Tuesday 1 November 2016

Working Muslim Mama: Deciding How Much Energy to Dedicate to Work

I have always been of the belief that being a working mother does not make you any less competent or capable of handling complex and high profile work, nor of handling work that puts you under intense pressure. That sounds like an obvious thing to say but I think working mothers are sometimes considered as not being able to commit to the same level as everyone else due to their children, or that they are conflicted or distracted in some way due to their responsibilities.

When I worked in the Civil Service I was suggested as a candidate for their fast track programme for graduates called the Fast Stream. At the time Little Lady was very little and I decided that the scheme might mean travelling and long hours and I was not willing to commit to this if it meant less time with my little one. One of my colleagues, also a young mum of one, questioned why she had also not been suggested for the scheme and the manager foolishly suggested that it was because she was a single mother – you can imagine the storm that created. But it made me realise that when managers saw you as a mother, they assumed you could not commit or were not able in some way – before you even got the chance to assess whether this was true for you or not.

The last two year as a mum of five children, including my crazy baby, who really does seem to have unlimited energy mash’Allah, have been a major reality check for me. I have had to assess what I can realistically do with the 24 hours I have, without going crazy or falling apart from exhaustion. I have had to give up lots of things whilst trying to retain a little something outside of work and homemaking that feels like it is for myself (being able to write for instance).

I have always operated from the position that if you are taking time away from your children because you have to work, then you might as spend that time doing good, valuable work, rather than just counting down the hours till you leave. I felt that the length of time away from home is the same regardless of what you do, so why not take on the responsibility and complexity rather than an easier option that feels less taxing. But this mind-set did not take into account the fact that work takes energy and focus as well as time. I didn’t think of this before because I always felt like I had unlimited energy and the work was rarely taxing or fast-paced enough to challenge that.

What I have found as I have moved towards doing work that is more pressured is that there is a cost in terms of the energy and focus that you have left for other things. I used to go home from work, get the house work and dinner done and spend time blogging or making cards or jewellery. My brain needed more stimulation. My work at the moment, delivering projects as part of an organisation wide transformation programme, is intense and fast-paced, I have to keep multiple workstreams going and not miss or forget anything. I very often find myself trying to work out how to do something I have never done before. I am also on a learning curve which means I am constantly taking in information, assessing it and trying to understand how to apply it. This means I am no longer bored or under-stimulated. What I had never realised in the past is that mental activity is physically taxing (the Scientific American says that the brain uses up to 20% of the bodies energy). When you work that intensely you go home many days exhausted with a need to wind down and switch off.

Often you will find out that when you get home, this is the last thing your children and partner need. They want to share their day, to vent, to plan for the evening. Often they need your help to process what has happened to them during the day or to wind down as well. I recall there was a time when my mum-in-law spent the summer with us and was quite depressed. I would come home from work every day and spend time sitting with and trying to cheer her up and get her to share what was bothering her. I had the energy to do it then, I don’t know if I would manage that now.

My family demand my full focus in the time that we are together and my heart tells me that they deserve it more than my work does. This means that I am having to learn to manage my energy a bit better through the day. Thing that help include eating healthy food that is not so heavy that it makes me sleepy in the afternoon or taking a proper lunch and getting outside to walk or meet with colleagues who provide good company. I am trying to be honest and say when the work is too much, although this is something I struggle with. I am trying to set boundaries so that I stop work at 4pm and leave without feeling guilty. I try to use the commute to wind down and leave work behind, by reading or making a simple dhikr slowly. Then there is my frenemy – the power nap, I find it helps massively if I can get my head down when I get home for 20-30 minutes, any longer and I am groggy for hours afterwards.

The big question though really is whether we need to take on less at work and delaying doing anything that is very intense until the children are older. I am a definite believer that we cannot have it all – work, home, children, social life, me-time and spiritual and that if we try to, we do it half-heartedly, in a rushed way without any quality to it all. Or worse still we make ourselves ill and miserable. So is the answer to hold back in our working life and take the quiet, slow road that doesn’t demand too much of us? I felt like I have done that to some extent for 10 years and with the babies being little, it seems it will be the case for at least another 10 years, will the time for career have passed? Even then, now that my oldest is a teen and the boys are older, I don’t find that they need me less, but just as much or more, only in a different way (less wiping snot, more being present while they tell you why they are having a rough day).

I don’t feel I have the answer yet, my thinking now is less about work and more about quality of life and balance. My legacy will not be the job I do, but the way I raised my children, any good deeds I did and whatever area of work becomes my “life’s work” – whether academic or community-based.

With this in mind, I don’t plan to go full speed at work and burn out at the expense of my family, but to try and be measured, learn as much as I can as I go and continue to be selective about the opportunities that come up for now.


  1. Salam

    I look forward to your blogs and have been in the sane situation as you for years. I worked from before I had children and have four now, of similar ages to yours. My job always exhausted me as I was a secondary school teacher and my work was physically, mentally and emotionally challenging.

    As I had each child, I went more and more part-time. I needed to keep my job as I am more educated than my husband and felt I could earn more in less hours and we shared childcare between us. But as the years went on, I always felt I was short-changing my family as they got a tired mum or a dad who, with the best will in the world is not a multi-tasker and couldn't (or wouldn't) help them structure their at home time so it was helpful: it would just be chaos.

    I decided to leave this year and have a much happier family, though it has meant a bit cut in income, I know Allah has never let us down before and as long as there is barakah in my husbands earnings, we will get by, InshaAllah.

    I am tryrming to use this time effectively by re-organising thr house and spending time, care and patience (that I did not gave before) teaching the children more indepence. I love being there for them, emotionally as well as actually there.

    I will go back to working but need to find a job where I can use less energy so I have enough left for the family when I get home. Having alwats worked I think I would not be able to take a permanent break from it for many reasons.

    JazakAllah for taking the time to write your blog and sharing it with the world. May Allah continue to shower you with millions of blessings.

  2. Such a good read. I too look forwar to your posts, please keep them coming.
    I agree with the anonymous response above. This is something I've always struggled to fulfil, the right balance between work and family. Is there one? I think about dropping or the decision to drop ever single day, it is exhausting!. I have 2 girls (7 and 4) and work fulltime at the moment. My plan was always to drop either part time or completely off work. my 7 year daughter is growing so fast and I feel I'm not doing enough for her. everything is rushed. I'd love if I have more time to spend with her doing homework. Weekend is never enough as well. It is the time I catch up on house work and again very little quality time is left for my family.
    I'm struggling to be honest and feel constantly guilty. looking back I'm glad I remained employed as I was able to secure a nice family home for my girls and the quality of our lives has improved as well. However, not sure if in 10 years time I will look back with regret. really lost