Managing ‘it’ all: Women and the Pandemic.
13th April 2021
As our newsfeeds are filling up with stories and statistics about how the pandemic is adversely impacting women, it can be difficult to see a way forward.
Because even as the schools go back, restrictions slowly lift, and we eventually see a return to some sort of normality, we are still left facing the fact that during this time, so many women felt they had no choice but to deprioritise their own wellbeing, their own mental – and physical – space, their own productivity and, ultimately, their own professional ambitions in order to manage it all. A recent study by Maynooth University reported that mothers took full responsibility for homeschooling in 65% of the families surveyed, with a worrying impact on the workforce: 1 in 10 women have already left their job due to pressures of managing work and homeschooling, and a fifth have felt under pressure to do so. It’s a dangerous precedent to set.
The issue of women and unpaid labour, of “the invisible job”, of the lack of recognition and adequate support for care related work, is of course nothing new. The incompatibility of living up to old-school organisational expectations while also running a family and a household has been negatively impacting women for years, who even before the pandemic were on average doing three times as much unpaid care work as men. In my talks and workshops to organisations and female leaders, I normally include a photo collage made up of pictures of overwhelmed and multitasking women. The fact that these are so easily accessible as stock imagery is telling in itself (compare a search for “women juggling” with “men juggling” and you will see what I mean). They have never once failed to resonate.
My own overwhelm led to a burnout that it took me the better part of a year to recover from. In the years that led up to it I had been burning the candles at all ends: I had gone through all top five life stressors in rapid succession and was now parenting alone, dealing with my mother’s passing from terminal cancer and keeping it going in a challenging, although rewarding, leadership position. All in all I thought I was doing a pretty good job of being on top of things – but equally that I had no choice but to do so. I had everything down to a fine art: arranging pick-ups and drop-offs, planning play dates and birthday parties, calling in favours from family and friends when I had to work long hours, and spending my weekends batch cooking whilst staying on top of emails. Sure, things were stressful, I was tired, and I never seemed to be able to recharge my batteries. But that, to me, was just how things were. And you just got on with it.
Until I hit the wall big time and realised that, actually, there was quite a lot I could have done differently. That while a lot of my stressors were external and outside my control, my own thoughts and actions were not. If I hadn’t felt that I had to be everything to everybody, if I hadn’t put myself under pressure to meet an unattainable standard, if I had realised that I actually couldn’t do it all, that I didn’t need to do it all, things might have worked out better. Now I make mindful decisions about what I take on and not, and it has made all the difference.
A disclaimer here: I am a psychological coach who works with mindset. The issue of women and unpaid labour is clearly not another thing that should be put on women’s shoulders to solve at an individual level. It requires structural change and investment, and a willingness by those in power to address it.
But mindset does matter. The way we feel about ourselves, what we think we should be doing, how we prioritise – it matters. And we owe it to ourselves to take that seriously, too.
This requires work. Because it can be uncomfortable to challenge those assumptions, which very often are closely aligned with our values, with what’s important to us in life and with who we feel we should be. We might also have to challenge those around us, and their expectations of us. But if nothing changes, nothing changes. And the beauty of learning how to “manage it all” in this way is that you get to define what the “it” is. And the No Guilt Solution? You already have the answers to what that looks like inside of you. We are just so used to tuning them out.
In my work with my clients we spend quite a lot of time on reconnecting with that inner voice and challenging those assumptions about what you need to do. And we look at practical steps you can take to deal with overwhelm and implementing the changes you need.
Here are my top five tips for actions you can take here and now:
1. Ask yourself what the life you want to live looks like. Be specific here, describe it to yourself, feel it, visualise yourself living it. What about it brings you joy? What’s important to you in it?
2. Look at what your life currently looks like, what a typical day is like and what you spend your time on. How does it align with your vision? Then make one change. Just one for now, pick something that would make your life easier if you didn’t do it.
3. Give yourself a little treat every day. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be hiding away in your room with a cup of coffee for 5 minutes. But make sure you tell yourself that this is your gift to yourself, today.
4. Make a plan for the day or for the week. But make it realistic. Decide what you want your three most important achievements to be – anything else is a bonus. Take shortcuts wherever you can.
5. Every couple of hours, breathe in and exhale deeply three times. Set an alarm for this if you have to! It’s amazing how this simple exercise can make you feel.
Ingrid Seim is a psychological coach and the founder of Avenues Consultancy & Coaching. She works with women who want to set themselves ambitious professional goals without sacrificing their work-life balance, and with organisations eager to support and retain their female talent.