I have a new approach to working motherhood now—and a male CEO to thank for it

Mothers who multitask can’t always hide it.
Mothers who multitask can’t always hide it.
Image: REUTERS/Jason Reed
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As my Arm Ltd. colleagues and I have transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, our CEO and my boss, Simon Segars, has been sending out regular company-wide messages to kick off the week and provide guidance on navigating our new reality. But a recent message from him struck a different tone than usual—it was much more personal and vulnerable.

On video, Simon introduced us to his 12-year-old son. He showed us the new challenges he was facing as a father with children at home needing his attention, while leading a company where his employees needed his reassurance. Trying to work while helping your kids do their schoolwork, and caring for a family throughout the day while sheltering in place, required a different approach, and he was trying new things like rearranging his day in blocks to balance each. He encouraged Arm employees to rethink how they were approaching their own workdays. We can’t be superheroes, he said; we have to figure out a new normal. All the while, his son wandered off and on camera with a toy in hand, as his dad addressed thousands of employees about the new normal in his household.

As I watched the video, something in me shifted. In this time of universal anxiety, Simon’s message provided a welcome and surprising sense of relief. Work-life balance conversations are nothing new; I’ve participated in plenty over my career. Typically they involved advice from female executives about drawing lines around family dinner time, prioritizing important school activities, or limiting travel to prevent stress on household routines. This was different.

I’d never seen a male CEO be this candid and transparent about his family life and how it affected his job. He wasn’t afraid to show us the ambient chaos that surrounds him. Instead of acting like he had everything under control and there was “nothing to see here,” he brought us into his home and showed us what life was truly like for him in an authentic way. And just like everyone else, he was having some difficulties.

Ridiculous lengths

The video prompted me to reflect on the longstanding and sometimes ridiculous lengths I have gone to make the chaos of motherhood invisible to my colleagues, and to exude a professional presence that is unencumbered by the messiness of family life. As the CEO of our company introduced us to the child in his living room, it dawned on me that I was, despite being literally confined to my home, making zero effort to integrate the two worlds of work life and home life.

Intertwining work and kids has always felt unnatural to me. My dedication to work is something I’ve always taken seriously, and I felt that my role as a mother undermined that. Somehow I thought if my colleagues knew there were two kids running around in uncontrollable chaos in the background as we reviewed budgets and plans on a call, it would detract from my standing as an organized and competent leader. I have experienced enough gender-tainted feedback in my career—from being called aggressive versus assertive or being told to smile more—to know that how I interacted with people was tied up with notions of how women should act. So, I did not deviate from the very strict line between my work and family life.

Sustaining the work-mom dichotomy took a great deal of vigilance whenever the two areas overlapped. Calls from home or the car meant shushing, rules, threats, looks—which, as my boys came to know well, mean to keep quiet because mommy means business!

Imagine then the strain on our household when work was no longer a place I could go, but an environment I needed to create in my home every day—smack in the middle of home school, playtime, meals, dog walks, cuddles, and tantrums. So, what did I do?

Initially, I foolishly doubled down on my rules. Barricading myself in the fortress of my home office, I tied a bright red rag to the outside knob to warn the kids “do not enter.” I tried to ensure my husband was able to take care of the boys when I had to take an important call, or the dreaded iPad was offered to them to ensure they would stay quiet. I let the kids know they needed to stay in one spot and were NOT TO MAKE A SOUND while mommy was on the phone. When one of my sons came into my office while I was on a video call to show me the drawing he so proudly finished, I hastily turned the camera off so no one could see us.

But it was becoming impossible to keep up the charade.

Our self-created rules of separation

Witnessing Simon face some of the same challenges, I realized the strict separation of work and home I had created was for a different time with very different circumstances. The stress of trying to mimic what “working from home” was like previously was exhausting and overwhelming.  So I made a decision. This was the day I was going to let myself off the hook. The reality is I have eight-year-old twin boys who are at home, having to do school online with no afterschool activities like swimming, soccer, or playdates.  They are bursting with energy and finding the disruption of their routines during this time just as difficult as I am. Yes, I am managing a household in addition to the non-stop meetings, decisions, guidance, and planning that I do every day. Why did I care so deeply if colleagues could hear my boys in the background, fighting, playing, singing–doing what eight-year-olds do in their home?

My role as a mom has never compromised my ability or judgement at work. This I know. But I didn’t necessarily trust others to understand that, especially my male counterparts whose primary goal wasn’t juggling work and family. Many other female executives I know feel the same way. My self-created rule of separation allowed me to exert a certain amount of control over how others perceived me. I didn’t feel I could be taken seriously as both a mother and executive, which was really a false dichotomy—because the fact is I’ve been doing both roles quite seriously and simultaneously for eight years now.

How this pandemic will change work dynamics, including the convergence of work and family and the balance of it all, is something we are all thinking about right now. One thing I’m focusing on is being able to release myself from my nagging concerns about what’s going on in the background, and what others will think about it, as I try to work.

I’m taking time now to figure out a better way to integrate my two worlds and hopefully set that example for others in my organization. I don’t know if doing this will have a detrimental effect on how I’m perceived in the workplace. But I do know that I’m finally willing to take the weight of that perception off of my own shoulders and change how I experience my work and family life. To the great relief of my husband and children, I’ve now removed the red rag from the doorknob of my home office. Now, let’s see how this goes.

Joyce Kim is chief digital and marketing officer at Arm, the microprocessor design company powering intelligent computing in more than 165 billion chips from smartphones to supercomputers.