When stepping back fails.
A year after having my first child I returned to work and just a few months later I found myself in my doctor’s office asking for help as I knew my health was deteriorating.
I was told I was just a new mum and all new mothers are tired. But I knew something wasn’t right, I just didn’t know what.
Fast forward three more visits to my doctor and numerous blood tests later, and I was still none the wiser for my increasingly deteriorating health.
I found myself slipping further into devastating health problems - on the worst days I’d lie on the floor with my son to play with him and not have the strength to get back up.
I felt lost, helpless and alone. After a few more months of struggling, and with the amazing support of an incredible health practitioner, I finally got the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. I’d literally burnt myself out in the first year of motherhood.
After experiencing a high-risk pregnancy, having an emergency c-section and then giving birth to a baby who had a hole in his heart, it had taken its toll.
At 5 weeks old my son was described as 'failing to thrive' - a term that I still can't quite say without my own heartbreaking a little.
The truth is that as a new mum I too was failing to thrive. My son was approved for open heart surgery at 7 weeks old which was devastating. Thankfully he defied the doctor's expectations and his heart started to heal and recover.
I, on the other hand, didn't start to heal and thrive so quickly.
I loved my son and being a mother, but I was struggling with motherhood.
I yearned for the certainty of my work. The sense of accomplishment and control that I got from feeling capable and professional at work.
I thought returning to work after my maternity leave would help me feel more myself.
But it didn’t.
I found myself caught in a trap between being the ideal worker and the ideal mother.
Trying to work like I didn’t have children and be a mother like I didn’t work.
So when I got my health diagnosis I knew something drastic had to happen. Something needed to change to help me to recover from my adrenal fatigue.
As the founder of my own business at least I had the autonomy to make some changes to how I worked. So I tried working part-time and then flexitime in the hope that a different working pattern would help me to get my health and sanity back on track. But they didn't. So I took the difficult decision to step away from my work completely to recover.
Yet, despite less responsibility in my work, I was still tired and burnt out.
Although I felt grateful that I had the privilege not to work, I felt even less of myself.
I lost an important part of my identity.
I realised that I wanted to live well *and* work well. The two aspects of my life were important to me and I needed to find a way to incorporate them into my life in a sustainable way. On my own terms.
That was when I had my epiphany. It wasn’t about whether I worked or not. Or about the number of hours I worked. Those were influencing factors, but they weren’t the answer to my problem. I knew something deeper needed to happen.
I call it my breakdown to breakthrough experience. I had to rethink how I approached my life, not only on the surface but deeper than that. I had to reconnect with what I really wanted and needed before the world told me what I should be doing.
That's what led to me giving birth to Wisdom For Working Mums - giving other women access to the tools that helped me to flourish.
If you find yourself stuck between your work and motherhood
If you’re asking yourself if you should stay or go
If you find yourself pinballing between focusing on your career or leaving your job to try and navigate the often conflicting identities of work and family life, then I wanted to share with you something that would help.
Here are seven self-coaching questions to help you decide what’s right for you:
1. What am I feeling?
Our emotions are chemically encoded data - they offer us great wisdom if we can sit long enough with them to listen to their message.
What emotions are you feeling? Tired? Resentful? Disappointed? Angry? We are constantly experiencing new things which means our emotions are rarely static, which complicates being able to identify what is going on with them.
The more you can get clear on the precise emotions you’re feeling the more empowered you’ll be as to what action to take.
This process is known as “emotional granularity” or getting super-specific about our emotions. This clarity isn’t just about using the right vocabulary to describe your emotions, but it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This level of awareness is empowering.
2. What do these emotions tell me about what’s most important to me?
This seems like a simple question but it’s far more nuanced than it first appears. When I’m working with my clients I encourage them to dig deeper than the surface response. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion to get to your core values. If someone says “My children are important to me!” I would absolutely honour that response but ask them what it is about their children they find important. Is it love? Is it connection? Is it belonging?
Keep asking yourself this question - what’s most important to me - until you feel that you’ve got a clear sense of it. This won’t necessarily come easily because often we’ve been raised in a culture that tells us what’s important and we start to lose touch with our internal compass.
When we can understand our true core values we can get away from scratching at the surface to try and meet them. Instead, we can start to align our decisions and directions to our hearts.
3. What stops me from living my life in a way that aligns with what’s most important to me?
Once you’re clear on what’s important, now it’s about looking at what gets in the way.
The chances are that there are external constraints - the clearer you can be on them the more empowered you’ll be.
But maybe there are also some internal constraints, sometimes we unconsciously create self-imposed restrictions. Perhaps there’s a story you’re telling yourself that is stopping you. This requires a level of self-awareness and honesty because sometimes we can’t see the stories, as we just believe that they are reality rather than a narrative we’ve adopted along the way.
On my own journey, I had to face some unhelpful stories I’d gained along the way. For example:
‘A good mother is always there for her child’ - which meant I constantly felt guilty when I was working
‘I can only be professional and do a good job for my clients if I’m available Monday-Friday 9-5’ - which meant I constantly felt like I was failing if I tried to plan my work around my family commitments
Understanding the blockers to be able to flourish in your life is important - not only the external constraints but also the self-imposed constraints that cause frustration and could be helping to keep you feeling stuck.
4. What would I be giving up by leaving?
With any change, there is inevitably some compromise or loss. Being clear about what you would be saying goodbye to may clarify whether you are really prepared to let go. For many of us, our work is not only a source of income but informs our sense of purpose, impacts our self-confidence and enables our social affiliations. Taking all these things into consideration is important to make an informed decision - it’s important to consider short and long-term impact.
5. What would I gain by leaving?
This question explores what benefits you might gain by leaving. If you really reflect on this question you might not only get the primary gain - the one you’re conscious of - but also the secondary gain which is one that is generally unconscious. Again it’s important to consider the short-term and long-term impact of this question as it helps to consider the consequences of your decision.
6. What other options do I have?
When we feel under pressure or overwhelmed it’s easy for our thinking to become more rigid - we can fall into unhelpful thinking patterns (known as cognitive distortions) which limit our ability to assess our situation and options effectively. This question is designed to open up your creative thinking and take you away from all or nothing thinking, over-generalising or jumping to conclusions. If you sit with this question long enough you’ll begin to explore all the possibilities that exist and move away from just focussing on the limitations of your situation.
7. If anything was possible what would I do?
This final question is designed to help you think outside of your current reality. We tend to make assumptions about how life is and what we can do. But if you free yourself to think outside of what is currently happening or what you consider to be possible you might just find a solution that is absolutely achievable with the right mindset behind it.
I hope these seven self-coaching questions help you to explore how to combine your work and motherhood in a successful and sustainable way for you. Knowing that there is no one-size answer for everyone - it’s about exploring what is the right answer for you and your life. Here’s to finding the path that supports you to flourish - wherever that may take you. Because we only get this one precious life and you deserve to enjoy the journey.
About the author
Nicky Lowe is founder of Wisdom For Working Mums and an award-winning coach who has personally supported thousands of executives in some of the world's best known organisations to navigate burnout and thrive personally and professionally.
She’s a mum of two children and, after having her first child, experienced burnout. This experience was a catalyst for her to reimagine her approach to work and motherhood. Nicky now supports women to combine their work and family life in a more successful and sustainable way - without sacrificing their sanity or wellbeing. Applying her coaching, leadership and psychological skills to help working mums to truly thrive.
Nicky runs a thriving community for working mums; running regular online masterclasses, digital courses and sharing insights through her popular podcast Wisdom for Working Mums. Head over to www.wisdomforworkingmums.co.uk to sign up to receive a weekly email with the latest podcast episode, tips and strategies to navigate life as a working mum.