Watching Serena Williams make it to the finals of Wimbledon, just ten months after giving birth to her gorgeous baby Alexis Olympia, was a moment for working moms everywhere to cheer.
As I was watching her, a total and utter force of nature, commanding in her presence throughout the entire tournament, it occurred to me that to the everyday person flipping the channels and seeing Serena in a Wimbledon final, it looked kind of… normal. Serena looks the same, plays the same, has the same mannerisms, and is an all around badass on the tennis court. Nothing unfamiliar at all.
But here’s the problem: as every working mom knows, NOTHING is the same. Bringing a new baby into the world takes a toll on body and mind in a way that can’t be put to words. Yet, it’s all too easy looking from the outside in to treat a new mom like nothing has changed, causing most women to put pressure on themselves to get right back to the top of their game.
I should know – I did it. I gave birth to three babies during my career over a period of four years. All three were born in different states because my career opportunities required me to relocate my family multiple times. As I was balancing new babies and new work environments, I faced a number of challenges and embarrassments that only working moms will understand. Like that time when my boobs started leaking milk in front of my boss at a business lunch. Or when I tried to cover up my early pregnancy, but my appetite was going hog wild causing me to eat lunch twice, sometimes three times a day (my colleagues were left to wonder why I was gaining weight so fast). These experiences all took their toll on my confidence in the workplace, but it was my third child that really took me to the limit.
Giving birth to a child at the exact same time that I was leading the turnaround of a global sports brand turned out to be a challenge unlike anything I could have imagined. Watching the business go into precipitous decline in the two weeks after my daughter’s birth made me feel like I had no choice but to skip out on recovery and support my team through an immensely stressful time.
So there I was, an executive and the mother of a newborn working full time from home. Most times I was working with a baby on my lap, breast feeding during conference calls, and getting more and more stressed out by the realities of the free falling business results. I was trying to lean in and provide leadership at a crucial moment. And yet, I was failing – really badly.
The more the stress, the worse my sleep, the worse my sleep, the harder it was to nurse an infant, and the worse I felt as a mom. I was guilty, exhausted, and distressed.
This never ending cycle of anxiety, fueled no doubt by the hormones flooding my body, led to a severe case of post-natal depression. It all culminated in an absolute physical and emotional meltdown one night at 3am when the baby once again woke up just as I was falling asleep. I lost my marbles, desperately crying out to the world for help.
If it wasn’t for my husband objectively being able to see what was going on, and having the strength to force me to take a break, I don’t know what would have happened.
When I look back now, I distinctly remember feeling that I needed to be back to my full normal professional self within weeks, not months of giving birth. I felt an overwhelming pressure to “keep up” with the rest of my team for fear of not pulling on my oar and contributing to the team as much as everyone else.
And it appears I am not alone. A recent iCIMS Women in the Workforce report found that a whopping 45 percent of office professionals believe taking that taking a break for parental leave would decrease their opportunities for advancement.
Even Serena Williams faced a temporary career hit after giving birth. After her thirteen-month hiatus from the game, during which she recovered from a near death experience AND trained hard enough to compete in the French Open, her ranking slid from No. 1 in the world to No. 453.The French Open’s decision not to seed her because of her lowered ranking (which put her in a position to potentially face a top rival in an early round) has faced criticism as an example of the barriers that new moms in all fields can face when they return to work.
So, there is definitely immense societal pressure to not skip a beat in life or career because of a pregnancy. That external burden only fuels the enormous pressure we women put on ourselves after giving birth. But, with the benefit of a bit of age, time, and wisdom I look back on this set of circumstances and think WTF!! What was I thinking? In the scheme of things, the time that it took me to fully recover wasn’t long at all. If anything, by pushing myself so hard, I most likely prolonged the time it took to return to my full self.
I’m not saying that a woman is less than fully capable after having a child – she just needs a break. A woman has the same brain, competency, and skills right before she has a child as she does after, yet new moms are often passed over for promotions or even pushed out of their roles. In addition, women on average will lose 4% of their earnings for each child they have, while new father’s earnings increase more than 6%. As more boss ladies rise to leadership, we are going to have to shift our mindsets around making space and accommodations for parental leave, and let go of the idea that there are limits to what working moms can do.
Take for example New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, one of the only world leaders in history to have given birth while in office. In response to criticism of having a new born while in office, she said:
“I am by no means the first woman to multitask.” BOOM!
She’s taking six weeks off of work. Is the country falling apart? No – Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has stepped into her duties for a short time. If it is possible to build that system of support for a woman leading a country, we can certainly provide the same structures for women leading businesses.
It’s time we stood up for our fellow working moms and told them it’s OK to have children during their career. It’s time we reminded new moms to give themselves a break, and to be OK with the fact that they can’t yet fit into their favorite jeans, and that their brain is struggling to remember why they put that meeting on the calendar.
I am here to say to all young ambitious moms: STOP with the expectations and pressure! You just brought an entire human being into the world. Last time I checked that is a f*ckn HUGE undertaking. Physically, mentally, and emotionally you will feel different. It’s ok for you as an individual to give yourself a break, and it’s up to us as a society to provide support and compassion for working women as they recover from such an amazing feat.
So cheers to Serena and to all the working moms returning to the office every day with bag under their eyes from no sleep the night before. You may look the same, but you’re not. You are a hell of a lot stronger.
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