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002   –   Dealing with Mental Health as a Working Mother in Fashion

Mothers share some pressures they experience to juggle work and personal life. They discuss the negative effects of this on their mental health.

More times than not, ‘a day in the life’ of a successful woman reads like some sort of itinerary. Perfectly planned and put together by what seems to be a master of arts in life management. “6am my alarm goes off,” it reads. “I wake up, meditate and do yoga for 20 minutes. I then jump into the shower, do my hair and make-up, plan my outfit and get dressed. By this point, my children are up. I get them washed, dressed, pack their lunches and at 7.30am we hit the road. At 8am, I drop them off at school, pick up my Starbucks latte and by 8.30am, I am at my desk responding to emails before my first meeting of the day at 9am.”

Such columns go on, detailing every aspect of the subject’s day which concludes with her either attending a Pinterest-worthy industry event – complete with blush roses plastered all of the wall and a beautiful candle-lit chandelier – or having an equally romantic date night with her significant other. More times than not, she is back home in time to put the kids to bed, read them a bedtime story and kiss them goodnight.

This idealised image of a woman that has it all, or rather seems to ‘have it all together,’ has in recent times, moved beyond the pages of hard-copy magazines and morphed itself into perfectly curated social media feeds. Complete with ‘snapback’ postpartum bodies, exotic holidays, thriving careers, immaculate homes and well-behaved children.

Indeed, these platforms provide a sense of community for many mothers and can act as a source of inspiration for their lives. But for the majority of others, the pressures of looking like you have it all together, all the time – effortlessly juggling motherhood and work-life –  create a sense of inadequacy for those who feel they are falling short of meeting this standard.

“This idealised image of a woman that has it all, or rather seems to ‘have it all together,’ has in recent times, moved beyond the pages of hard-copy magazines and morphed itself into perfectly curated social media feeds.”

Jonathan Lipitch, a psychologist who works with clients on work-life balance related issues, says “social media provides a tangible criteria for what success means. But, because it is manufactured and created around unrealistic expectations, it is unachievable or unable to be maintained over a long period of time without impacting on aspects of a mum’s life.”

Recent studies by Manchester University also show that working mothers are 18% more stressed than other people. This figure rises to 40% for women with more children. According to Professor Tarani, “work-family conflict is associated with increased psychological strain, with higher levels of stress and lower levels of wellbeing”

Stressors are even worse for mothers working in creative industries, like fashion. In her report, Fashioning Gender: A Case Study Of The Fashion Industry, Allyson Stokes highlights that industry mothers expressed feelings of anxiety, burnout and trouble separating work from their private lives.  Long hours, combined with pressures to perform in an intensive, fast-paced environment and attend out-of-hours events prove “incompatible with the realities of motherhood,” she adds.

“It can all get [too] much some days,” says Megan Shaw, owner of Little Style Studio, stylist and mother of one. “Working, on top of caring for children, running a house and all the other things life throws at us can just be completely overwhelming.”

While the mainstream narrative surrounding motherhood paints a picture of bliss filled with endless cuddles, long strolls in the park and finger-painting sessions, the reality serves up an additional dose of sleepless nights, postpartum pains (long after birth) breastfeeding frustrations and dealing with teething episodes. Of course, this is only a fraction of what happens day-to-day. But, when undertaken without appropriate self-care, motherhood presents an ideal breeding ground for mental health issues.  Megan says, “I think mental health and motherhood go hand in hand. The job in itself is relentless”

Working in fashion adds even more mental pressures. To the uninformed observer, the industry signals a life of glamour. A fantasy world filled with luxury, attending fashion shows and mingling with ‘beautiful people. But in actuality, fashion work is hard work. The competitive nature of the industry, means that workers are expected to be available 24/7, way past their contracted hours and often with little to no pay. Those who are unable to fully participate in this culture – people with other responsibilities like looking after children – are viewed as less competent, uncommitted and makes them vulnerable to losing their jobs or being passed over for opportunities.

Since mothers still do the majority of childcare in homes, this bias is most extreme against them. Pregnant Then Screwed, a campaign group that advocates for women who experience motherhood discrimination in various sectors, including the creative industry estimates that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs each year due to pregnancy or maternity leave. Whereas, 77% of mothers encounter negative or discriminatory treatment in the workplace. 

What’s more, expensive childcare costs are often a huge mismatch for the low pay many fashion workers get. Placing industry mothers at an even greater disadvantage, where they routinely have to choose between work or staying home to look after the children. This further exacerbates the bias against them, affects their prospects and can have a negative impact on their mental health.

Coining Annabel Crabb’s famous quote, Megan says, “it’s like are expected to work as if we don’t have children and parent as if we don’t work, and sometimes, something has to give. We are only human, after all,” she reflects on the conflicting demands of her responsibilities.

Another stylist, blogger and mother of two, Jodie Hall shares the pressures she has faced from others to “be doing more” and considers the expectations placed on women to balance everything at once as “far too high and unreachable.”

Carol, an Account Manager and mother of one, echoes this constant inner battle felt by several working mothers. “Mentally, I find that I am more anxious than I have ever been in my life,” she says. “Sometimes at work, there [are] a number of stresses, however, I just find that I am not able to deal with them as well as I should be because I am concentrating on [whether] everything is clean in the house. If I have relatives coming over [I wonder] what [they] will think if the house isn’t clean or if Casey isn’t fed properly…I find that there are a million things that I am constantly worrying about.”

Unsurprisingly, gender-related ideologies play a huge part in how women perceive their place in the world. Images of idealised womanhood create pressures to achieve perfection in all areas of life, including the home and at the workplace. This is especially true for people involved in the culture of fashion, which places a higher premium on projecting a perfect persona.

Whether self-imposed or brought on by cultural expectations, this pressure to simultaneously run all areas of life without a hitch or at least put up a front that everything is running smoothly is relatable for many individuals. But, intensified even more for mothers.

“I think as working mothers we have all felt this pressure to keep up appearances. I know after having my son at the young age of twenty I felt this overwhelming need to prove to everyone [that] I could still do it all and have a successful career,” says Megan. “In the end, I made myself very ill and was told I had exhaustion from the doctor because I was literally non-stop. I would work all day as a stylist, come home [and] be on mum duty until he went to bed. Then I would be up all night [working], pausing in between to do night feeds. That became my normality.”

This scenario is sadly not uncommon. ‘Doing it all,’ or indeed striving to ‘have it all’ at the same time usually leads to high levels of anxiety, low confidence and can ultimately result in burnout when the body decides to physically switch off. Jonathan Lipitch illustrates that “it’s like draining the battery and not putting anything in. You are basically running the car on empty and [this] affects the engine.”

Speaking out on personal experiences and struggles with mental health is, however, a hurdle that is hard to overcome for many industry mothers. The stigma that still exists around mental illness, despite shifts in recent years, prevents some from opening up for fear of being judged negatively.

“I think as working mothers we have all felt this pressure to keep up appearances. I know after having my son at the young age of twenty I felt this overwhelming need to prove to everyone [that] I could still do it all and have a successful career”

Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness: How to Use Soft Skills to Get Hard Results says, “if a woman believes she will be frowned upon if she appears unable to cope, whether this is a valid belief or not, she may not ask for help when she needs it.” Further perpetuating the ‘myth’ of a perfect life that is largely endorsed in the industry and encouraging a pervasive culture of silence.

“Many mothers are surrounded by a positive and supportive network who keep them focused on their priorities,” she adds. “But if that is less accessible to them, then it is easy to feel the need, especially if [they] work in certain industries, to conform to the messages being put out there. The scrutiny they see other women…put under can have a negative effect on their mindset.”

Carol confirms that she has witnessed “a lot of judging” with other mothers and as a result, feels she has to be “quite hidden” with her “true emotions.” She says, “from a mental perspective, since being a mum, I find that my anxiety is through the roof and I am not able to express that to many people [because] I have to be ‘quite with it’…”

This seemingly harmless attitude is not isolated. A survey by Business in the Community revealed that while 61% of employees experience mental illness, only 16% feel they can disclose this to their employers. The impact of these numbers translates into a devastating reality for sufferers, but the effect is equally as detrimental for businesses.

In 2017, the Stevenson-Farmer independent review into mental health in the workplace, concluded that poor mental health costs the UK economy between £74billion to 99billion a year. Around £42 billion of that is a charge to employers.

This issue is a problem for fashion companies alike. The work-life imbalance experienced by industry mothers, does not only increase poor mental health but “has a negative effect on wellbeing, loyalty, performance and discretionary effort,” says Jonathan Swan, Head of Research at Working Families. “People become demotivated, are less willing to go the extra mile and actively seek opportunities elsewhere.”

In effect, this lowers productivity, and affects the quality of work produced. “Throwing more hours at work isn’t the best approach as people tend to perform less well when hours become too long,” says Jonathan Swan. In addition, fashion brands that are “wedded to a long hours culture, are going to exclude all kinds of talented people [like mothers] who simply can’t, or don’t want to play that game…Other industries have tackled similar issues, because they realised they were leaking talent”.

“from a mental perspective, since being a mum, I find that my anxiety is through the roof and I am not able to express that to many people [because] I have to be ‘quite with it’…”

Companies like Social Chain, an award winning marketing agency headquartered in Manchester, have gone to great lengths to retain their staff. A few years ago, the company hired a Director of Happiness to ensure that the wellbeing of employees remains a top priority for the business. The company integrates a bottom up, employee focused work culture where everyone has access to flexible working hours, unlimited holidays, yoga and a company therapist.

“We engage the team in what they want from life and work. We try to help [them] in their personal lives, as we do in their career” says Kiera Lawlor, the Director of Happiness at Social Chain. “Every Wednesday, I clear out my calendar to talk to [employees] because I realised that we really need to be helping [them] with their mental health.” Although, many of the company’s employees are millennials and most are yet to have children, the few that do are supported with flexitime to fit their family needs. In future the company plans to incorporate creches in it’s offices.

Such human-centred work practices have contributed to Social Chain’s success and propelled it into a multi-million pound business. Virgin Startup described the business as Europe’s fastest growing social media agency. Kiera insists that the company’s work measures are not implemented for profitability, but acknowledges that when employees are happy the business benefits. She says, “the business has done very well. It has grown so quickly and I think that is down to giving people this kind of environment where they wanna be. That almost feels like home to them.”

The fashion industry can certainly support the mental health of its mothers by not only doing more to prioritise their wellbeing but also offering more flexible working and not penalising them for being unable to partake in a long hours culture. This is not only an ethical behaviour in employment but makes good business sense.

The health of employees directly affects the bottom line of any business. Carol says “I think employees need to understand that just because we want to start a family, it doesn’t mean that we are a weakness to the organisation. In fact, we are probably more hardworking than some of the employees [they] may have.”

As for managing the pressures to ‘have it all’ at once and perfectly balance everything, Dr Audrey Tang urges mothers to “remember that while [they] can try things…if [it] works, carry on if not, don’t [be] pressured to do it,” she says. “Don’t judge what you are doing by anyone else’s yardstick.”