Did I Leave the Table Unnecessarily

When my husband and I left home at the end of September for a short holiday, an intense pain pulled my heart as I gave my kids a hug and walked away.    As the door of our home was closing I took a deliberate and intense look at my son and daughter, for it felt as if it was going to an eternity before I would see them again.   It did not help that they too were distraught and in tears when we were leaving.

I am sure what I experienced was a mother’s pain of parting.   Partly guilt perhaps, but this is our first vacation without the kids since our first-born arrived 10 years ago.  In a way we earned it.  Well, my husband earned it – an incentive trip from his company and one we could not decline.

That pain is familiar from my prior years of business travel.   However, I have wondered is it because I love the kids too much?  Is there even such a thing or possible for this to be “too much”, and am I different from other mothers?   I have pondered such questions, especially as I reflect on my decision to scale back my career a second time, to devote more time and attention to my children.

In June, I left a senior role which I held for four and a half years, a role I felt was taking too much of me at the expense of family.   It was a secure and financially rewarding job – as much as I was paid I was expected of, I suppose?    The job carried demanding responsibilities which left me with limited mental capacity or attention span for my children.   My kids are 9 and 7, no longer babies, but far from independent.   My family life and my kids’ were at mercy with the leftovers of me.   In chasing one thing after another, the stress of my work had spilled into my kids’ psyche.  One day, I came across my daughter’s poem at school, titled “Island Child”.  It was a beautifully written piece about a child waking up in the morning with the sounds of sand and ocean, but ended with a depressing note as she described the child shaking off her dream back to reality and stress.   Yes, she used that word “stress” in her poem.  I was heartbroken and decided it was no longer fair.

Still, I had wondered whether it was a stupid thing I did, especially when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”.    In her book, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks of a “leadership ambition gap” and the low numbers of women in leadership roles.  She encourages women to “lean in” instead of giving work up for family.    I paused for a moment as I read her suggestion, wondering whether I left the table unnecessarily.

Is it because I love my kids too much, I asked again?   Should a mother have to choose, and how can I deny myself of how I feel about this?

A couple of months ago I heard my boss from a previous job said this about me – “Vivien did really well, but she loves her kids too much.”   This is from the last time I scaled back.  I was in private practice with a major international law firm, one of the largest and most reputable, and I had a key role in a fast growing area.  Unfortunately, it was a miserable time for me, as I can remember most distinctly my struggles whenever I was called away on business trips, missing my then 3-year-old and 18-month-old tremendously and always struck by that same pain I felt last week.    Many times I was struggling at airports, hoping I could stay around my babies, and I could never wait to head back on the first possible flight.

I recall I was once at lunch with a Partner/boss and fellow Senior Associate, both of them male and married with children.  Somehow our conversation drifted to children, and we talked about how busy our work was, not having time for family.  My colleagues began to lament the birthday parties, performances or other special moments they have missed.  The difference is, in a male egotistical manner, they seemed almost proud of it, half joking that they could leave it all to their domestic half – their wives.    For me, I felt guilt to my children and sorry for myself missing out on my precious.  Looking around me, there were almost no other female lawyers in the firm who were mothers like me, and definitely not mothers of two.   Most of the people I worked with were male, or single women.

Frequently I was called on work trips, sometimes with short notice, even at times covering for others outside my projects or areas of immediate responsibilities.   I begun to feel angry at what I thought was disregard for my personal situation.   I wished the powers were more sensitive – remember I have two babies at home; others could have been assigned for the trips I was asked to make.   Yet, in the competitive climate in law firm culture that was and still is today, these were opportunities meant to be savoured.

At first I went along, but then it really got to be too much for me, and I had to say no.   I hated saying no.  Where there are many Senior Associates vying for promotion, for partnership, saying no was simply saying no to advancement.   I hated having to choose between family and work commitments.  In the end I decided to leave.   I did not want to stay in a game where I couldn’t win because I could not give as much.  I did not want to sacrifice my evenings or weekends or another invaluable moment with my kids.  In the end, I decided family has to come first.   It became clear then such a life was not for me.

So I left private legal practice and joined an investment management firm as an in-house counsel, presumably a better work-life balance.   It was, initially, but the work and responsibilities started piling up.  Besides the late night or early morning conference calls outside office hours, the business trips got more frequent too.  There was no free lunch – holding the position I held, I was to perform and deliver.   I was supporting multiple business units and managed a team of legal professionals.   I was often on the blackberry if not in the office – work again occupied much of my time.   By now, motherhood also brought fresh demands.     In the evenings and weekends, my children need help with homework and organising their schedules.  When I was busy or traveling, their work and our household could become a mess.   My husband has an equally demanding job and was constantly away.   It was becoming clear I was not doing it right for my children as I was hardly able to focus on them.  I was often tired and had time for little else.  Once again, I knew I had to make changes.

Working mothers really face a tricky situation.  I “leaned in” time and again, but the demands that followed were more than I could accept.  The reality is, demands of a highly competitive corporate and business world are often quite incompatible with family life, especially in senior positions.   Whether for men or women, family life is forced to take a backseat.

I was almost working round the clock, putting in my all.   In a way, I think mothers may tend to overcompensate at work due to a sense of guilt that “they are trying to balance it all and hence not doing enough”.   However the truth is I could not work any harder: project after project, meeting after meeting, document after document, trip after trip.

It can be even more frustrating and brought unnecessary stress if support or understanding is lacking in the corporate culture.    There was a time I got home way past midnight after a full-day trip to Beijing, and went into the office late that morning after spending some time with my kids.  My manager gave me a mark of disapproval which made me feel guilty and embarrassed despite all.

Here’s another challenge:  After I put in my resignation, a colleague in another department, also a mother of two, shared with me that her manager called her in and asked  whether she was also going to resign at some point.  It seems she was already labeled as likely to take the “Mommy track”, potentially risk being passed over for opportunities or promotion.    When I heard that I feared my personal choice has done a disservice to my fellow working mother.   I shudder to think of the potential impact on my future career prospect.

I believe women generally feel more responsibility than men toward family and children.  Certainly I do, as somehow the need to care for my family and the sense of responsibility over their broader wellbeing is programmed deep inside me.  This could be biological, and probably sociological, and I am not unique.  This explains why many working mothers leave the work place at some point, especially as they advance, and when they can afford to, when the work environment does not support but starts to conflict with family needs.  Many reports have highlighted such statistics and tendency.

Vanessa and Lucian with mealworms at the Sydney Wildlife Centre

For me, the important thing is I am ultimately happy with the decisions I made.  Nothing matters to me now more than being able to spend invaluable time with my children, and the delight and fulfilment are totally worth it.

My new role does not just mean being a “stay-at-home mum.”    Instead I may now have the ability and flexibility to pace myself and shape my professional development in a way that suits my family’s needs.     I continue to keep track of regulatory and market changes for my field, and I am also taking this opportunity to pursue a journalism course for personal growth.    At the end of the day, I can only follow my heart (and I know I am lucky to be able to).  I hope I would not be judged for it, but more importantly I am hopeful my kids will benefit doubly from my decision.

Lucian at violin class - determination is key here.

Lucian at violin class – determination is key here.

Vanessa received her RAD ballet exam certificate
Vanessa receiving her RAD ballet exam certificate

For more on motherhood vs career:


“Yes you can” Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

Also this article: Why “Lean In” conversation isn’t enough”

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