How being a working mum makes me a better professional (and a better mum)
I love my work and I love being a mother. When I stop and think about what I am really grateful for, the main thing is to be a happy working mum. Not only that, we have evidence to suggest that being a parent can help you be a better professional, and working makes you a better parent.
We know women are allowed to work and be parents. We’re allowed! Most people I know are second generation working mums. But it still gives us so much anxiety and very little joy. I wanted to give this some thought to this, why does it still look so hard? There is some urgency to this. In India, the female labour force participation is really low and reducing.
At the same time, we keep hearing from the big employers about acute human resource shortages. Companies cannot get enough people with the right skills to fill positions and grow. Nearly everyone acknowledges that companies, workplaces, the economy, the political sphere, even civic spaces would all benefit from the presence of more women. Even the current BJP government recognizes this. They introduced a new policy in 2016 that said that any workplace with more than 50 people must have an onsite crèche and this is coming into effect now.
So we definitely need more women in the workforce, not just for the sake of the economy and society…but for ourselves and our families too. Let me explain…
Being Employed Makes you a Better Parent
First of all, let me describe how working is good for the kids. Overall, if you look at the meta-analyses you will find that maternal employment benefits kids across a range of indicators – but the differences are pretty small. Of course, it depends what you’re looking for. You may have seen that a recent Harvard study found strong evidence from 24 countries that maternal employment improved gender equity – and improving the prospects of daughters in particular. Basically, if your mum works – you get to be a more gender equitable grown-up.
Kids Make You a Better Professional
What I think is more interesting is how being a parent gives you the opportunity to make yourself a better professional. Kids are very creative and open. A study found pre-schoolers can solve a variety of problems better than adults, and are better learners. A researcher from Berkeley describes them as little “R&D” centres – whereas adults are more like production departments. As we get older, the prefrontal parts of the brain — used in planning, focusing and fast, efficient decision making — exert more control. This is mostly good, but it has the drawback of making our thinking less divergent, and making it harder to dream up different possibilities and learn new things.
But it’s not just that kids are more creative – we can be more creative just by empathising with them. A study found that when undergraduates were asked to think like a seven year old, they responded in a more original way to standard creativity tests. Our creativity is increased by anything that allows for play and wonder. When we’re having fun, our mind is not set on something specific, we’re allowing our brain to see different things and get new insights. That’s why so many tech companies have ping pong tables, ball rooms and Lego. That’s just a cheap replacement for the state you get to if you’re actually playing with a kid. I find I have much better ideas now I am a mum. Like writing this blogpost!
It’s not just creativity. In my work, one of the key tools I use to drill down to the root cause of any problem is commonly known as the “five whys”. This is exactly what toddlers do, they won’t stop to they’ve gone all the way to the bottom of what is meaningful, the actual meaning of life, with their whys. My daughter now says it in a British accent, like Peppa Pig. “Why?, Why?, Why?”. As she follows me around asking “Why?”, she is pushing me to think harder and dig deeper, exactly the way I need to do to do a good job at work.
Kids might not help you with everything. It’s really hard to imagine toddlers helping with mergers and acquisitions. Or filing your tax returns. But whatever you do, there is a clear cognitive benefit of stepping away from your work and focusing on something else, engaging your brain in a different way. Children force you to do that.
I am very lucky. I work as a consultant in the health sector. I work according to a flexible schedule from home. My clients are also typically really nice people. I travel for work, and my partner will take on being a single parent for the times I am away. And it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes I am travelling too much, or I struggle to achieve a deadline with a screaming kid. At these times, we all really need to go easy on ourselves, ask for latitude with our colleagues. This can be hard to do, some women simply don’t have the space to do it.
How do you make this easier? The one major thing is to professionally take on less. Research tells us that the best performers professionally are people who do less, and then hyper focus on the tasks they have. This is a million times more important when you have a small child at home.
Of course, most people agree that families should just do what works for them. Being a working mum won’t work for everyone; not everyone can align the right factors. But, ultimately, workplaces and the economy need more working women. It can be hard – but the payoffs are huge for everyone. So I think we all need to make more space for working mums, and make more space for yourself as a working mum.