juggling mum

By Sophie Mackenzie, AdMore Recruitment– Specialists in Retail and Hospitality Recruitment, Search & Selection, Talent Management and Career Development.

A friend of mine started a new job a month ago. For her, this wasn’t a straightforward decision as this was her first role after leaving work to have twins 2 years ago. This was a role she was perfectly suited to and qualified for and which, crucially, would allow her to work part-time. Given that they need to pay for 2 nursery places (in Greater London, this cost is extortionate…), the family was going to be only £50 per month better off however she was keen to work. Being career minded, she was also conscious of not leaving too big a gap given that, once the children start school, she will need to refocus on her career. So, she went through the process of selecting a nursery, leaving the children for settling in days and making the other arrangements necessary for a return to work.  She has been through the emotional wrench of leaving her children who have taken a while to adjust but who have started to settle into their new routine. 4 weeks in however, and her (female) boss has  questioned why she has had to take a couple of days off because the children were sick and now feels she is over qualified for the role.

I decided to write this post to highlight the difficulty women can face when re-entering the workplace. I thought that my own less than positive experience was unique, being in the cut throat world of agency recruitment, however I have spoken to several women recently who have faced similar challenges in different industries.

When I left the office to start my maternity leave, I cried all the way home. It dawned on me that for the next 6 months, I was no longer needed at work. I was, like all of us, fundamentally dispensible. For someone who enjoyed her job, this was a sobering thought.

When I had broken the news of my pregnancy 6 months earlier, I was shocked by  the number of younger female colleagues who came up to me and expressed genuine surprise that I was pregnant – their thought process being that the corporate work ethic was such that this would surely not be tolerated by the powers at be! A sad indictment that, although only in their mid 20’s, they clearly thought that having a family would be at odds with a long term career in that business. Of course, there were working mothers at the company however they generally held one of 2 positions – in office support where they were able to work part-time or senior Directors who employed full time au pairs. There were few role-models at middle management level.

I returned after 7 months to a very different environment. My (very supportive) boss had left along with several trusted colleagues. On my first day back, I received a 30 minute ‘handover’ and was left to crack on. I had no pipeline.  Although I returned to work 4 days a week, I spent the 5th day taking calls, dealing with escalation issues or managing offers when a member of my team was on holiday. Doing any of these things with a screaming baby in the background was difficult and unprofessional – not my usual modus operandi but I was determined that people at work wouldn’t get any sense that I wasn’t pulling my weight.  I needed to work ‘normal’ office hours so I could do the nursery run and so I was arriving later and leaving earlier than everyone else on my team, an uncomfortable situation in a culture of long working hours.  In my first month back, my childcare provider changed their opening hours meaning that I had to change my day off, further compounding my ever increasing feeling of guilt.  A few months later, in only my second conversation with my Director since my return, he expressed concern about my lack of progress. I was mortified and despite his comments about ‘understanding what it’s like to be a working mum’ (really?!), I realised that things had to change. I sought out support, enquired about other roles I could do internally until ultimately I took the decision to leave.

It is a subject I feel passionate about and so, on International Women’s Day  http://www.un.org/en/events/womensday/  , here are my thoughts on the challenges women face when returning to work and what employers should bear in mind:

  • Lack of confidence. Even the most effective, professional and successful woman can be reduced to a quivering wreck by the challenges of parenthood. Add to this a long period away from the working environment (up to a year), with adult conversation generally limited to discussing feeding and sleeping routines and it gradually erodes your self-belief. This is also a symptom of women undergoing such a dramatic change in body shape and weight. Chances are they won’t fit into their pre-baby power suit and won’t have the time (or money) to buy new clothes. All these things affect confidence levels.  The biggest piece of advice I can give is to use your allowance of 10 KIT (Keep in Touch days) to make the transition easier.
  • What people never tell you about when you have a baby is that they are ill ALL THE TIME! And, whatsmore, they incubate germs so effectively that by the time they pass them on to you, they have taken on the equivalent potency of the Ebola virus. I have never been more ill than in the months after my son went to nursery, coinciding of course with my return to work.  New parents (men and women) WILL undoubtedly take time off because their child is ill or they are ill themselves. It won’t last forever and showing flexibility in those difficult early months will really help.
  • New parents are sleep deprived – I have witnessed several male colleagues whose performance at work has been affected by an insomniac baby. A new parent returning to work may well have had a disturbed night’s sleep and have been up for several hours before they even get to the office. Again, some of these issues are short-lived and giving extra leeway for a few months is surely worth doing for someone who is a valued member of staff.
  • Handovers. Unless you have been through a period of redundancy or been on maternity leave yourself, it is likely that you simply will not know what it is like to have 6-12 months away from your role and to try to pick it back up again. In a sales environment this is particularly challenging however in any role, there should be a period of time spent enabling the employee to re-familiarise themselves with the business. So much can change in a 6 month period – companies can restructure, people come and go, priorities change. If you do a formal induction for new employees, you could argue that this would be equally useful for mat leave returnees.
  • Take the time at the outset to really iron out details regarding working hours and any implications this may have on performance targets. Both parties have a responsibility to do this to ensure that there is transparency and above all fairness.
  • Emotional stress. I hesitated to talk about this for fear of compounding stereotypical views however returning to work is always going to be an emotional wrench, however career focused the employee is.  In my case, I took great pains to hide my emotions about leaving my son to show that I was just as work focused as my colleagues (as if the 2 things are mutually exclusive?!).
  • Be patient. It will take some time for those confidence levels to creep up but when they do, you may find you have a formidable employee. Most mothers I know can achieve more in an hour than you would think humanly possible and are even more focused in order to cover their workload in fewer hours.
  • Don’t make the following assumptions:

a. that the employee will have ‘gone soft’ since having a baby. Frankly anyone who endures a painful 24 hour labour culminating in an emergency C-section has reserves of strength you will never fathom. Yes, I do cry at anything emotional on the telly (but so does my husband) and I pretty much did that before anyway – it’s called compassion.

b. that the employee is passing time before she gets pregnant again.

c. that the employee is no longer interested in progressing her career. That assumption is never made of new fathers and arguably new parents have even more motivation to earn and achieve more.

Of course there are exceptions to all my points however, in my view, if a woman wants a fulfilling career in addition to being a mum, she has, in the 21st century, every right to have one.  It will be interesting to see what the take-up is of the new paternity rights for men which take effect in 2014 enabling them to share equally the period of maternity leave and what affect this has on the level of understanding in the workplace for returning parents.

What is your experience of returning to work post mat leave?

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