Jennifer Liston-Smith gives practical tips and advice for mums who are returning to work
An interview I recently gave attracted criticism because I dared to suggest that we develop transferable skills as mothers. ‘Am I a better accountant because I can tie a child’s shoelaces?’ challenged one angry reader. Perhaps not directly, but as a working mum you may have a broader perspective and a clearer motivation to produce an income.
What obstacles do women face and how can they overcome them?
One task you’ll face is explaining the gaps in your CV. You can confront it head on or list volunteer or unpaid roles you have held during your ‘break’. Other barriers include other people’s, and your own, perceptions. Your friends and relatives may have strong views on the rights and wrongs of working parents, and they may have vested interests. Often their views are as much about justifying their own choices as about figuring out what’s really best for you. And then there’s the enemy within. If you’re feeling guilty or insecure, everything will look like an obstacle even it’s something you are able to overcome.
Then there’s childcare, and childcare breakdowns. You’ll need a plan and backup. Research your options as well as you can. This is probably not an area to economise in; get the best you can. Sometimes it will feel as if you are investing rather than making much money to begin with, and you’ll need a circle of potential favours to exchange if your arrangements don’t work out, for example week two in your new job when your little one is excluded from nursery with the wrong kind of runny nose (yes, their policies do often specify this). If you have a partner, talk about contingency plans before it becomes a crisis at seven in the morning.
Sometimes a combination of approaches works well: nursery two or three days and relatives or a childminder for other days. When they go to school, it’s worth having a childminder if you work long hours and need someone to pick them up for a while after school. Review your arrangement from time to time to see whether it’s still meeting your needs, your child’s needs and the needs of your job.
How does it feel to return after an extended period away?
Some women remark on how refreshing it is to drink a hot cup of tea at work with no sudden distractions or clean-ups of bodily fluids. Many describe ‘finding the old me again’, enjoying using the full range of their brains or even secretly admitting that their high-powered jobs are not that difficult compared with getting a two-year-old to put their shoes on when they’re in a rush.
Of course, I’m generalising here, but many people returning from a period of time off talk about perspective. Many benefit from taking a step back and not sweating the small stuff of office politics quite so much. There are very big and real things going on at home and suddenly the daily hassles fit into their proper place a little better.
The other side is that it can be exhausting and full-on. Try to avoid deciding within the first 12 weeks whether it’s actually doable. Look for your successes and acknowledge them. Your so-called failings will be screaming at you by contrast: achieving 100% in two roles that you care a lot about is, well, a lot. If something has gone wrong (my briefcase must be at the nursery because I have the nappy bag here on my desk), avoid blaming yourself and internally haranguing others for not somehow making it better. Just problem solve, one step at a time. What’s the easiest way to fix this? Can I pull in some help?
Can a woman who leaves to have children expect to return at a similar level?
Recently, a participant at a My Family Care returners coaching workshop from a big broadcasting company did so well at negotiating her flexible working arrangements that her manager suddenly saw her in a new light, admiring her persuasive skills, and put her on a high-potential programme. But it can also be challenging. Sometimes people choose to plateau for a bit, taking a flatter career route in order to have more a manageable workload.
Is three to five years away too long?
These are the years of a young life that you won’t get again. Maybe it matters more than anything to you to be there for those. Equally, if you get your career back on track you might have more resources by the time they are teenagers, and you might have earned more seniority and perhaps more flexibility by then.
What are your deepest values as a working parent: to be there all the time; a close, unfailing, unconditional support? To be a role model for using your skills out in the world? To show them that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ by giving them a rich life with various people caring for them? All these have their place: it depends how you seen it.
Things change at home when a baby arrives. We guarantee they will change again when you return to work. Discuss the domestic workload with your partner and look at how you share tasks at home. Revisit this conversation frequently. Think about everything you can do in advance: from preparing bags the night before to making and freezing meals in advance.
When it comes to all things legal, consult your HR department. They will be able to tell you about the holiday you’ve accrued while on maternity leave and are the ones to consider petitioning for flexible working. They will hold information about any company schemes to help with childcare or transition back into the workforce.
Head to gov.uk for information on everything from working tax credits and family allowance to free childcare provisions for children aged three plus.
Jennifer Liston-Smith is head of coaching at myfamilycare.co.uk