Commentary: The struggle mums in their 30s, 40s face juggling young kids and work is real
Mums might check out of the workforce or take a backseat at work after judgemental reactions. But it does not have to be this way, says NUS Business School’s Dr Rashimah Rajah.
SINGAPORE: Mother’s Day has just passed.
For most working mothers, it is an occasion for celebration, for how much they have achieved in taming the demands of both motherhood and their work ambitions.
Those tensions are front and centre for many women in developed countries, because women are having babies later and focusing on their careers first.
Singapore is no exception. The median age of first-time mothers is 30.3. More women are also giving birth in their 40s.
This means working women are essentially having babies at the same time their careers and salaries are taking off.
At 35, a first-time mother will find herself juggling the caregiving duties for a baby as well as the increased workload and demands of a managerial job.
Sometimes both sets of responsibilities clash at the same time, when for example, work-from-home became the norm during circuit breaker and childcare centres had to shutter. It gets worse if there are a few young children to manage at home at the same time.
This conflict between work and family begins at the start of motherhood. Many mums do not believe they can have “the best of both worlds” and choose to drop out of the workforce.
Indeed, between the ages of 25 to 29, both women and men participate equally in the labour force, with over 90 per cent participation rate, according to SingStat.
This number dips for women in their 30s and 40s, with a difference of about 5 percentage points between male and female labour force participation rates for workers in their 40s.
For those who stay, I have also heard anecdotes of female employees delaying the announcement of their pregnancies at work. They were worried of being overlooked for promotions and important projects prior to going on maternity leave.
Some are also worried about being treated differently once they return to work, despite regulations and policies in place aimed to protect them from pregnancy-related discrimination.
DIFFICULT RETURN TO WORK
The problem continues when mums return to work.
About 35 per cent of employers in Asia saw less than 5 per cent of returning women being offered a more senior or even similar role in their company, compared to their roles before they left the workforce, according to a 2016 report by Robert Walters.
When working mothers do return, they say they receive judgement from supervisors and colleagues when leaving early to fetch their children from daycare or when there is a child-related emergency.
Some parents also say they tend to be afraid of being penalised in their performance if they took advantage of family-friendly policies offered.
Sometimes this stems from a sense of professional responsibility. I interviewed a senior manager of a multinational company who had her firstborn four months ago at the age of 34.
She, like some of her peers, returned to work within three months – not using up all of her maternity leave at one go – as she had new members on her team and felt the need to settle important job-related matters.
Still, although the situation in Singapore is not as severe compared to other countries – I had an American ex-colleague who returned to work five days after childbirth – we could do better in providing psychological safety to mothers.
They should have the peace of mind to truly take time off work while they sacrifice their time and sleep in taking care of our next generation.
Of course, it is naïve to think this comes at no cost. Organisations do have to find alternative arrangements for the work to be done in the meantime, in having team members cover for the employee and hiring temporary staff.
Yet, when these measures are accepted, and become the modus operandi, managers can encourage mothers and those with caregiving duties to take time off and quit feeling like they owe the company something.
In Sweden, a country generous with maternity and paternity leave (480 days of paid parental leave per child, that parents share), mothers experience high levels of mental well-being.
It’s a win-win solution. Research has also shown that paid maternity increases labour force participation and productivity, as women can return to their jobs where they have already developed skills.
BENEFITS TO THE COMPANY, FATHERS
There are larger benefits for the company when stronger support for mums is rendered. Gender diversity has been shown to correlate with higher levels of organisational growth, innovation and productivity.
At a personal level, with the various challenges facing mothers managing work and home persisting, we are in danger of losing competent, high-performing members of the workforce.
Just like how companies are prepared to pay top dollar for the best talent, providing a conducive environment to retain highly talented female employees is no different.
Recognising that new mothers also mean new fathers is a first step. Fathers also play an active role in the upbringing and development of their children, and share the burden.
Organisations should exercise empathy to both genders – encouraging this socially important function without worries related to career progression.
Green shoots are planting the way for us. There are measures giving paternity and shared parental leave in Singapore when a child is born.
WFH arrangements for both parents in dual-income families have seen an increasing shift in men also taking responsibilities for childcare. Continuing in this direction can lighten the load on mothers.
SAFE ENVIRONMENT AT HOME
More importantly, a safe environment must goes beyond paying lip service and having family-friendly policies in place.
Mindsets are key. Offering subsidised or free childcare services and added childcare leave for parents may not be effective when employees fear judgement should they take up these offers.
Similar results regarding telecommuting policies pre-pandemic have been found, where the perceived importance of presenteeism discourages workers to work virtually.
This is especially so for parents of young children at the fastest growing part of their career. They have a lot to lose if they appear to be choosing family over their jobs.
(Can you say no to returning to the office? Listen to EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung and HR strategist Adrian Tan debate how to navigate this tricky dilemma on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
For organisations that can plan ahead, perhaps some degree of flexibility will help not only with new mums but all workers. Deliverables can still be finished by a certain deadline if working parents are given the autonomy to decide when and how they finish their work tasks.
Well-planned meetings to discuss important issues can still be held before parents need to pick up their children from daycare.
Sometimes all it takes is a kind act – like when colleagues offer a listening ear and show solidarity.
Ultimately, fostering a collegial environment where co-workers are genuinely empathetic and where there is enough trust and transparency at the workplace to allow employees to reach greater heights in the multiple roles they hold at work and at home is what we should strive for.
After celebrating Mother’s Day last week, let us work towards helping working mothers.
Let’s consciously create a safe, supportive environment and let them know that it is, indeed, possible to have the best of both worlds.
Dr Rashimah Rajah is a lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.