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The Ambitious Woman’s Dilemma

The Ambitious Woman’s Dilemma

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My mother calls me a workaholic. I prefer… ambitious.

The truth is, I am extremely proud of what I do.

My career is a large part of who I am; it defines me. It helps me to make sense of my role in society and I use it as a driving force to continuously improve myself. However, as I am about to turn twenty-seven, I have started to have the yearnings of becoming a mother. At first, I embraced this new revelation, but then as I started to progress in my career… the idea began to scare me. I feared what it would do to my budding career.

I’m not naïve. I know that most workplaces discriminate against working mothers. I remember participating in various work events where most of the married women were unable to join. I mean, does it make sense for a young mother to go for weekly badminton game sessions after work or late night mamak sessions on Friday nights? While the rest of the team bonded, the working mothers often got sidelined.

It is interesting, however, that the married man can ALWAYS make it for after-work hang outs. But that’s a different story.

So, while the working mother might not be able to bond with her colleagues, she does not escape their judgement, either. I’ll be honest, I used to judge a colleague of mine for leaving early so she could pick her child up from the nursery, or when she had to leave our meetings halfway through because it was getting late and she wanted to put her baby to sleep. And that would mean that the rest of the team had to cover her unfinished work.

And it gets worse.

Recently, a General Manager from a local corporation shared how his colleague had to decline his department’s participation in a new project because the majority of his staff are working mothers. This means that it is simply “impossible” for them to meet the deadlines. He cited that they are reluctant to do overtime and are never “focused” at work. These are the same reasons that the upper management use when it comes to giving out promotions to working mothers. Maybe this is why very few women actually rise up in the ranks at their workplace…

While working mothers get discriminated at work (especially by poor colleagues like me), the rest of society is not much kinder. The standards on what it means to be a “good mother” and a “good wife” are often used as a yardstick, especially against working mothers who are unable to be at home 24/7.

I listened to a close friend of mine beat herself up because she could not manage her home to the standard that her stay-at-home mom did. She could not cut herself some slack despite having to leave for work at 6.30AM every morning and return home at 9 PM every night. And I believe most working mothers feel this guilt; it is either induced by the people around them, or self-inflicted. This shows the powerful influence these standards hold over working mothers. It is unsurprising, then, that their careers take a backseat.

With all this evidence before us, you can understand why I am reluctant to start a family. Especially when my work is so important to me.

Still, I was determined to find answers. So, naturally, I turned to the women in my life.

I spoke with ten women, four of whom are married. I tried to reach as diverse a group as possible, but my time was limited and most of the working women I know are around my age. Another caveat would be that most of these women grew up in metropolitan areas and have access to opportunities that would allow them to have successful careers. They also have similar views to mine, although in varying degrees. I asked them a series of questions in order to reveal their views on marriage and married women, challenges faced by working mothers at their workplaces and what they think is the best solution to my dilemma.

Views on Marriage and Married Women

On the topic of marriage, everyone seems to agree that marriage is a natural phase of life, and that they do plan on getting married at some point. In fact, 4 out of 10 of the women I spoke with believe that it is a practical and economical move. Since most of the women I interviewed are in their mid-2os to early 30s, what stood out was that, for those who are actively looking for a partner, it is because of the pressures they receive from their family and friends. Considering that these women earn their own income and were raised as “city kids”, it is somewhat surprising that the pressure to have someone “take care of them” is still prevalent among us. Somehow, there is a sense that they are deemed “incomplete” individuals because they are still unmarried.

When asked about their views on women who married early (below 25), none of the women seemed to have a problem with it since they understood it is a human right. However, 9 out 10 women would not prefer for their own daughters to marry early. They believe in changing the emphasis on marriage and would instil the value of independence instead. I asked one of the mothers in the group why the emphasis on independence was important and she replied, “If you were smart, you would focus on your career first. It is important for women to have something to fall back on because you can’t depend on men.” And this came from a happily married woman with four children.

Challenges Faced by Working Mothers at Work

I am not proud of this, but I did find two women who felt apprehensive when it came to working with mothers. The view that you would have to take on a bit more of the work compared to the working mother is very much real. In fact, it is common sense. However, I do feel that this apprehension comes mainly from a place of inconvenience and work-related stress. The rest, that did not share this apprehension, came from relatively understanding workplaces. In fact, I found out that one such organization actually compensates their employees who are obliged to take on extra work in the absence of colleagues who were on maternity leave.

Based on my conversations, I found out that the industry that you belong to does affect your job performance as a mother. Since I come from the education sector, my work environment has proven to be supportive of working mothers, which leads me to believe that there is some truth to that stereotype. Similarly, non-profits and start-ups are known for their unique work culture and policies, such as flexible working hours or days and work from home options.

On the other hand, a friend who works in the corporate sector shared how her marital status does affect her ability to climb up the ranks. Interestingly enough, this affects men, too, since bosses tend to prefer the ‘single’ status. This translates to your ability to commit to the job since you do not have other “responsibilities”.


Best Solution to My Dilemma

What stood out about these women, especially the single ones, was that they all seem to have a timeline for marriage. Most of them intend to “move on” with their lives once they get past 35; meaning that they would assume total independence and disregard societal expectations. One claims that she would move out of her family home by that age, while others are considering adoption. Considering that 9 out of 10 of these women subscribe to a faith, it is necessary for them to get married in order to become mothers. That is why I feel the need to address the role of the wife in this discussion since in most contexts, the roles of wife and mother go hand in hand. However, since adoption by single women is permissible in most religions, these women are open to considering it an option.

Having said that, they are careful to not romanticise the idea of single parenthood. It is hard work, and having a partner would help, vastly, when it comes to raising a child.

Which brings us to the question: what makes a good life partner? Now, this can be a standalone discussion in its own right, but to be brief, these women believe that a good partner is someone who understands the importance of self-actualization. Case in point: one of the women cited her husband as her inspiration and motivation for possibly pursuing her Masters. Another claims that she has become more independent because her husband supports all her pursuits.

Another key lesson that I learned came from a friend within the group. She made a valid point on how women tend to react to the pressures of society. She posits that we tend to react, rather than respond, to the pressures that come our way, especially when it comes to making key life decisions.

Why do we need to be married by 25? Why must I have a baby before I turn 30? Instead, we should respond to these pressures by considering whether we actually want to do something because we are ready, and not because society expects us to do so.

If that means that I have to work twice as hard at the office in future because a single colleague is apprehensive towards working with me, then I will prove her wrong. Because, ultimately, my personal choice is my career.

I am aware that this is easier said than done, but the things that matter are supposed to be difficult. I believe that our approach, however, should not be rigid.  The greatest crime we can commit upon ourselves is to allow these expectations to dictate how we live our lives.

True freedom for a woman is when she stops putting limitations on her needs and capabilities – it is standing up, instead, to those limitations and saying, “I’ll be doing this my way, thanks.”

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