Meaningful purpose can come from being a marketer and a mum

Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose, it can be the embodiment of who you are at any point in time. Use this thinking to make the working world work for you.

Purpose mum marketer
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In November 2022 I stood in front of a packed room of over 100 marketers and made them cry. It was actually one of the most joyful events I have ever been part of, but the tears came because as part of my keynote I shared a personal experience that connected with a lot of people in that room.

In 2019 I was overjoyed to be pregnant with our first child. As the tiredness of the first trimester gave way to relief that everything seemed to be going well at our 12-week scan, I didn’t feel comfortable telling work I was going to have a baby.

I made a decision that I would not be “announcing” at this point, as is often the case. I had a secret, but I didn’t just want to keep it that way. I felt I had to keep it that way and it was driven by fear.

I couldn’t wait to be a mum, but I had worked so hard to progress my career and had made sacrifices. Knowing that, as a woman, I needed to work harder and do more to get where I wanted to go. And I was doing it, I was achieving. Was I throwing it all away?

Continuing to work at my unrelenting pace and trying to keep this deep-seated fear at bay occupied me until the 20-week scan. The time had come. My self-imposed deadline was here.

I had to tell work.

Everyone was so lovely and pleased for us, but amidst the smiles and hugs there was one offhand comment;

“Oh, we’ve lost her!”

We’ve lost her.

I didn’t realise in the moment. My brain registered the comment and tucked it away. I don’t remember what I said, but I probably laughed and made a joke, or said something flippant like: “I’ve not gone anywhere yet.”

This comment was a seed that was firmly planted in the fertile soil of my brain.

It wasn’t said with malice, but it took root.

Negotiating the tension

As I continued with my pregnancy, that offhand comment popped back into my mind relatively frequently, but I kept pushing it back down. I had work to do.

As we moved into the Covid pandemic and UK lockdown, work became more intense as we had to pivot to online teaching and operations. I was able to keep myself so busy with work and in my naivety (now classed as stupid pig-headedness) I was determined to work until the end of 38 weeks.

My rationale was that this would maximise my maternity leave. I now realise I was also hiding behind work and clinging onto the identity I had poured so much of myself into.

We welcomed our son into the world during the first lockdown amidst a slew of complications and hardships. We were suddenly and completely consumed by parenting. We experienced all the clichés and have been riding the rollercoaster ever since.

One thing that has been very stark is the tension between being a mum and a professional…When I returned to work, I felt like a square peg in a previously round hole.

During maternity leave I worked here and there to “keep my hand in.” I prepared my promotion application for my university role and was promoted to professor a few months after I returned from maternity leave.

One thing that has been very stark is the tension between being a mum and a professional. This was very new to me and felt very uncomfortable. When I returned to work, I felt like a square peg in a previously round hole.

The seed that had taken root was now growing at pace. I felt lost. Confused, stressed, torn in different directions, tired and full of self-doubt. I had changed and the world around me had also changed in my absence.

That phrase “We’ve lost her” was coming true and I was embodying that loss. I didn’t belong anymore.

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I had already gone through the physical strangeness of my body not feeling like my own and the accompanying sense of loss. I had gone through the strange transition of being gladly second to a crying, hungry baby and losing a part of my identity, whilst building my new one as a mother.

But my professional life? That was mine. Just for me, not shared with anyone else. The thread in my life that I thought I could rely on and look forward to returning to. Yet, it wasn’t and I felt lost.

I’m now on my second maternity leave after welcoming our daughter in September. For obvious, “not being in a global pandemic” reasons, it is very different this time. But, it’s also different because I have done a lot of thinking, talking, learning and self-reflection.

Square peg, square hole

As an academic I have been researching brand and organisational purpose and have worked with some prominent agencies to develop thinking in this area. As part of this, I have inevitably thought about my purpose.

When I returned from my first maternity leave, I realised that my purpose as a mum was far greater than anything I had ever encountered before. This was purpose on a different level. My professional purpose hadn’t changed, but it felt clouded by my new circumstances.

My lightbulb moment came when I was talking to Yewande Akinola, who speaks so eloquently about her career as a young, female, black engineer. She stopped me in my tracks when she described how she felt like she didn’t ever belong in the world of engineering, traditionally dominated by white middle-aged men. She said that she realised she was never going to fit in that world, so she has been making that world fit her.

Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose. What it can be is the embodiment of who you are at that point in time and your priorities.

She is an incredibly talented, successful, inspiring engineer, a mum of two wonderful children and has been awarded an MBE in recognition of her work. She is not just any working mum; she is a working mum who is unapologetically herself and is fantastic at her job.

She made me realise that purpose isn’t objective. It is entirely subjective. It is about figuring out what meaningful thing you are trying to do. Professional purpose can shift and be underpinned by the purpose aligned with parenting, or vice versa. Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose. What it can be is the embodiment of who you are at that point in time and your priorities. My purpose can be both about my role as a mum and my role as a marketer. It isn’t an either or equation.

In fact, I can flip the frame. I felt like a square peg in a previously round hole, so I started to figure out how to make the hole square. I used my marketing skills to understand how to make this world that I inhabit fit me.

Marketing is all about people, it is what we are good at. Thinking about aligning being a good marketer and being a good mum has taken away the pressure of feeling that I have to drive change in order to have a purpose. Or, that different purposes are competing with one another.

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Thinking about my values of growth, learning and nurturing have led me to think about how my purpose may simply be to reflect these in my professional interactions. This now shapes my environment, my network, my interactions and what I invest my time and energy in.

Meaningful purpose can be about being a marketer and a mum in a way that works for me, and that is enough.

That roomful of marketers this story resonated with are the incredible Mums in Marketing community, where no MiM is left behind. Claire Ferreira leads from the front and has created a unique culture for marketers who raise humans. The reason for the tears was the shared frustration, experience and depth of understanding. My talk wasn’t all tears. There were some funny moments too, but those are best left in that room.

Of course, I thought twice before writing about women being emotional and felt wary of playing into a stereotype of a room of crying women. But you know what? It’s International Women’s Day in 2024 and we shouldn’t be worried about emotions and sharing authentic experiences.

I’m not going to worry about stereotypes or the ‘Mummy’ label. We should be talking about our experiences, telling our stories and helping each other to navigate our professional paths, whatever form they take.

Laura Chamberlain is an award-winning professor at Warwick Business School, a marketer, career strategist and coach. She is also founder of self-development consultancy Think Talk Thrive.