If you leave the world of work, you leave your professional identity behind, and this can be a difficult adjustment for many stay at home parents.
Former lawyer turned business owner Amy Wong realised she was pregnant with her third child. The discovery unnerved her. “For the first time in my life, I was doing nothing (other than growing a baby inside me) and I found this very difficult. I was no longer a lawyer or business owner. Now I was just a pregnant stay at home parent and I had real issues with this. My identity was completely lost.”
Losing her professional identity was also a source of angst for former Deloitte Director Kully Jaswal. She took a career break to accompany her husband on an expat assignment to Hong Kong six years ago. “My career was a huge part of my life, so when we moved, I tried to find part-time work. I struggled to find something that would suit my family needs. I feared being labelled the ‘trailing spouse’ or ‘expat wife’ and being stuck with this identity.”
Whilst the number of male accompanying partners and stay at home dads is on the rise. The majority of parents who forfeit their careers for their family continues to be women. Women are continually faced with the dilemma of progressing up the career ladder or stepping down for the family. When women put their careers on the back burner to become an accompanying partner or stay at home mum (SAHM). They face a few big challenges, observes Clinical Psychologist, Dr Kate Threlfall.
“The first and most impactful is that they give up the self-esteem and positive reinforcement they are accustomed too. The second is that people often create their social circle at least in part through work. Lastly, being the trailing spouse or stay at home parent generally means financial dependence. This can negatively impact on a person who is accustomed to earning an income, as well as shift the division of power in a relationship.”
Amy, still struggles with her sense of self-worth
. “All my life I had been a high achiever academically and professionally, until I had children. I used to have a career earning good money and now I do not. I feel I do not have full control over my life now and am reliant on my husband financially. As a professional there was always a defined ladder to climb and a path to follow. Now I sometimes feel lost and wonder (and feel as though I should be planning) what I will be doing next.”
Stereotypical attitudes toward SAHMs and an ignorance of their role strike the greatest blow to their self-esteem, notes Amy. “The main struggle women have with being labelled a SAHM is experiencing the switch from once being highly regarded in a profession. Having intelligent conversations, earning money and going to work events, to it now being assumed that you have no brains. Only an interest in talking about kids, schools, helpers and spas, and going to endless playdates.”
Like many families in Hong Kong, Amy employs a domestic helper to assist in household chores. As a result, she says, people grossly underestimate the full and busy schedule of a stay at home parent. “When people ask me ‘So, what do you do with all your time now?’ I have to bite my tongue. SAHMs generally feel that they don’t get any recognition for the time and effort required for parenting,”.
Mums who have shelved their careers often look to their partners or children for positive sentiments about their domestic efforts. Whilst it is not developmentally appropriate to expect children to routinely congratulate you on your parenting. Working partners can make an effort to spend time with their partner and appreciate the domestic efforts, says Kate. “Where couples often get caught up is that there is much left unsaid and assumed. Making the unsaid said can help significantly,” she advises.
Last year, former advertising consultant and mother of two, Rani Arora reluctantly agreed to relocate with her husband for the third time in six years. “I’m in limbo as a trailing spouse, socially and professionally. My husband travels for work and when he’s here he’s too tired to help out with the kids. He jokes about the leisurely lives of tai-tais, or how men fund their wives’ shopping habits, which really hurts.”
Pre-defining the roles and responsibilities that each partner will undertake as a parent can help to defuse marital discord, advises Family Coach Cora Ha. “Most couples do not define their responsibilities towards each other and their children beforehand. Which results in one or both of the parents feeling trapped into a ‘I didn’t sign up for this’ situation. Parenting classes can help to put things on the table for discussion before they happen so there can be more alignment. This reduces friction and increases gratitude for what each person is doing.”
WORK LIFE BALANCE
Rani’s desire to return to the workplace is quashed by Hong Kong’s work culture, which makes it difficult for mothers to ‘have it all’, she says. “Work-life balance is still a relatively new concept here. Working in the corporate world, there will always be trade-offs and feelings of guilt as a result.” Especially if you were a stay at home parent prior to going back to the workforce.
Amy recalls feeling overwhelmed by guilt and exhaustion when she juggled work and family commitments as a lawyer. “When I returned to work after maternity leave, the law firm allowed me to work part-time by seconding me out to clients. It worked well at first but then it became clear to me that I was working in a silo. My career had started to slip and I was not promoted in line with my peer group. I was told by one of the most senior male partners that if I wanted to be promoted I needed to return to the firm full-time. Even though I was working ‘part-time’, the nature of my work meant that I was practically working full-time, just not from the office, but this was not recognised,” says Amy who, months later, set up Bumble Tots in Ma On Shan.
While losing your professional identity can be profoundly unsettling, a break from a traditional career can offer women the opportunity to re-evaluate their interests and values, says Kully. “Ask yourself what is important to you and what you would love to achieve over the next few years. Think about your interests, skills and strengths and work with them.”
Amy recently embarked on a parenting course to gain direction in her new career as a stay-at-home parent. She is also doing an aromatherapy course and intends to switch her family to aromatherapy oils for health problems.
“Hong Kong is the easiest place to set up a business, so if you have an idea, don’t be afraid to go for it,” says Kully.“ The key is to network either by joining various chambers, clubs and networks, starting a course or doing voluntary work to get you started and to meet relevant people.”
For some parents, a loss of professional identity when they become a stay at home parent is not much of an issue. Former English teacher Siobhan Dawson and her husband planned to take a career break to travel around Asia. Instead, her husband was offered the opportunity to relocate with his job. The couple chose to move to Hong Kong, fell in love with the city and are now happily raising two children here.
“Being a full-time mother is not for everyone and women shouldn’t feel pressured to give up their careers. Equally, it sometimes feels like others think that being a full-time parent is a sacrifice and that you’ve put your life on hold. I love my role as a full-time mum, it’s the role I wanted the most in the world. I feel lucky to spend my day surrounded by little people who generally have the best view of the world. Raising them to be strong, independent individuals yet all the while wishing I could hold on to them a little bit longer. These are the best years of my life!”
Cora Ha sums it up, saying that. “Ultimately, identity struggles arise when life circumstances dictate whether a mother works or stays at home. When women make an informed and planned choice to take on a family-centric role, they are less likely to struggle with their identity.”
*This article originally appeared in Playtimes Magazine in March 2015 and was updated in February 2020.
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