BY IZZY CHAN
I’ve never been someone who could or wanted to separate career and personal goals. My work is my passion and deeply personal. As I started 2018 as a first time mom, I spent many sleepless nights (literally, pacing around the house with a baby over my shoulder!) pondering my goals and intentions for the year.
I'm deeply in love with my daughter and excited to be a mama. I also love the work I do, unearthing what makes people tick and diving into cultural changes. I don't want to "balance" these things as if they were separate components of my life. These are all part of me, and I want them together, in conversation with each other, in a dance that build off each other, in a journey that pushes me to grow as a creative and as a mother.
Here's my 2018 goal: to continue to build my consulting practice and kick off production on my next documentary—and do so by drawing strength and grace from my new role as mother to a mighty little girl. With my next documentary focused on matriarchal communities, this new intertwining of my creative and personal lives is particularly powerful for me.
I WANT TO CHANGE THE CONVERSATION AROUND WORK & MOTHERHOOD
A key aspect of my goal is to change the script on how we think and talk about working mothers. Working on The Big Flip for the last 5+ years means I've spent a lot of time talking to lots of people about motherhood and work. And I realize, I don’t want to be trapped in the same old conversations about sacrifice, compromise and guilt.
Instead of sacrifice, I want to discuss how motherhood has fired me up and reinvigorated my commitment to doing good work. As a parent, time is precious, and I want to spend it doing work that thrills me, that makes this world a little better, a little brighter for my daughter, and with people I want to be part of her life.
Instead of compromise, I want to talk about the new perspectives and creative opportunities that my little girl has opened my eyes to. I feel a ripening and maturation in how I work. Instead of jumping right into action, I take more time reading and conversing. I listen more, write more, question more. So that when I do act, the intention is sharper and clearer. All of which adds complexity and depth to my work.
And I'm done, done, done with the topic of guilt—I want to start a new conversation around the unique experiences that working mothers bring to their children. I love stories of other creative parents and the magical childhood memories they gift to their children—the field biologist whose boys spent a summer in the rainforest with her on a work expedition; the photographer on assignment with a baby in a sling; my own fond memory of helping my father with an ocean-themed mural commission at an amusement park. Other mothers can bake cupcakes. Me, I shall bring my daughter stories of warrior queens in the desert and a mountain goddess who created a kingdom of women.
SUGGESTIONS FOR YOUR NEXT CONVERSATION WITH A WORKING MOM
So next time we meet, don't ask me about sacrifices I've had to make to my career. Instead, ask me how being a mother is tranforming my approach to work. Not that there aren't sacrifices. But I'd much rather think and talk about all the ways being a mother has fired me up, and injected a new sense of purpose and thoughtfulness in the kind of work I do.
Don't ask me about the compromises I've had to make to my work. Instead, ask me how motherhood is opening up new perspectives. Not that there haven't been compromises, but it's so much more exciting to talk about the discoveries and new delights that parenthood opens up.
And please, do not ask me about whether I'm going to continue to work, and who's going to take care of my daughter if I do. Instead, ask me what kind of adjustments my husband and I have had to make to our lives and our work with the addition of a child. Because while there have been adjustments, my husband and I embrace the responsibility of parenthood equally, and I will not let anyone make me feel guilty for doing work that helps sustain my family and make the world a better place for my daughter.
It really comes down to this—don't ask a working mother what you wouldn't ask a working father.
WORKING MOMS: BE READY WITH YOUR RESPONSES
So what should you say, if someone were to ask that innocuous but loaded question about whether you plan to go back to work, and who's going to take care of your child if you do? My natural instinct is to breathe fire when someone asks me something annoying like that. But thanks to a few other friendlier working moms, here are some suggestions on what to say to encourage more constructive dialogue.
- Interesting question. Why do you ask? (Keep turning the question back to the person, so they start to think about their assumptions.)
- (If they know your spouse) Funny you should ask. Have you asked my husband/partner that question?
- (If they don't know your spouse) Before I answer, I'm curious—have you asked a working father that question before?
- It's fascinating, how often I'm asked that question, yet no one has asked my husband/partner if he planned to go back to work. Rather, the question he gets is whether his wife—me—plans to go back to work. What do you think this says about us as a society?
- Your question reminds of an interesting Pew Research poll, where they ask people whether they think children are better off with mom at home or at work. What's your response to that question? (After they answer.) Did you know that over 50% of Americans believe kids are better off with mom at home than at work, but only 8% believe that kids are better off with dad at home than at work? What do you think about the gender disparity in the results?
Here are a few other questions to ask yourself, working moms, and have your answers ready.
- What are the different ways motherhood has had a positive impact on your attitude or approach to work? Talk about these the next time you get tired of talking about sacrifices and compromises to your career.
- What are some elements of your work and/or passions that you're excited to share with your child? What are some unique or magical experiences that you dream of sharing with your child, to give them a taste of what you love about your work? The next time someone asks whether you feel guilty about leaving your children when you work, celebrate these unique gifts you'll be giving your children.
Personally, I always feel better when I start from a position of strength. Sometimes, a slight shift in the frame of reference can change the tone of the conversation, allowing you to come out of it feeling energized and empowered instead of defensive and resentful.
Izzy Chan is the director of The Big Flip–Stories from the Modern Home Front, a documentary feature about the rise of female breadwinners and at-home dads. Click here to learn how you can bring the film to your community for an inspired discussion on gender equality at home and at work.