Can you project-manage motherhood? The pros and cons of tackling parenting like a profession

Are women who try to manage parenting the same way they would work aiming for the impossible?

When I became a mother for the first time at 34, I was ready. I had the books, I took the antenatal classes. I practised the breathing. I was aware of the challenges ahead: the tiredness, the late nights, the endless nappies. I was ready. Right up until I had the baby.

As a professional woman working in media and marketing, I’ve faced challenges before. I’ve worked in project management, content production and business development. I’m a double graduate from a modest background. I’ve moved countries. I’ve been the only woman in an all-male team. I’ve worked until I was exhausted. When I found out I had a baby on the way, I was sure I had every process and tool I needed to make this, Project Baby, a success.

Working women have high standards of achievement

For many working women, obtaining professional qualifications and working in a competitive environment requires them to work hard, push through blocks and adhere to strict schedules. That’s how they’re taught to study, to work and to define achievement.

Women who see children as an extension of themselves, rather than separate beings, will project a lot of their own goals on to the child

Not only that, but many women are under pressure to over-deliver in their professions. Research by HR consultancy Lee Hecht Harrison points in its 2019 Elevating Women in Leadership report that 60 per cent of women say they always work hard, compared to 45 per cent of men, while 28 per cent of women say they always deliver over and above to impress, compared to 19 per cent men.

Why do we feel the need to do this? One explanation is that professional competency is often aligned with traditionally masculine attributes, even down to our appearance. A study by psychology researchers at Princeton University found that faces that are seen as competent are also perceived as more masculine. As a result, women feel they need to double down to be taken more seriously.

The abilities that had served me well in a professional environment, I now expected to take me through motherhood with flying colours.

The need to be in control

Lyndsey McCullough, 42, a marketing professional in the UK with nine-year-old twins, agrees. "It does feel that there is an expectation that if you have a successful career, you will be able to add parenting into your repertoire as easily as taking on a new project or client."

There is this idea that working women need to work like they have no children, but also need to parent like they don't work

Teacher and mother-of-four Gemma Brolly, 37, says: “With my first child, I wanted to do everything right. I was always a very organised, methodical teacher. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail was my motto. I thought if I was well prepared, I could control most things. With my first child, I slowly began to learn there is only so much you can prepare for.”

Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia wellness centre in Dubai, acknowledges that some women may feel as though parenting is simply the latest project to be tackled, and cautions: “Some women who are achievement or goal-orientated, who haven’t ‘done the work’ of being more conscious or balanced, might see their children as projects. Women who see children as an extension of themselves, rather than separate beings, will also project a lot of their own goals and agendas on to the child.”

Technology can be a crutch

Technology, too, plays a role in modern parenting that echoes how we relate to it in society; with more information comes the need to discern that information, while still staying attuned to invaluable internal insights. Our mothers and grandmothers did not have access to the wealth of online resources to guide them, but they also did not have the pressure to demystify them.

Few parents have escaped the lure of Facebook groups, development apps and the hundred of websites all purporting to offer “expert” advice on everything from feeding to potty training to education.

Afridi says: “Our mothers only had old wives’ tales and intuition to guide them. We have science and knowledge; however, all this information comes at the risk of us losing touch with our inner wisdom.”

Accessing and trusting this inner wisdom is also rendered difficult in the face of the expectations of modern mothering. Popular parenting programmes and aspirational accounts on social media are reinforcing the pressures on women to keep their “performance levels” high. A 2016 iMom Project study of more than 700 mothers by researchers in the US found that mothers making comparisons on social networking websites experienced higher levels of depression, and felt more overloaded and less competent as parents.

Dr Sarah Rasmi, CDA-licensed psychologist and managing director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says social media is feeding into our internal tensions. “It gives us access to people’s curated worlds and lives. What we know from social psychological science is that the types of social comparisons that we engage in have a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. If somebody feels confident, then we’ll engage in balanced comparisons. If we have lower self-esteem and we’re questioning our ability to balance our professional and parenting roles, then the types of comparison we engage in are going to be upward.”

Helicopter parent alert

Rasmi says perfectionism in parenting can actually negatively impact children. "A study [on over-parenting] published [by the American Psychological Association] this year found that parents, and mothers in particular, who are high on the trait of perfectionism are more likely to engage in helicopter parenting. When we look to the data, the people who grew up with such parents are more likely to have poor psychological outcomes."

Brolly says she feels that pressure. “In parenting, we have many goals, but the sense of responsibility is for life. I guess my biggest fear is never achieving that sense of achievement, in that I have been a good parent.”

Rasmi addresses this common dichotomy at the core of parenthood for working mothers. "There is this idea that working women need to work like they have no children, but also need to parent like they don't work. Obviously, this is something that is impossible to achieve, and so a lot of women find themselves in a lose-lose situation with a lot of guilt surrounding them."

When faced with this pressure, a need for control emerges, a concept, says Afridi, we are obsessed with. “The more knowledgeable we become, the more anxious we become, and the more our rational brain tries to control every aspect of our lives.”

And how do we relinquish control? “By reminding yourself that this is exactly how it should be, when things go right or wrong. It’s about taking all the pressure off yourself and being in the present moment.”

Applying work ethics to parenthood

To take a project management approach is not all bad, however. Many aspects of it can prove valuable, not only at the beginning of your parenting journey, but also to keep you moving through the stages as your children grow. Time management, setting expectations for all stakeholders and having a clear goal in mind are all transferable traits.

McCullough says that conversely there are many aspects of parenting that can impact our professional lives for the better. "There are plenty of skills that parenting can bring to the table: empathy, patience, understanding grief and loss, knowing when to walk away and taking a closer look at your priorities."

I personally found the concept of surrender to be a powerful course corrector, reminding me to let the experience unfold. Raising children is much more than hitting a set of milestones on time. It’s about raising men and women, who are ready to love and be loved, to be independent and create their own successes. No spreadsheet is going to help you set that into motion.