnant, it boiled down to the same: Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I get it from my mom who gets it from hers. I was vomiting dozens of time a day and I was too miserable and weak to do anything. Needless to say work was out of the question. Simply put, I was crippled for the whole nine months. In fact, the midwife thought I was joking when she wheeled me into the Delivery Room and I asked her for a bucket. She had never seen such severe morning sickness right before giving birth apparently.

As I evaluated the whole experience, I quickly gathered it would be impossible to commit to any job if I ever wanted to conceive again as no company would ever allow me such a long time off. So I made the decision to try for a second child immediately and we got lucky because Mia was only seven months old when I got pregnant again. Thankfully, we were blessed once more with the most perfect little boy and another nine months of sickness turned out to be quite worth the trauma. My son is now four. He just started school a few weeks ago. 

The plan was simple: 

I stay at home, take care of the little munchkins and when they start nursery, I can resume work. In spite of my most tenacious attempts to not become my mother, I turned out to be just as overprotective as she was (is). And I say this with the utmost affection and admiration to the woman who literally sacrificed her person to become the catalyst of ours. She made us her life. I am eternally grateful for everything and I am in awe of those mothers who let go of it all and just give. 

I am not as generous as she is and I still dream of work almost every day. But right now is not the time. Jad has autism. No matter how hard we try to put things into place, they keep getting off track each time in a different way. 

The "Mommy Case"

I apologize for the long introduction but I feel like I need to fully disclose who I was and who I am before I focus on what I have learned from all of that. 

I do not judge and I completely respect women who opt not to work. I think it is tragic when women choose (or are forced) to refuse education regardless of whether they plan to work later on or not. Education is so much more than just a ticket to a career. It is what raises us as individuals to become the fullest and best version of our person.

That being said, I can recognize the differences in each one of us and the reality that some women long for families and do not care for a career. I can understand this is what they dream of, they choose and they undertake. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

But I was never one of those. I had always seen myself as someone who works. Someone who would always work. Someone with passion and in time, hopefully, a successful career. Even when family became all that I wanted, I always felt like I would soon return to work, once everyone's roles were sorted. 

I guess, even if work was not the only feature defining me anymore, I always thought it would still be a substantial part of my definition. 

So it is as someone who loves work, someone who longs for work that I write this. 

I have been part of organizations and a manager long enough to understand what being professional means. I have even gone through the whole entrepreneurial journey and launched my own company some years ago. So I know very well what it entails to succeed (and not to). 

And although I don't claim to be some sort of a business expert, far from it, it is with certainty that I say mothers are true assets

They gain and develop key skills that could be transferred to the workplace and almost any market depending of course on previous academic knowledge and work experience. I don't claim I can suddenly engineer roads. But I know what I have learned being a mother can definitely add to what I used to do before what many consider a "stop". 

Mothers are risk takers, flexible and quick learners

Mothers are forced into a journey they know nothing about and yet they must navigate and somehow complete it successfully without prior learning, experience or training. This ability alone is commendable. No company manager in their right mind would send assets to a project without ensuring these talents had some sort of skills that could ensure a successful outcome. First time mothers get pregnant and have to learn quickly how to adapt to this new situation without having experienced or practiced it before. And even when they have experienced pregnancies before, each new "project" is completely unique and adaptation is constantly needed. On a monthly basis! And when they feel like the most difficult time is finally done and they can proceed to some sort of normalcy (whatever that means), they suddenly must face the ever changing environment of caring for a baby. A project that will probably last a lifetime and which requires continuous flexibility and adaptability.  

Mothers are dedicated and work with heart

I guess this one goes without saying. Mothers learn to completely and entirely let go of their person to cater to their "project" wholly. They push aside their own personal needs, dreams and comfort to be able to give their all. Dedication is an instinctive quality and it kicks in naturally when women become mothers no matter how difficult, exhausting or frustrating things may get. But then comes a time when the "project" at hand requires less time (never less effort, but definitely less hands on intervention) and mothers can start to make room for new projects. This time on the professional end. What leader would decline dedicated coworkers ready to become real partners and willing to engage wholeheartedly? Work ethics and dedication are not easy to come by.

The Mother of all Multitasking is a mother

As stay at home moms, we always love to joke about how the world perceives our "job". Apparently, some might still think, even in this day and age, that we sit around the house looking cute, drinking coffee, practicing our most impressive yoga pose and brunching with friends after a good massage and mani-pedi while our husbands slave at work and our kids are at school. Sure we do. But while we have coffee, we are organizing doctors' appointments, gym classes, music classes, children therapy sessions, birthdays, lunches, car pools, and much more. We can hold a conference call and cook at the same time. We can review emails and documents while waiting in the car for a child pickup or at a doctor's waiting room. We can finish work from the playground or while waiting for children activities to end. We can supervise homework of Child One while building towers with Child Two and mentally going through tomorrow's checklist. We shower and clean the shower at the same time. We load laundry and dishes while picking up toys, packing tomorrow's lunch boxes and sewing a child's costume for Book Day at school. We watch cooking videos, arts and crafts videos, home improvement videos, do it yourself videos and Pinterest the kids next Halloween get-up while feeding the baby at night. We do everything and anything all at once. And it is a factual fact that we are constantly interrupted by something more important. Best scenarios usually imply holding two coherent conversations simultaneously while each ear dumps completely unrelated information to be processed at the same time. Daily, multiple times. Worse scenarios mean juggling two or more situations while one or more could lead to a little human being badly injured or even a life being threatened. And yet, we manage to complete all that is necessary for our household and those living in it to run smoothly.

Mothers are lifelong learners and experts

When I decided to become a mom, the first task I undertook was to get my driver's license. I had never needed to drive but I knew that overnight, I was about to turn into Chauffeur ExtraordinaireNurse Extraordinaire who can make booboos disappear with magic kisses or who can actually mend a massive bump in the middle of a tiny forehead or even a bleeding wound. Paramedic Extraordinaire who can quickly tend to an injury, safely drive to the ER and clearly explain the events that led to said injury while listing allergies, medical histories and previous accidents, surgeries and procedures and literally Okaying or banning certain actions by the ER staff. Therapist Extraordinaire who can support a son with ASD be it during fun and engaging learning activities or in the middle of the night when things get a little bit tougher and I am more sleep-deprived mummy than mommy and he still needs me to sort of manage his loud cries, kicking and screaming. Autism has definitely taught me a lot and I have acquired the knowledge to be able to speak of Autism and with Autism experts coherently and with ease. I can hold conversations with educators, physicians and therapists in their own language. When you are presented with a new need for your child, you man up and you do what you need to do to make it work. You learn. You educate yourself. You educate those around you. And you try to make the world or at least your child's world a bit more understanding and kind. It's definitely not easy. It can get tricky. It is exhausting. But mothers know that giving up is not an option. Determination and perseverance are the only acceptable options.

Mothers are supermanagers and natural leaders

The whole multitasking argument is just above and says it all. But most importantly, mothers know intuitively how to prioritize, budget, plan and manage their time (and that of their "team"). They are extremely resourceful and they know who to build support systems of like-minded teammates (other mothers) to help them move forward. Managers are expected to master skills to administer and control groups of people. But leaders kick it up a notch. They strive to be managers with heart. They need to inspire and guide. They help others, not only themselves, grow into better professionals. And what is the main role of mothers? To shape little humans and help them grow into the best individuals they can become. But more than this, they are generous. I cannot believe the amount of support groups out there created by mothers to offer guidance, support and all kinds of help to other mothers, whether online or in the real physical world. Stereotypes on women always lean towards the hostile and offensive misconception that women are inherently jealous of their peers and hate each other. Nothing could be further from the truth and I have found this inclination towards sisterhood to be so strong within communities of mothers. They are there for each other, they offer tips and even actual options to alleviate challenges and difficulties. They will go the extra mile and cook, drive, and babysit for each other. They will be there in times of struggle but also even just to give an overwhelmed friend a chance to get some time for herself, just for fun. Mothers are truly team leaders and team builders.

Mothers are patient, strong negotiators with stamina 

Have you ever tried to hold your own with a... Toddler? They are small, cute, adorable little stress machines! They will drive the sanest, most objective, brilliant mind to insanity. It sounds completely absurd and funny but it is absolutely true. Children have no real responsibility. Their worries revolve around the few needs they have identified for themselves in a certain point in time. They have the ability to continue nagging and arguing about one trivial issue for hours. Even days (oh they do not forget a thing)! I am not saying mothers are saints who will keep their shit together at all times. Oh, we will lose it. That's for certain (and that's also for sanity and survival purposes). However, we will also learn to become more patient. Endurance is a skill you train for. And boy, do we train for it. Every day. And it is not about learning to shut off or ignore (which can be the best self-preservation instinct sometimes). It is about active listening and communication. It is about learning to negotiate by truly hearing the other. An other who could not be farther from your reality, your overwhelming responsibilities and your needs. An other who is innocently selfish, but selfish nonetheless and who thinks his needs trump anything and anyone. However, to teach that person how to listen and acknowledge the existence of others and their needs and respect that truth is a long process which can only be achieved with time, patience, repetition but mostly leading by example. Listening, understanding and making informed decisions. It is a daily exercise we have to master several times a day. Sometimes we fail. But most times, we will nail it!

Mother are tough 

Mothers are tough. They will go through childbirth and no matter how you look at it and the choices or inevitable routes they take, this alone is one of the hardest and painful human achievements. Let me be clear: yes, we do have it better than our grandmothers. The invention of the epidural (which was not initially for the benefit of women by the way) is definitely an advantage. However, it is not a guarantee. Sometimes the epidural does not work. In my case, it worked on one side only and I felt literally everything, and I mean every single finger, I mean thing that happened to happen where everything was happening. It bloody hurts. Like hell. That was my second time around. The first time I gave birth, my anesthetist was not available due to an emergency with another woman in critical condition that I ended up getting the epidural when I was already completely dilated. That means I felt all the labor, and it felt like, you guessed it, hell (again, yes). C-sections are not an easy way out either as many thing think. It is a full-fledge surgery with all the dangers and consequences on the human body it entails. Some mothers can literally not hold their babies due to complications or pain following childbirth. Some of us cannot sit down for two weeks. The pain is not restricted to the birth itself. It extends to weeks after that. And somehow, most of us will do it again. Why? Because we are badass, that's why! Also, because we understand the pain and by extension, anything that is bad is only temporary. That is a great life lesson. But that doesn't change the fact that childbirth is one of the most dangerous and life-threatening process a human will go through. And even in this day and age and with all the great progress of modern medicine, some women will still lose this battle and their life during or because of child birth. This may seem irrelevant in the workplace (unless you're a boxer) but it is actually a skill to overcome physical pain. It is a skill to rise to the physical, emotional and mental maturity to be able to cope with such pain and get over it. I will not deny our hormones play a huge part in the "forgetting" aspect of this whole process. However, it still takes strength and power to get through it all.

Mothers are thick-skinned

We live with criticism. Daily. From relatives, from friends and even from strangers. And sometimes it gets to us but with time, we learn to not only let go but also handle it like a boss. Somehow, society does not frown on mothers being targets. Complete strangers feel it is socially acceptable to give us looks, advice and even scolding as, when and where they see fit. People who know nothing about our reality, day in, day out, still assume they know enough to bestow their wisdom upon us, without prior request. And somehow, social etiquette does not even slightly disapprove of that. On the bus, at the supermarket, on the road, at the park, at parties, anywhere where other humans roam really. They will school us on how to feed, dress, parent. They will tell us we are bad mothers for not breastfeeding and then they will tell us we are offensive and exhibitionists if they see us breastfeeding. They will tell us our children are ill behaved and we are too lenient and if we so much raise our voices they will accuse us of badgering and even abusing our kids. They will tell us not to give in to our kids tantrums and turn them into unbearable brats all while judging us when we ignore a creaming child who just wants yet another toy he already owns in another color. But criticism doesn't scare us. We can take it. We do everyday. And sometimes, when we're in the mood, we can even respond and put people in their places. But most importantly, we know how to handle it all and move on. We know how to not let it get to us. We know how to take constructive criticism and turn it to our advantage and we know how to not let unwarranted destructive judgement take us down.

Mothers are challengers 

Put simply: competition doesn't scare us. Everything around us seems like a continuous competition. We strive to be the best mother. It is instinctive. We don't really think about it. It is just how we become wired. We just want the best for our children and to get there, we know we have to be the best too. That's why we take on life and challenges fearlessly. That is why we learn all the skills mentioned above and make them our own. That is how all these qualities become inherent to us. We do not back down from challenges. We deal.

We tend to joke about Mommy Brain as being this crippling handicap. But it can also be our biggest asset. The brain of a mother has learnt to acquire and implement wonderful qualities such as resilience, endurance, efficiency, leadership, motivation, strength, emotional intelligence and team playing that translate as strong skills in the workplace too.

When your primary role in life is to ensure the safety and survival of another human, you learn to become a well-rounded, powerful, responsible authority. 

So when mothers feel they are ready to get back to work, employers should not look at that "gap" as a loss. They should look at it as one hell of a boot camp during which women were turned into warriors and acquired unique skills and talents they can now transfer to the benefit of a company.

End hostility.
End condescendence.
Empower women.
Encourage them to take any road they desire without making them feel they are giving up on something else.

And then, sit back, relax, and watch them give back to you and your organization. You will not regret it.  

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