A Hong Kong mama has devised a way to stay in the game, even while warming the bench.
“Working from home” is a euphemism. When my out-of-office message delivers the message to the recipient, in truth, I am nowhere near home. I am, instead, sitting by the football pitch while my daughter trains, or perched on the sidelines of the basketball court – which is where I am today. My hands hover in place above the laptop keyboard, while my eyes follow my son dribble around his opponent and execute a layup. Not bad, I thought. My eyes return to the laptop. I wish I had more eyes so I could simultaneously watch him play while I work.
The whistle blows. Half-time.
“Mama!” he calls out while jogging towards the sidelines. “Where’s my water bottle?”
I wave half-heartedly towards the end of the bench. Where does he think his water bottle is, I grumble to myself. It’s where he left it!
He finds his water bottle, gulps down a few mouthfuls, and returns to start the second half of his game. I continue to warm the bench on the sidelines. This bench is familiar, almost a little too familiar. In fact, in the past few years, it feels like I’ve been hot-desking from one sideline to another, with my schedule dependent on which child is playing which sport. While I am able to take advantage of the WFH lifestyle, I do wonder to myself: if the corporate world is a ball game, is it possible to play whilst sitting on the sidelines?
Working Mums: Have Skin In The Game
Once upon a time, I had a “real” job. But my career trajectory moulded to life’s changing seasons.
As my family grew bigger with each child, my jobs became smaller, in a sense. I successfully climbed down the income ladder with every career move.
Eventually, I worked pro-bono at an NGO. While I deliberately chose the lifestyle work roles, I envied friends who chose a more linear career path. Some girlfriends got promoted to Managing Directors, some took advantage of company mobility to relocate for exciting roles. I even begrudged the mothers who had a reason to dress in pencil skirts and blazers devoid of baby spit-up.
My story is different. For the last decade, I’ve been pottering about in no man’s land when it comes to career progression. ‘Pursuing my fullest potential’ required more than I was prepared to give up as a mother, wife, aspiring writer and mediocre Crossfitter. I experimented with how to craft a fulfilling and flexible role within our allotted inflexible 24 hours. I tried all forms of work: almost full-time, part-time, flexi-time, some time, and when the children were very young, hardly any time.
It’s taken me years to strike the right balance, and more often than not the scales still tip unfavourably to one extreme or the other. But I’ve learnt a thing or two! If you also feel the pull of work and the tug of staying at home with the children, let’s work out how to keep our skin in the game and play strategically from the sidelines.
I believe we can have it all: the chicken, the egg and the barn. We just can’t have it all at the same time.
Read more: How To Reduce The Mental Load On Mamas
Play for the seasons, not individual games
Careers are measured in decades, whereas time with our children is measured in years (18 years to be exact). With numerous seasons of life ahead of us, there is no rush to scramble up the career ladder now. God willing, there will be plenty of years left after the empty nest.
Don’t waste this season while you are on the sidelines. Pursuing “work” may not look like the traditional trifecta of an office building, pencil skirt, and Bloomberg machines. Instead, it may look like returning to school to get a certification or a degree to refine our knowledge. It may involve copious amounts of reading industry news to stay relevant. It could be volunteering for an organisation in your field of interest, which is what I chose to do for some time. My particular passion lies within the nonprofit sector, and specifically to understand how NGOs can be more resilient, effective and sustainable. I’ve approached my curiosity in a multitude of ways: by fundraising for charitable causes, by consulting for NGOs on a pro bono basis; by sitting on a board to understand the grant-making process; and now consulting at a corporation to engage with beneficiaries. Though the pieces seem scattered, the accumulated knowledge allows me to stay connected, learned, and constantly inspired. Keep up your cerebral callisthenics. And one day, when the time is right for you, and the coach calls your name, go out and smash it.
Prioritise your life’s game plan
Identify your priorities and understand what fills your tank. For me as an individual, it means spending a fair amount of time at the gym to become a less mediocre Crossfitter and even more time at my desk to write articles. While both of these pursuits may not garner many accolades, I feel alive when pursuing these activities. My priorities as a mother mean spending weekday afternoons with my children, doing homework, chauffeuring them from one activity to another, and yelling at them. I suppose if anyone is going to yell, the privilege should be mine. And I might add, this privilege does not come without its sacrifice. It might mean declining the late afternoon meeting or the client dinner, both of which I’ve struggled to give up. But in the long run, it doesn’t matter – the home runs you score more than make up for these.
Play By Your Own Rules
My father was an executive recruiter and he always said something which I kept at heart. He taught me there are several ways to define success at work, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the size of your paycheque. Meaning and fulfilment, he imparted to me, are two other ways to measure career success. We can gauge our success by asking “how meaningful is it to future generations?” or “how fulfilling is this job to myself?”
My work in non-profit is not lucrative. I recall a few months ago when I received my first paycheck after two years of not earning an income. I was tickled that someone would pay me for doing what I loved. When I proudly announced to my husband that he was no longer the sole breadwinner, he peered at my cheque and joked “Yes, you can buy the bread now too! But perhaps only the bread.”
But while the number on the cheque is not large, the meaningfulness of my work is rewarding enough and fills me with great satisfaction. All of us have a passion, perhaps the new year is a good time for you to follow yours?
Working Mums: Always Part Of The Team
The horn blares and my son’s basketball game is over. His team lost, 24-20. I look up from my laptop to see the two teams in parallel lines, moving in opposite directions as they give each other a high five. His steps are a little heavier and slower than at halftime, and when he’s done with the perfunctory motions, he walks back to me, where I am waiting for him on the bench.
“Hey buddy, chin up! You tried your best out there,” I encouraged him. I put my arm around his shoulder, while my other hand gives a quick ruffle through his sweaty hair. He rests his head on my shoulder and we walk together off the court.
Not a single afternoon meeting at work would have been worth it to miss this game. Being on the sidelines means I can celebrate with my children their victories, and comfort them after their defeats.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
At the back of my mind, I’m still ruminating about my aborted email regarding the impact measurement of a pilot programme we’re launching at work. But that email can wait until after the kids are in bed.