My experience returning to work after maternity leave

My husband Gareth, me and Joshua on his first plane trip when he was almost 2 years old.

Hi. I’m Amanda. I’m mumma to 2-year old Joshua (we call him Joshie), wife to Gareth and cat mumma to Poppy. We live in Papakura, New Zealand. It’s almost as far South in Auckland as you can get and still call it Auckland. We’re surrounded by native bush, kereru (wood pigeons) and tuis. 

I’m writing this to share my biggest challenge in becoming a mother. How my sense of self was changed, and how returning to work challenged me to assess what was really important to me. Maybe it’ll inspire you to think about your own situation? 

Pre baby, my life revolved around my work. Achieving things at work; being financially independent; basking in the accolades of a job well done. I was proud of my professional capability. I thought that, when the baby came, I’d take some ‘time-out’ from work. Perhaps make some new mum friends and go on coffee dates. But I’d return to work eventually. The baby would go to day-care. I’d pick up where I left off. Easy as. I rather naively thought that my life would continue as normal, but with a little person in tow. Mums reading this are having a knowing chuckle right now.

I was incredibly underprepared for the social isolation and sleep deprivation that came from new motherhood. For the crying that would constrict my heart. The depth of frustration from not being in control, and entrapment from being unable to escape it. For the raw protectiveness. The feeling that a part of me was walking around outside of my body. The immense pride in what I had created. Watching him grow and marvelling. Holding him close and breathing him in. I simultaneously felt the terror and the love. I walked the paths of it being the hardest thing I’d ever done, and the best. 

But who was I now? My identity had changed. Everything I was before became secondary. My world no longer revolved around me and my work, but around this little person. While I was on maternity leave this was a challenging question to grapple with. But it became more pronounced when I returned to work. 

I went back to work when Joshie was a year old. There was nothing obviously wrong with how I was treated. I had part-time hours and flexibility when he was sick. But I experienced things, considered ‘normal’ parts of work and being a working parent, that didn’t feel right. I was struggling with how my priorities had changed. I was trying to perform, to meet expectations and prove that I was just as good as my colleagues, as I was pre-baby, amongst sleep deprivation and the revolving door of daycare illnesses. I was attempting to balance what needed to be done at work, as well as spending time with my family, quality time with my husband and son, running a household, my own wellness, but I was doing them all inadequately. I felt like I was drowning under a perfect storm of unrealistic expectations, unhelpful systems and constant failure.

But one of the most useful things I did, shortly before starting back at work, was meeting regularly with a coach. We worked through how to have difficult conversations about my role at work and family responsibilities; to ask for what I needed and set boundaries. We identified what my strengths were, and worked on leveraging those. And each time we met we got closer to uncovering, and tuning my focus towards, what was really important to me and my family. We focused on steps forward, out of the storm. 

The outcome. After 5 months of being back at work and unable to reconcile being the mother I needed to be with the worker I wanted to be I resigned to pursue my PhD and build my own business. I am aware that my ability to do this is privileged. But I want to help others where I can. 

My experience became my inspiration for my PhD topic; Motherhood and Leadership. My research focus is evolving, but I’m traversing the raw, visceral, unpredictable and very human worlds of motherhood, contrasted with the imagery of ideal workers as all-in / all-committed to work and leadership as a charismatic, predictable, controlled man. 

And I’m drawing on my 15+ years experience coaching managers and leaders towards high performance, to offer the same sort of coaching that I found so powerful on my own journey to other mothers navigating this world of work and life. 

Post originally published July 2019 on CareerMum https://www.careermum.co.nz/amanda-sterling-biggest-challenge-in-becoming-a-mother/

Gardening space

My actual garden

Gardening is one of a few things where I completely lose track of time. There’s something about being outside, pottering from one task to another, getting my hands dirty, and the satisfaction of weeding, pruning, planting. There is also something so continual, impermanent and exciting about gardening. I can weed one area but, without further care, the weeds will grow back. I can plant new plants and, as I care for them, they reward me with different colours and textures. I’m slowly learning what plants grow well in our soil and in different parts of the garden. Much of my gardening experience feels like creating space, light and nourishment for things to grow and then hoping for the best. But what keeps me going outside is not the never ending list of tasks that need doing but something else that I can’t quite put my finger on…. It’s something about why I do it. 

So as I’ve been struggling to articulate the core principles of my PhD research method I’ve found this question of asking ‘why’ quite helpful. Even if I can’t articulate it for my gardening, perhaps I can with this? So here are a few things I’ve been thinking about around why I’m designing, and doing my PhD research the way I am. 

The ‘measures of success’ of my research rest on reciprocal story-telling and powerful conversations. It’s about the flow of interactions that build from one person to the other. This is a space within and between, where power is not held by one individual, but passed around through webs of connection, through the conversation. This is the air that is breathed within the backbone and ribs of my research focus; motherhood and leadership. Oxygenated through a practice that “privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems and ways of seeing” (Haraway, 1988). Basically, what gets written up in my thesis at the end of my PhD, or any academic publications, will be important for the awarding of my degree, but my ‘outcomes’ are in the now, continual and ongoing. 

I’ve also long advocated for a grassroots approach to organisational change. This is power and transformation through individual actors participating in webbed and collective consciousness raising. This is not about organisations designing ‘initiatives’ or even consulting their staff and boiling it down to key actions… but a making, and holding, of space. I can’t give you fact sheets from my research, I can only give you the space for powerful conversations. Personally, it’s largely unsettling for me. There is no definitive path to where I’m going with this. But I reflect that there is not a lot we can know in advance these days anyway. But, if anything, can this uncertainty open us up to something quite extraordinary?

But this extraordinary is not towards a claim of ‘knowing’. But a continual strive for understanding. I must make space for the telling of stories straight from the mouths of those who have lived them. These are stories told through your own eyes and voice. I can no sooner tell you a ‘true’ story of a Black, Maori, Pacifica mother, as I can a caesarean, vaginal birth, breastfeeding, bottle feeding mother, or a sleep deprived, body conscious leader. Even if I identify with, and connect with her. Because the beautiful and brutal nuances of her story are not mine to tell. As soon as I hear, and retell, her story through my own heart and lungs. I take that story and filter it through my own voice. It is no longer hers, it is mine. Yet, it should never be mine. Her story loses the body that makes it hers. Her story loses her eyes. 

This is one of the reasons I am advocating to connect back to the lived experiences of bodies in my research. It is not only that the bodies of mothers make us mothers, and place us as ‘others’ within leadership. But also the embodied nature of our vision as a specific and situated lived experience. What do we see with our own eyes? Without the assistance of augmentation and transcendence – glasses, screens, telescopes, quantification or helicopter views of other lives. There are no generalisations or simplifications, or interchangeability of knowledge here. But partial perspectives from contextual positions. 

But I still need to acknowledge the power in telling and retelling these stories. These are the powerful conversations that people connect with. Those who interact with my research come because they feel some sort of belonging to the topic, the conversation, that is part of them but not all of them. There are potentially multiple platforms or connection points for these conversations to take place. The focus groups and reading this post are two. But I’m also reflecting on how I breathe life into ongoing powerful conversations, in other ways, and what kind of space I create to do this. How do I create space for stories to be told, interpreted and retold while recognising that the life that is breathed into them will be through different lungs? 

And now that I’ve articulated these thoughts in some form, I have a truckload of mulch to move so my baby native plants survive another water short summer. So it’s back into the garden for me. 

References

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

Art, death, bodies

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I don’t understand art.

I tend to read the little placards next to paintings, or find the descriptions written somewhere on the walls near installations. I take note of the details, and then glance at the art to confirm that what those words have told me is true in what I see. Checking that off, I then move on to the next piece of writing and repeat the process. Trips to art galleries and museums are often an experience in digesting what someone else tells me about something and taking that as the truth. 

I went on a little excursion to the Auckland Art Gallery last week to see a couple of exhibitions that explore the body, gender, identity and feminism. ‘Bodies’ are part of my PhD research and I’m also using the creation of ‘art’ as a research tool. So I thought this might be an enlightening exercise. What answers could I find for how to express and explore bodies through art? What could someone else tell me? 

I tend to do that. Base what I should do on what someone else says. How to explore bodies. How to make art. How to write. How to do a PhD. How to coach. How to work. How to be a mother. How to be a leader. How to be a wife. How to be a friend. Sister. Friend. Colleague. Daughter. Someone please just give me the instruction manual for life. I promise I’ll follow the rules and live peacefully. 

What I’d like to tell you is that I had an epiphany moment. That I found some answers. But there wasn’t. Not really. Or maybe there was. All I can tell you is that I stopped reading the instructions. With my back to the exhibit, I tracked the text down the wall, noting what it told me…. and then stopped halfway …. and turned around. I did it for no particular reason than a flicker of thought; ‘what might I experience differently if I stopped listening to what someone else told me and looked at what was there?’

As it turned out, I turned around to be confronted by death. In the form of booming words of melancholy from Shahryar Nashat’s installation in the Honestly Speaking exhibition asking “what happens to my body when I die?, Who will carry me forward to the next place?” Aside from the physical discomfort bought on by holding a heavy handbag the duration of the video, I felt uncomfortable and sad.  Death is a hard thing to stand with. But reminders of death keep appearing in my research. 

As mothers we lend our bodies to our babies, to extend ourselves forward in time. In a way, a little piece of us will walk on past our own deaths. We will be tied to the land through a continual link. Our bodies are integral to this smallest piece of immortality. But how do we, as mothers, walk the world in our bodies? There is a piece by Robyn Kahukiwa in the The Body Reborn exhibit expressing the disconnection of Māori mothers birthing children to the land when there is no longer a Māori land for them to walk on*. In my research, in myself, and the world around me, I see enmeshed judgements and disconnections levied at ourselves or served up by others, that threaten our tenuous links with our bodies, and our connections to our worlds through them. What comes next for us?

We all die. Our consciousness is bound by our bodies and it’s fallibilities. For the most part, particularly in Western culture, we don’t like being reminded of this fact. And it’s why the transferring of ourselves to some form of artificial intelligence is so alluring. But also why allusions to death through reminders of fluidity, where our ultimate bodily release is to soak back into the earth (or burn in flame), are so uncomfortable. Birth, in its leaky bloodiness, and anything associated with it (e.g. pregnancy, periods, emotions) are abhorrent within normalised structures of order and control, cleanliness and sanity. What we gravitate to in order to feel safe from our ends. Encountering fleshy humanity within organisations is a reminder, at a very deep level, that we will die. 

The consequence of this is that the parts of our lives, where bodily sensations – feeling, emotion, empathy – are inhabited, are often denied or silenced. They are tucked away so as not to unsettle us. They are given less value. Think of the caring work or emotional labour that goes on in the home or the equivalent of these within paid employment. This is the ‘women’s work’ that women so often inhabit. This work is often the work of the body. This is where our connections to people and what we do for them bring us into reality – make us exist.

In my last stop on my art gallery visit I stared at Jacqueline Fahey’s ‘Final Domestic Expose’**. It was only after looking at it for some time, a chaos of roast dinner, nail clippers, laundry piles, children, dishes, before I read the sign to make sense of it. A sign that asked if we can acknowledge it all and claim the beauty and meaningfulness of it all. 

I still don’t understand art. But maybe that’s the point? 

*This is my interpretation of the imagery. I’d love to understand this better and have more Māori mamas/leaders participating in my research. Please reach out if you’d like to be a part of it. 
** I enjoyed how this image was such a stark contrast with the School of Athens that I wrote about in this blog. Chaos contrasted with control.

Article also published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/art-death-bodies-amanda-sterling/?trackingId=vjkunFFARWecVITAT3bXyg%3D%3D

The School of Athens

The School of Athens, from MyModernMet.com

For as many years as I’ve owned a laptop I’ve had this image as my screensaver. It’s a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael in the Stanze di Raffaello within the Vatican. It is one in a series of four images representing branches of knowledge. The School of Athens, as it’s called, is described as a representation of philosophy. The Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle are featured at its centre, pointing to the earth and the sky, and other ancient philosophers are said to be represented throughout the painting. 

As a seeker of knowledge and humanity, I’ve long admired this painting. The School of Athens is often described as one of the best examples of the spirit of the Renaissance. A period of ‘rebirth’ within the Italian art world, where the unearthing of ancient greek statues heavily influenced the norms and forms of depicting human beings. But also where scientific explorations rippled significant changes in how the world was characterised and captured. It was a period where the imposing grandeur of religious iconography, with its heavy use of gold leaf, gave way to secular depictions of day-to-day life; where dark, foreboding colour was replaced with light and bright hues; where imaginations of the world were transposed with scientific and mathematical interpretations of scale and perspective; and, where abstract interpretations of the human form where reconstructed with attention to skin, muscle, tendon, bone, to weightily enflesh the body. You could say that, during the renaissance, life in art was represented with closer attention to humanity.  

I’ve used my understanding of this painting before, as a metaphor to illustrate a movement, within people and culture professions and organisations, to pay greater attention to, and allow for, ‘real’ human beings. If we could design and develop opportunities for greater humanity within work, people would be happier and therefore more productive. We could ‘rebirth’ our organisational constructs from bureaucratic, hierarchical, industrialised and highly controlled, to organic, free-flowing, spacious, autonomous, emotive, purpose-led, values driven, customer-led, ‘experiences’ of work. This is a prominent theme through many contemporary narratives of work and organisation and one which I’ve added my voice to; how can we make our workplaces more humane?

But as I read more around my PhD topic and have my ideas about the world challenged, I am re-interpreting this painting. It is emerging to me now as symbolic of blockages for representing humans at work. This painting tells a lot by what it is, but it also tells much by what it is missing. 

There are no women. Those who are perceived as the greatest philosophers of our time are all male. Even when we don’t know which males they are, because not all the characters in Raphael’s painting have been definitively identified. They’re just all male. When we think of experts, or even leaders, we more often than not think of men. I’ve blogged before about the male ‘ideal’ worker, the disembodied and male manifestations of leadership and the lack of representation of women. Let’s face it, this painting is the historical equivalent of today’s board room photo. 

Bodies are modelled off of men. In 15th century Europe the models that the, mostly male, artists had access to were often also male. Consequently, even where women were depicted, their likenesses were often based on male physiques. Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Ceiling almost next door to this painting, was well known for painting beefy muscular women. 

In modern organisational culture, appropriate standards of bodily representation modelled around men govern acceptance into the halls of power. The ‘female suit’; blazer, shirt, skirt is an adaptation of the male suit. The ‘right’ body weight and grooming is indicative of an ability to demonstrate control over oneself, play the right game, and project competence and commitment. All characteristics exampled by the ideal worker / ideal man. We make automatic judgments about people based on their bodies and their adherence to these codes.

Women, or for that matter anyone whose body does not fit these standardised characteristics, are excluded from automatic representation. Pregnant, or embodied mothers, further push the boundaries of accepted norms. 

The mind is more valuable than the body. The Renaissance was known for its re-interpretation of the human body, particularly the exploration of the ‘natural’ body. Leonardo Da Vinci was most famous for this, with some of the first anatomical studies using cadavers. But the study of the human body has long been one of rigour, classification, control and, most importantly here, of delineation between corporeal body and sentient mind. A split that is based on a scientific methodology, rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, that values the mind as a source of knowledge, and bodily sensations and perceptions of reality, as untruths and illusions that cannot be validated through the rigours of science.

Therefore we value knowledge and we devalue bodies. For example, we value the ‘knowledge’ economy and ‘knowledge’ workers more highly than say a production worker or a carer, who uses their physical self to do their work. The simple order is that control and rational reasoning are the operating systems of modern organisations. Our modes of organising are predicated on the delineation and classification of functions, on having structure and boundaries. Emotive bodily sensations, insights and identities are unpredictable and uncontrollable. They are allowed as long as they are consistent with the organisation’s framework of values.

The types of bodies represented, and how they are valued, are concepts I am exploring as a way to make sense of a question asked when I presented my research proposal at the beginning of this year; why do bodies matter to my research? 

I thought the answer was obvious. We all have bodies. Having more women in senior leadership positions means having more women’s bodies in senior leadership. So bodies matter. But obviously it’s not that simple. Bodies are still kept at an arms length. Both in research surrounding gender dynamics and within interventions addressing gender diversity and inclusion within organisations. Rationality trumps and tramples bodies every time.

There has to be a better way to include embodied women within the picture we paint in the future.

Also published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/school-athens-amanda-sterling/?published=t&trackingId=jlnE9oH%2BSkSSRLSYIZBxZQ%3D%3D

Men and Monkeys

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

I was watching a documentary with my son this weekend that followed the story of a troop of Macaque monkeys, their ousting from their home by a rival gang, and the emergent leadership of a lower-caste monkey called Maya*. Maya was the underdog in this story. Pre the dramatic eviction from their home, the monkey troop is described by the narrator – Tina Fey – as ‘led’ by a male ‘alpha’ called Rajah who is ‘backed-up’ by a ‘sisterhood’ of three female monkeys. Maya is at the bottom of this hierarchy, forced to live on the ground and scrounge for scraps while the ‘higher class’ monkeys live in the abundant branches of the tall trees. The pickings are slim on the ground and Maya often has to use her ingenuity to scrape together enough food to feed herself and her son Kip. She is beaten, and has Kip removed from her, when she doesn’t prioritise the ‘sisterhood’s’ first dibs on an important food source. But it’s the kind of scrappiness and creativity that Maya has had to use day-to-day that becomes critical to the troop’s survival when they are all forced to relocate from their territorial rock to a city. And it is Maya’s enhanced survival instincts and ‘leadership’ that brings the troupe back home again in a dramatic retaking of their home rock. The story ends with the demotion of Rajah and the ‘sisters’, and with Maya and Kip at the top of the rock. But it is Maya’s baby daddy Kumar who is now described as the ‘alpha’ of the troop. 

I use the terms ‘described as’ and the inverted commas on purpose here. We ascribe meaning to stories, or roles, depending on our view of the world and the cultural ideals we hold on to. Including, dare I say it, our interpretations of science. The ‘truth’ of it is that much of the natural sciences research has been written by men within historical contexts where domination is recognised as a legitimate form of capital advantage and the subjugation of women has been seen as a ‘natural’ extension of their reproductive role. The consequence of this is that the observation of the ‘natural sciences’ has often been based on dominance and control as the axes of group survival.  So the story that then becomes told is that the ‘alpha’ is the leader and, at the end of the day, the leader is a male. 

What if we shifted our perspective on this story? What if we reframed the language that has been used to tell it? 

What if we said that it was the ‘sisterhood’ who were the original leaders of the troop? Three females coordinating between them, instead of one male?

What if we said that it was Maya who became the ‘alpha’ of the troop at the end? And that the survival of the troop, and the ‘success’ of their ‘leadership’, was based on ingenuity and creativity? Rather than the domination, control, aggression and sexual prowess categorised in Rajah’s and then Kumar’s behaviour? 

The studies of primates, as our closest living cousins, have long been used as a mirror for our ‘natural’ human selves. What would we look like without the intervention of a sentient intellectual culture? But there is no ‘true’ interpretation of this. Because the language and voice, of those with the most power, articulates what gets said and what doesn’t. Science is not fixed and absolute, but a political debate for what counts as public knowledge. 

I’ve been reflecting on the kinds of leadership behaviours that are being categorised as ‘successful’ throughout Covid-19. What will count when we go back to stable ground? If we ever go back to some form of ‘normal’ that is. It’s not types of leadership that are necessarily ripe for re-articulation here, but what allows expressions of leadership to be brought into being, or not – to be recognised as legitimate. 

I’ll leave you with a simple exercise to practice on this topic. It’s one especially for parents. Observe how many of the main characters in your kids bedtime stories are boys? How often do personified characters (i.e. the talking animals, vehicles, toys) get referred to as ‘he’ more than ‘she’? 

Because when I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet** they sent me a whole lot of ‘he’s’. So if there is one thing within my power to do, it is to make a conscious choice about how I articulate the world to my son – to express that women can feature in our stories as the main characters, the leaders, just as much as men and monkeys. 

*Monkey Kingdom on Disney+

**Referencing the popular children’s book Dear Zoo.