“It’s ok, honey, you don’t have to work.”

Is that cloud lifting or encroaching?

Is that cloud lifting or encroaching?

As professional working mothers, this statement is often one we never expect to hear from our partners. Some of us yearn to hear it and would consider this statement a breath of fresh air. Yet for some of us, this statement brings on heavy black clouds.

What is intended as a loving and supportive statement from our partner can come across as a soul-destroying threat.

Many of my clients have grappled with the internal and external conflict this statement elicits and often triggers the questioning that leads them to search out coaching.

The men issuing this kind / cruel statement tell me:

“It hurt to see my wife so stressed about work. I love her and want her to be happy. I thought it would help her to know she didn’t have to work if she didn’t want to.”

“I was shocked that she was so angry when I told her she could stop working.”

“She’s worked so hard bringing up and taking care of the children; I should shoulder the responsibility to provide the financial support – she’s supporting the family in so many other ways.”

“I don’t understand why she got so upset… I just wanted her to know I’m there for her.”

“Sometimes I look at everything she is doing – at home and at work – and I feel I’m not doing enough.”

Why is this so threatening to us?

  1. Our career is so closely tied with our identity. With a career break of any length, our identity has shifted and we are coming to terms with this. Part of our return to “normal” is putting that suit back on.
  2. We may feel we can elicit some sort of control over variables (time, boundaries, deliverables) at work which we can’t with an unpredictable baby. Some of us crave the control we’ll feel by getting back to work.
  3. Work may signal freedom:
    • Space – Even the previously onerous commute alone in the car or on the train where we can listen to music or a podcast, read a book, or just enjoy the silence. To think in a straight line and finish a sentence or a task. This is physical and mental space we may not have enjoyed for months.
    • Financial freedom to hire a nanny or send the children to nursery. To get a manicure or attend a networking event without making a budget trade-off.
  4. We have learned to enjoy the feeling of achievement we get from work. Regular performance reviews help us set tangible goals, we receive regular feedback, we achieve tangible things. Suddenly, as new mothers, we expect ourselves to perform and achieve goals we really don’t understand but have set for ourselves at a subconscious level. We don’t receive feedback unless things are going drastically wrong, and there is never a “finish line” or end of project.
  5. Being told by someone else that we don’t have to work takes away an element of our independence. Most of us are accustomed to independence when it comes to our career choices – and the feeling that someone is making those decisions for us can feel threatening.

Identity. Control. Freedom. Achievement. Independence.

These are powerful rewards. They are also core values, some of which we may not be aware.

No wonder this seemingly simple statement can come across as threatening. When core values come into question, our immediate emotional response can be very defensive, depending on our energy levels. When our core values are questioned, we react emotionally by making assumptions based on past experiences, and making interpretations about the intention behind the statement. In some cases, the situation can touch a sensitive nerve, and awaken a gremlin: a not-so-positive belief about the value of ourselves and our careers.

For many of us, we were brought up to strive to satisfy these values and we succeeded, often without even being conscious of what was driving us.  To feel that all of that hard work in pursuit of meaningful goals – and our ability to satisfy these core values – could be taken away with one phrase, or to feel that the momentous value of our work is not as significant to our partner as we thought can very well feel soul-destroying.

Then we had kids, and again often without realising it, we might be striving to satisfy other values, or our values might be shifting – again, without being totally conscious of what we are striving for.

So what do you think? Has your partner issued this declaration? How does it feel: black clouds or sunny day?

Next Week: How do we handle this conversation? How can we understand and appreciate the intention behind the statement? And how do we create an opportunity from this confusing moment?