And how this life-changing challenge helped her find her real purpose in life.
Shelley Flett thought that returning to work after her first child would help her connect with herself again.
After months of focusing 100% on her newborn baby, the conversations and stimulation of a job she loved was exactly what she thought she needed. For working mamas, the balance between home and the office is often a juggle, but there are plenty of benefits too.
We want to contribute to the career we spent so long building, and we want (or need) to contribute to the household income too.
But, what happens if that role you return to isn’t what you thought it would be? And what if the reality of juggling it all – whilst still recovering from the brutal physical toll pregnancy, childbirth and broken nights has on a woman’s body – means you don’t sail through it like you used to?
Shelley’s story is an important one to share here at Happy Mama for two reasons:
One, she is so honest about her struggles and bravely shares with us how her broken body and desire to do it all pushed her to her limits, and made her act in a way she isn’t proud.
And second, because so many of us are not being the women we want to be.
We don’t want to yell, or snap at our partners when we get home, or feel like we have to make excuses at work about why we have to leave early anymore. We grew up believing we could have it all – our jobs and our babies – and we’re silently heartbroken that dream doesn’t seem to be coming true. At all.
But here’s a little slice of truth, mamas:
if we don’t speak up about the effects the endless juggling is having on us, it will never change.
And that’s why Shelley’s story, honestly shared below, is so important to share.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I had my first child I wasn’t overly excited about it.
I absolutely fell in love with my son, but I felt overwhelmed and frustrated with his complete dependence on me, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I didn’t sleep properly for the first four years – he would wake all the time and I learnt to live on interrupted sleep. My saviour in the early stages of motherhood was my job. I returned to work three and a half months after giving birth, and the interaction with other people on an intellectual level was heaven.
“When we struggled to fall pregnant with my second son, my doctor discovered I had an under-active thyroid and quickly put me on medication. It was the best thing that happened – not only did I fall pregnant very quickly after two years of trying, but I also felt more energised and less like I was walking through mud. I realised that for the past few years, I had really not been myself at all. Everything was a struggle, and the fatigue often had me in bed at 7:30pm each night.
“When baby number two joined our family, I was a little more prepared and really enjoyed the experience. I still returned to work quite quickly and was able to develop a good rhythm. But since then, I’ve had baby number three, and wow! Was I unprepared for the mess a family of five creates! My laundry is never done!
“When I had my first son I was on a mission to prove that I could be a good mum, a great partner and still have a really successful career. And I did for the first 9 months, and then everything came crashing down. My role changed and I was put into a new team who were going through significant change.
“The story is a long one, but in a nutshell I didn’t lead my team very well – on reflection it didn’t help that I was sleep deprived and suffering from an undiagnosed thyroid condition. My team signed a petition and made a formal complaint about my behaviour and after a long gruelling investigation I was issued with a written warning for bullying and intimidation – it still hurts a little to say those words. It definitely wasn’t my intention.
“Going through that has been my biggest challenge in life: the emotions, the shame, the embarrassment, the failure I felt. It was soul destroying and made me question everything. It took me three years to recover, to rebuild my brand and create a reputation for being a kind, caring, and supportive leader.
“In hindsight, it was the toughest experience of my life but also the most insightful, and for that I’m grateful. The experience made me question how leaders are trained, coached and supported through their journey, which now forms the basis of the leadership programs I now run. If I can help other women leaders avoid experiencing what I did, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.
“Looking back, I wish I’d had conviction in who I am and what I stand for. I think this was one of my biggest lessons. In my early stages of leadership, I felt the need to provide justification and excuses for my whereabouts all the time. When I was leaving early (which was still after an eight hour day, but earlier than the perceived finish time and what everyone else around me was doing), I would always justify myself. I’d say things like “I need to pick up the kids” or “I’m working from home because my son is unwell” or “I’ll be offline between 5-8 to bath and feed the kids”. Why did I do that? It’s so disempowering!
“When I learnt to say “I’ll be unavailable between 4-7, if you need me send me an email and I’ll respond after that time” I began to take my power back, and no one ever questioned me about what I was doing for the time I was unavailable. It’s a small thing that has had a huge impact.
Finding strength and compassion
“Being a happy mama now means that I can be there to support my children as they grow, and prepare them for the outside world.
“I want my children to be resilient, kind and considerate people who push the boundaries and do what makes them happy. I want them to work with me in my business and keep me and my ideas young and playful.
“Being a career mum is what lights me up and I still believe I can have it all! I love my family and I’m super proud of what my husband and I have achieved with our kids. We’re still in the early stages so I’m sure we’re in for many more challenges, but we’ve learnt to support each other through it and do the best we can with what we have. And I’m really proud of that. I think that’s what really makes a happy mama – and woman.”
Shelley is a leadership development and team performance trainer and speaker, and a mama to three. You can see more of her work and programs here.