The trouble with being a researcher is you have this annoying habit of researching things you’re really interested in. It’s like an addiction, sometimes you don’t realize you’re doing it. You think you’ve just had a nice chat with someone and you realise you kind of interviewed them and have started analysing they said.
I am obsessed with talking to mums about returning to work.
A subject close to my heart (you’ve probably noticed as I continue to blog about it to you all on here), I can’t help but be fascinated by all the different experiences the mums I encounter have had.
The stories are sometimes saddening, shocking, frustrating and from time to time truly inspiring. The stories are so different, the experiences so diverse, there’s no easy answer about what to do and how, but I do think there is an art in returning to work, and I’ll try and explain this as much as I can here.
The workplace is still out of touch with working mums. We have a long way to go until we reach a place where the world accepts and embraces working mums fully, where women match men in their earning and burst through the glass ceiling of promotion that is all too often prohibited by motherhood. There are lots of examples of incredible achievement, but there are more examples of mind-blowing talent that gets wiped away with the change of a nappy.
I write here as an employee and an employer. This what I think: the change will need to come from us mums, not organisations. I think it’s us mums who need to get smarter and savvier about our options, be more creative in the way we design our careers and redesign the typical working week, employment contract and career path. Our employers are not going to do this for us – they don’t know how. When I speak to career minded mums, I hear passionately about what they have to give, how much time and energy they could put into something if they were given the right opportunity, but it’s not cutting through. We need to talk about our skills, talent and time in a way that businesses will listen and find motivating. We need to shout and stamp our feet in a way that cleverly shows the value in working mums.
And there is, A LOT, of value. Although I’m still fairly new to the world of business, and perhaps I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting one with a 5 month old, I can honestly think of no better education to focus my mind, learn how to make decisions and become a quick thinking, no-messing-mumma than learning it all while bringing up a baby. As mums we are the queen bees of multi-taskers, the masters of organization and the high lords of quick thinking – what?! It’s dress like a book day tomorrow!? Crap! No problemo let me just fashion this jacket into a full-body-Spot-the-Dog-costume, and we’re ready to go, ta-dah!
But we are our own worst critics. Having a baby can bring on a crisis in confidence. Who am I? What am I doing? What do I even wear anymore? My brain is all mushy! We must try not to go down this path too far, it’s a slippery slope, do not let motherhood consume you. Do not over complicate it, by letting it, simplify you and who you are.
You know that feeling you had after labour? It might have been straight away or a few days later when you’d recovered from the shock, but it was that feeling where you caught your breath and thought to yourself (or indeed in my case shouted very publically in a Jamaican accent…totally overdid it on the gas and air)
…..Holy shit, I just grew that gorgeous little thing in my ACTUAL body. And pushed it out. Of my fanny!* Of all places! I am a bonafide badass woman! A real wonder of nature! I am A-MAZING!
*if you had a c-section replace with ‘lay down while I let someone fiddle around in my guts and pull out a human child like they were drawing from a tombola!
Yeah, that right there is your answer to all your returning to work problems. That feeling right there, hold onto it. It is dynamite. Do not let it leave your body with the rest of the oxytocin, just hold it. Tight. Do not forget it.
Because that’s how we should be returning to work, confident, heads held high, with ambition in our hearts and fire in our (now slightly baggier) bellies.
I can only speak from a commercial perspective, and from someone at a senior level, I have zero experience of the public sector which I imagine is a whole other ball game, but here’s a few tips which I hope will be inspiring if not helpful for someone out there…
1.Know your skills
If you’re thinking of going freelance or doing a startup, do something you’re really good at. Whilst I believe motherhood can be a creative and fertile time to grow ideas and get ambitious, I don’t think early on is the best time to do something completely different. Stick to your skills and strengths and something where you have lots of contacts and a strong network. Once you’ve built that up and you’re back in the game then think about what’s next.
2.Have a plan
It’s hard to know how you feel and what you want. It can be a confusing time, but I believe making a plan can help you feel more relaxed and confident. Even if you know its going to change, make it anyway. Think about where you want to end up, where you want to fit your next baby in, if you want one, and return to work with this in the back of your mind. And go big! Shoot for the stars, do not let motherhood put you on the back foot, there is absolutely no sensible reason I can think of for why it would.
3. Get a new wardrobe
Sounds vain, but I think its really important. Like it or not clothes change how you feel and how others see you. You may have been lucky to slink back into your old clothes but they probably don’t look and feel the same, get some stuff you feel really good in. And for the love of God, DONT become mumsy. Let me repeat this again, don’t become mumsy. Make sure you rediscover who you are and show people you have that nailed, presenting a slightly crappier, less cool version of yourself will make people think you’re less able (sad but true)
4. Kick ass
Rather than sit back into quiet part time role (unless that’s what you need!) be brave, make yourself heard. All too often people discount part time workers and don’t include them in conversations or hold meetings on days they are off. Don’t be annoying, but speak up, change when they are held, show how you want and need to be involved, don’t become a wall flower, be part of the action.
5. Do something amazing
Pick your moment and bust a gut to really pull all the stops out on something.
Pour your heart into something that is going to be seen and recognized. Perhaps its an internal presentation or a document you’re working on, it doesn’t matter just make a point and kill it. Do this quickly after returning and prove to people you’ve still got it (and then some), and of course execute it all so it looks like you just knocked it out in a couple of hours that afternoon. Smooth.
6. Don’t go on about your baby all the time
It’s nice to share with colleagues, but seriously, they are bored by your stories of teething and catchment areas. It’s so hard not to talk about your family and you shouldn’t censor what matters to you, but try and share things that are genuinely interesting not just everyday playgroup chatter. Make sure people see you as something other than just a mum.
7. Never make jokes about working from home
In an age where you can be anywhere to do most jobs, people still think working from home is a metaphor for watching Jeremy Kyle whilst chain-eating rounds of toast. I WISH! Don’t ever make jokes about working from home or laugh at anyone who does. Otherwise you’re going to embed the seed that already so often exists. Always make yourself available when you’re working remotely, don’t go off the radar, it can be annoying for those trying to work with you.
8. Design your own job
I wouldn’t be shy at interviews for a new job or return to work interview, of coming up with a plan that works for you and the business. As an employer if I recognized talent and someone came to me with a plan for how they could make a role work around motherhood, I would be impressed and interested. Of course it may not be suitable to the company and you’ll likely have to negotiate and compromise but I don’t think we should be skirting around the issue of having parenting responsibilities and/or working part time. We should be broaching them from the off set head-on with sensible solutions and practical realities.
9. Share the parenting
I haven’t mentioned dads yet and they are fundamental in this whole shebang. The work system for dads possibly needs even more attention. It is not ok for all the responsibility to be on either of you, you need to be a team, able to flex your working hours and do pick-ups as and when works for you both. Communicate, share and both commit to being present at pick-ups, meal times and bed times. It matters, and your kids will be all the more rounded for it.
10. Peer support other mums
Let’s not compete for who is the most super-est of all the super-mums. Lets support and champion each other. Take the time to support and get to know other mums in the business, but spend less time on nappy rash chat and more on how you can raise your profile in the business, make things work better for working mums. Unite, support, just make shit happen.
Of course some mums don’t want to work and there is no harder job in the world than being a full-time mum. We must be careful in our choices and championing of working mums that we don’t de-prioritize the importance of the role of the full-time mum. In anything balance is good, I think it would be a pretty strange, boring and more challenging landscape if ALL mums worked or if ALL mums didn’t work.
But for those who do, although we live in a world of choice, and although there have never been more opportunities for mums to ‘have it all’, it still feels like its such an up hill battle. I feel lucky I have carved out a position where I feel successful, supported but in control. I regularly congratulate myself on not returning to my old role but by striving to be more, to do something different. But I wonder if we as an army of mums could still make things easier for ourselves, if we could try harder and be louder and more supportive of each other in our ambitions and dreams. The more we do the more the mums will be in charge and then they will be the ones the ones hiring in the future. Until then I believe it’s up to us to change things. So no matter how small the tweak or how creative the idea, we must change what the working mum model looks like and share these ideas and suggestions with others.
And I write this because I feel sad when people ask me: ‘does being a mum mean you have to stop doing all the things you really want to do?’.
No it does not.
It should mean you can still do them. But actually you can just do them better, bigger and with kicking more butt along the way. Because nothing is more motivating than wanting to be successful or strong role-model for your children.
Come on guys, you pushed a human out of your actual front bottom, an actual human, right out of there!
You can do anything.