Full-time professional to full-time mother: A choice laden with cost

Article title: Who am I? Mothers’ shifting identities, loss & sense making after work place exit 

From Human Relations

Women leaving work to raise children have to redefine who they are this study finds. After exiting professional and managerial occupations, mothers are engaged in an ongoing mother/professional identity struggle, argue the researchers. The process through which the mothers’ choice is constructed as ‘right’ does not occur before their exit from work but manifests itself afterwards and intensifies over time, this study reveals.

Based on in-depth interviews with 26 mothers in London, the study sought to build on research showing that what is on offer is a long way from what women want and reveals that the ‘choices’ available are a far cry from the reality of women’s feelings and attitudes. Having a child causes a challenging identity shift in the workplace as women inevitability no longer fit the devoted employee mold. Thus, women experience an immediate disjuncture between who they are and who they are meant to be at work.

The study concludes: “Over time, most women became reconciled to their loss, in part by changing their own priorities, and through this process they make their ‘choice’ the right one. But accepting or being content with the final outcome, which may have taken years to achieve, is not the same as mothers choosing what they had wanted. Many of the mothers in our study would have chosen a different path if other choices had been on offer.”


We analyse mothers’ retrospective accounts of their transition from professional worker to stay-at-home mother using a framework that integrates sensemaking and border theory. The data come from in-depth interviews with former professional and managerial women in London. Continuing struggles to reconcile professional and maternal identities before and after workplace exit illustrate how identity change is integral to workplace exit. The concept of ‘choice’, which takes place at one point in time, obfuscates this drawn-out process. Mothers pay a high cost in lost professional identities, especially in the initial stages after workplace exit. They cope with this loss and the disjuncture of leaving employment by moving back and forth across the border between home and work – a classic action of sensemaking. Subsequent communal sensemaking and community action bolster mothers’ fragile status at home, eventually leading to reconciliation of their loss and finally enabling them to view their exit ‘choice’ as right.


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Article details
Shireen Kanji and Emma Cahusac
Who am I? Mothers’ shifting identities, loss and sensemaking after workplace exit, Human Relations September 2015 68: 1415-1436, first published on March 16, 2015 doi:10.1177/0018726714557336



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