Are children really the reason?

It has been said that it isn’t until a woman has children that she realizes how gendered the world really is, not until she is faced with the cultural expectations of motherhood. This was the case for me. Before I became a mother, I got my degree in economics and embarked on my career, taking for granted that I would be able to work on the same terms as men. After all, this was what I had been taught. I then got married and for years my husband and I worked equal amounts and shared any household chores when we were at home. And then, a few years down the line, we had our first child.

Living in Finland, I was lucky to have a long maternity leave. I could give birth, care for my baby, and recover physically in my own time, so that when I went back to work, I would be ready to pick up where I left off. My husband took the few weeks that he was legally entitled to. It was good to have him around after the birth of our child, and at the time I didn’t really even consider the incongruence of it all: my months vs. his two or three weeks. Internationally, Finnish maternity leaves along with the high-quality childcare system are celebrated for making it possible for women to combine children with a career. However, what is usually not recognized is that these long maternity leaves also work as barriers to equality. They keep women out of the work force for long periods of time, and as a result, women end up working less and making less than their male counterparts, which has consequences. But not only that, after spending months – or even years – at home being the main caregiver and also being mainly responsible for household chores (I mean you’re at home so you might as well vacuum and do the laundry while you’re there, right?) the roles between spouses also become very traditional. Typically, when a woman does go back to work, she continues to do the brunt of the childcare and household chores – old habits die hard. Then suddenly she finds herself working full-time, but also doing more than her share at home. This happens very easily, even in the most equal of relationships. That I can vouch for.

So yes, it is a fact that women easily feel overwhelmed when it comes to combining children with work. And yes, the situation is very different for women than it is for men. However, interestingly, it turns out that on the most part, women do not generally give up their careers for their children; or children are at least not the sole reason. Although children naturally play in, research has shown that women find it easier to give children as the reason, as they are generally applauded for this, than it is to deal with a conflict head-on. After all, women are expected to put their children before their work anyway.

In my research I have found that despite gender differences and the cultural contradictions that career women with children face, the reasons for opting out of one’s career are very much the same for women – with or without children – as they are for men. People who leave their career, lack a sense of coherence. They feel overwhelmed and they find that having a career the way that is expected just isn’t worth it. They want to dedicate more time to the people in their lives, be it children, other family members, or friends. They want to continue working with something that feels meaningful, but on their own terms. They don’t want to feel like they are being swallowed whole by their work. The new lifestyle they adopt and the line of work that they end up pursuing gives them a sense of authenticity, coherence, and control. This I have seen across the board, whether or not children factor in.

So what does all this mean? It means that the gap between how people are expected to work and how they want to work is getting wider. As I see it, we are standing at a crossroads, and this is the time to rethink the definition of the ideal worker. Organizations need to do this. We need to do this. Only then can we continue to attract and retain talented individuals. And only then can we create workplaces and career tracks that are sustainable and – workable.

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