Play the long game: Motherhood and work is a game of chess

Lisa Unwin

Lisa Unwin is the founder of She's Back, a new organisation helping organisations access the untapped potential of women who have taken a career break. 

There’s a lot of talk throughout the health service about creating a workforce that’s fit for the future - but any workforce is full of individuals that need to make sure their own careers survive and thrive in the long term. What do working mothers, in particular, need to do as they face the inevitable tension between caring for young children and keeping a career on track?

At She’s Back, our research has repeatedly shown that women choose roles and working hours that accommodate their work and care responsibilities, with some women giving up work for a time. But those choices can come with penalties: less promotion, fewer opportunities, an assumption that you are less committed or ambitious. Our advice is to take care with the choices you make. Imagine this is a critical game of chess.

1. Think like a chess master 
A chess master doesn't resign from a game simply because she’s in a tricky situation. She thinks strategically, planning three to four moves ahead. She has an eye on the end game. A decision to step back or give up work is often made in reaction to a current situation, based on emotional, financial and practical considerations that exist right now. That might make sense today, but will it enable you to play the role you want, living a life you love in the long term? Having young children is temporary. As one of our network put it so candidly: “Seeing my daughter start senior school made me really think about what I was going to do with the next 20 years of my working life, something I had given zero thought to when she was six and I resigned from a great job.”

2. Be prepared to lose some pieces

The grand master not only has a strategy, she knows what pieces need to be sacrificed to manoeuvre herself into a winning position. In the life of a working mother, that might mean taking a different role for a while, investing in new skills, seeking out a coach, or finding a mentor. Equally, it might mean investing time in keeping in touch with people who can help you with your next move once your circumstances change. The world is digital and women cannot afford to ignore this. The good news is that digital skills are not difficult to learn. You are using them all the time, it just doesn’t always feel that way. Women are also fantastic at networking (they just don't call it that). They call it being helpful, having conversations, supporting each other. Don’t stop just because less of your time is spent at work, just be savvy about who you talk to. Stay connected at all costs.

3. The queen is not the only piece on the board
Yes, she’s important, powerful, a great multi-tasker - but there is a king as well and you can’t win the game if you lose him. For every woman we meet who feels unfulfilled because she gave up her job, there is a man who feels stressed by the pressure of being the sole provider. No-one wins in the long run. Don’t assume it has to be the woman who will step back or drop out, perhaps both parents can cut back and cover childcare between them. Share the joy. Both parents benefit from being involved in their children’s lives.

4. Different phases of the game require different skills
The first phase of a game of chess is busy. There’s lots to do, many pieces on the board and a common set of tactics and strategies. At work, when you’re fresh out of college, it’s all about getting on that career track, gathering experience, building networks, and completing your training. Everyone’s working full-time, putting in the hours, and building their reputation. The middle phase is different. There’s time for more imagination and risk taking and it can be the same with work. You’re much more than a fresh-faced graduate, you now have a wealth of experience. There is - or should be - the opportunity to contribute in a different way. To combine work and your family responsibilities in a way that works for both sides. The critical aim? Stay in the game.

5. Be a player
However good your coach is, whatever books you've read, however much practice you've had, you’re the one that has to make the moves. The chess player is alone out there in the match. This is your career. You can make it work in a way that suits you by being focused, tenacious, and by negotiating the role you want. Deal with objections about the need to work five days a week by offering certainty of quality and delivery. Know your value and sell yourself. You may have knock backs, but don't give up.

Don’t see your career as a series of retrospective manoeuvres, responding to circumstances as best you can. If you think like a chess master, that begins to change. There’s a bigger game to be played than just work-life balance. It’s the game of creating your life, one move at a time, designed to set up all the people and organisations in your life - partner, children, colleagues, employers, friends - to give you the opportunities, support and guidance that you need, each step of the way.

She's Back is gathering evidence from women who have returned to paid work after a career break. Complete the Are you back? survey. Visit our HSJ Women Leaders Network web hub for more info and resources for women leaders.

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