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Women: Lets Insert Ourselves Into the Picture!

03/06/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015

Twelve years ago, I made a life-changing decision. At the time, I was in the proverbial fast lane of investment banking. I had a comfortable future in finance. Then one day I decided to step off the track.

Rather than dealing in hard currency, I devoted myself to intractable social issues like preventing gun violence and advancing drug policy reform. Although I was bruised and beaten-up along the way, I was confident that I could help make my country a safer place.

Less than a year ago, I made another monumental decision that changed my life forever. I became a mother. My daughter was born naturally last May. While I expected things would change, nothing prepared me for just how fundamentally my world transformed.

The period since Yasmin Zoe's arrival ten months ago was extraordinary and challenging in equal measure. In spite of all my preparation, I never imagined how challenging it would be to balance motherhood and a professional identity!

Like most professional women of my generation, I've had to work hard to make the most of my professional opportunities. As the executive director of a think tank, I'm expected to be a leader, a manager, an activist, a researcher, and a visible agent of change.

And while used to a heavy workload, nothing prepared me for the demands of simultaneously running an organization and a household. I naively believed that during my maternity leave I could keep one foot at work while spending quality time with my family. I was wrong.

Rather than taking a step back, I became Wonder Woman. I lived a dual life. During the day, I managed the household -- feeding the baby, cleaning the baby, clothing the baby and so much more besides. As mothers everywhere know, this is a round-the-clock job.

Meanwhile, I was still heavily involved on the work front. For example, I coordinated the production and launch of a globally influential report last September for a high-level group I oversee called the Global Commission on Drug Policy. At the same time, I also gave a TED talk in October that drained me of time and energy. During the preparations for TED, I was repeatedly told to "insert myself" in the picture.

Now, like Wonder Woman, I accomplished these (and other) tasks. But the costs were high. I had problems breastfeeding my daughter, often because I was overtired. The sleepless nights worrying about work didn't help. Now, it´s true, I was not alone. My beloved husband also provided support (he gave his own TED talk too). But the burden was a heavy one.

It was only after the dust settled in December that I was able to genuinely step back and reflect on my decisions. I thought about the choices I´d taken over the previous decade. I counted all the extraordinarily dedicated people I´d worked with who shared my determination to change the world. I recognized that I was one of a long-line of capable women, but that many of my colleagues had disappeared after having children.

It also became clear that my own decision to insert myself in the picture was not unique. Many of the women I worked with over the years had also made a similar choice to continue working while having children. And when I reached out to them to talk about how they balanced their professional and family obligations, they all expressed similar grievances. Somehow I had been only dimly aware of their experience until after having a child of my own.

Until recently, I was not especially involved in debates on gender in the workplace. I was quite literally out of the picture despite having endured - like so many other women - discrimination and harassment from a succession of male counterparts. I knew that to earn respect, I had to do my job better, fight harder, and endure platitudes and worse. It came with the territory.

Yet being a new mother and thinking about my daughter's professional and personal future has profoundly changed the way I think about the structural challenges we face as women. Maybe it is appropriate that my own awareness is emerging as we approach International Women's Day on 8 March. And as I celebrate this special period, I want to pass on a few simple observations to my daughter, Yasmin Zoe.

If pursuing a demanding career and having children are part of your plans (or they come as a pleasant surprise), be prepared. Think ahead. You don't have to be a Wonder Woman. You don´t have to take on more than you feel comfortable taking on. Don't feel you need to live up to an unattainable ideal.

My dear daughter, if you one day decide to have children, you are entitled to step out for a while and experience the full dimensions of motherhood. Take advantage of your maternity leave, guaranteed by law, since it is (hard earned) right passed down to you. Take the time out to cherish your family and those who made you who you are.

I am one of millions of women struggling to balance work and children. As I look around, I am reminded of just how much more needs to be done to guarantee support for women who decide to become mothers. And today, as I write these lines with my daughter wriggling in my lap, I can say that this fight is more urgent and necessary than ever.

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho is executive director of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro and executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. You can watch her recent TEDGlobal talk here.

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