Powerful Parenting: moving on from imposter syndrome and stepping into your power.
This week on the blog we’re joined by interior designer, writer and parent, Cara Cooper who has written an excellent post about the less mentioned parts of motherhood for us.
Over to Cara…
Hey – how are you? I’m Cara, mother of two, designer, and writer. After the birth of my first child, I became an accidental stay at home parent, and though I did spend a year working when she was younger, I ended up back at home after we relocated and had a second baby months before the pandemic hit us.
I wasn’t prepared for the seismic shift that motherhood would bring, nor the systemic contempt that I, and most mothers and primary caregivers will experience if they try to reenter the workforce. When I write about this and motherhood musings it comes from within a feminist framework; reflecting on my own experiences and drawing on other’s work along the way. My mission is to offer an alternative motherhood narrative – one that supports and validates our experiences and ignites honest conversations within our community.
I’ve always understood being a parent and actual parenting to be a tough gig – I expected change and sacrifice. I’d pictured maternity leave being a hazy oxytocin-filled love in. I didn’t anticipate feeling like a changeling coming home, never to be the same again. Rachel Cusk, in her book ‘A Life’s Work’ wrote:
“We are, I have no doubt, a couple, a pair…All that is clear at this point is that I have replicated, like a Russian doll. I left home one; I have come back two. It is only when I walk through my front door that I realise things have changed. It is if I have come to the house of someone who has just died, someone I loved, someone I can’t believe has gone.”Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work
When I brought my daughter home from the hospital, I felt as if I’d been cracked open – literally and emotionally. I was recovering from a c-section, but predominantly, I was terrified – I’d been handed a life that was my responsibility to sustain and shape. What if I wasn’t up to it? What if I broke her?
I saw a sonogram image of her when I was 37 weeks pregnant – it was still lying on the coffee table where we’d left it before her birth – I sobbed because I could now recognise her face from the smushed up grayscale. Everything felt uncanny.
We stumbled through that first year, at times it was full of wonder but there was a darkness that I hid away. I was scared and exhausted and my post natal depression went unrecognised and undiagnosed. Again, the responsibility of it all was dumbfounding, and just as I was finding my stride I was expected to go back to work…
Nor was I ready for the logistical, financial and emotional balancing act that is placing my baby in childcare. I had not envisaged waiting lists, or it costing the majority of my take-home wages. I hadn’t fathomed the rigours of scheduling pick ups and drops off with my husband. The whole thing felt like a colossal failure on my part, especially because my 10 month old baby was still breastfeeding to sleep, and only contact napping or sleeping in motion in a buggy. I couldn’t hand her over to people I didn’t know, in a space that wasn’t her home. It was all too much.
Now I was lucky, or unlucky enough, depending on how you frame it, not to have a job to return to. Whilst I was pregnant, life had turned upside down; first with my husband losing his job unexpectedly and then becoming ill and receiving a life changing Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. All in my first trimester. My second trimester saw me quitting my job and us relocating 400 miles away for a fresh start. No job to return to did mean extra time with my daughter, but it had huge downsides too, just before her first birthday, the other mums I’d met started returning to their jobs. I was left alone with a baby fast becoming a toddler and a crippling sense of isolation and failure.
Mothers are undervalued
Late capitalism has persuaded us that labour is only work if we are paid for it. This is so deeply engrained that women are expected to birth and care for children for little to no renumeration, recognition or protection. We don’t value care as work and we forget that childbearing and childrearing is an essential function of society. Women and pregnant people hit this brick wall all the time – it happens when maternity leave is considered to be time off, a bit of a luxury, a holiday to some. It happens when we’re made redundant whilst on mat leave, when we’re not promoted or given pay rises. It happens when we’re asked who is taking care of our children when we’re at work. It happens all the time. We’re told we’re lucky to have statutory maternity leave, but in my view, it’s actually salt in the wound.
A 2016 Unicef report looked at 41 of the world’s richest countries to see who offered what maternity leave. Out of the 41 developed nations, the UK finds itself at a lowly #34. In 2021-22 UK statutory maternity pay is 90% of your earnings for 6 weeks. 6! I’ve had a cold last longer.
You then receive £151.97 a week until the baby is roughly 9 months old, and from there, you’re on your own. If you divide the weekly sum by 37 hours, it comes to £4.10 ph – less than half the minimum wage which is £8.91 ph. The Living Wage foundation calculates an hourly London living wage as £11.05 and £9.90 for the rest of the UK. How are we supposed to support ourselves and another life on a sum that no-one even deems ‘minimal’?
Our labour is not valued. Now some may have been fortunate to receive an enhanced package, but for those who are on lower income brackets, or are self employed, or on a zero hours contract or an agency worker, the reality is what I have described above – less than half of minimum wage.
A baby knows no clock – caring for them is a 24 hour a day job, often with little to no reprieve. Just because we have opted for children and find it to be welcome and meaningful stage of our lives, does not mean we should suffer the ignominy that we are offered. I have never worked harder than I do now, never cared more or dedicated myself to a role than that of being a mother.
As a predominantly stay at home parent, caring for a 6 and 2 year old, trying to manage my career after a sustained ‘pause’ and upholding a lot of the domestic labour, well, here’s what I’ve realised: your labour IS work.
What defines work?
Parenting is work – domestic tasks are work – the mental load is most definitely work. Maternity leave, stay at home parenting, caring for children with disabilities, juggling a career and kids – whatever your set up looks like – this is labour of the highest order.
Because I became a parent before I knew the true value of my contribution meant that during and after my first mat leave that I felt my status shrink. Because I did not return to work I felt diminished – like I had lost my seat at the table. I became preoccupied with what people thought of me – feeling certain that I was being judged for being lazy, selfish or lacking ambition. For a long time, I kept these anxieties quiet. It wasn’t until late in my second mat leave and another bout of PND that I stumbled across a revelation – it wasn’t alone in these thoughts.
Late 2020, exhausted, confused and knee deep in lockdowns and childcare, I signed up for an online confidence course for women called UPFRONT. It was during the course whilst other members spoke honestly about their struggles with Imposter Syndrome at work that I realised I felt it everywhere I went. As I became a parent, I lost my voice. I tentatively shared this and the response was staggering – so many women understood. We were all from different walks and stages of life and in different industries, but we’d all taken a hit in value whilst navigating work and motherhood. We saw the merit in what we were doing, but did anyone else?
I’ve spent much of my life downplaying my efforts, skills and intelligence. Girls are socialised to keep the peace, to defer, be humble, be demure or be modest. We’re criticised for being loud or angry, outspoken or opinionated. As we grow our sexuality brings us shame or fear whilst men’s is celebrated and championed. Women in power are chastised for behaviours that are expected, and accepted, of men. Women are taught not to flaunt success, instead we dampen them down and discount praise.
Females are taught to minimise all that we do, apologise over and over, and retreat into the shadows, lest we take up too much space. Becoming a parent only adds to that – in 2018 MMB Magazine surveyed 1,000 women in managerial roles, they asked how they felt returning to work after mat leave. Only 18% felt happy and confident. 37% felt so unsupported and isolated on their return they considered handing in their notice.
Sociologist Dr. Maja Jovanovic is on a campaign to have women stop apologising. Her work shows that whilst men and women both apologise when they think it necessary, the difference between the thresholds is huge. Women apologise constantly, and we kill our confidence as we go. Both personally and professionally, we say sorry for disagreeing with someone, for voicing our opinions, for being sick, for being tired, for being busy. We apologise when someone bumps into us, and at the end of the day, we’re spent. If we tell ourselves that we’re always in the wrong, it has a cumulative effect.
Stopping apologising might seem small, but you’ll be surprised if you pay attention to just how many times you say it, and how good it can be to save it for when it really matters. If you do one thing for yourself today, watch her TED talk.
The transition from being only responsible for ourselves to becoming a parent is huge. The transition from becoming a parent to getting back into the wider world again is even bigger.
Some may do this with gusto, but others find it harder. Some mothers will rush back to work, others take longer. There are many people who’d like to be working but have a child or children with a disability or learning need, which makes situations more complex. Some of us are in the sandwich generation – caring for dependent children and elderly parents simultaneously. Whatever it looks like, this labour is valid, necessary and to be celebrated. I hope one day it may even be supported by the state, because care matters.
My own journey is just about to change too – my youngest is now in nursery and my eldest has started school. At the moment I’m preparing to reenter the workforce and it’s nerve wracking. I’m studying and pivoting my design work from film to interiors, though I’m worried about explaining gaps in my CV. I’m concerned that I won’t be able to find part time work to fit in around childcare and I’m worried about how we’ll afford everything. But I am steeling myself, as I embark on this change, I remind myself of the value of my labour and that I have in fact being performing the most vital of roles.
I intend to explain just how hard I have been working since 2016 and the skills I have built upon.
Since becoming a parent I have greater resilience and focus, greater ambition, more purpose. I am more empathic and able to handle delicate egos. I can delegate and project manage like a pro… all whilst working under difficult conditions. I write this my toddler is poking me with drinks bottles and my 6 year is tantruming over tidying up. My ability to focus and concentrate amongst life’s ebbs and flows is second to none.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your power diminished when you became a parent, it has only grown.
If you’d like to hear more from Cara, you can find her on Instagram and her website.