Does working as a mother mean you get the best of both worlds? I believe it should…
Two thirds of mums find the transition back to work after having children a difficult one and fewer than a half feel that their employer supported them effectively. Also over a third of mothers who don't work, wish they could. What can be done to change the emotional and economic impact of this...
This is is a subject close to my heart. I have always enjoyed my work and have been fortunate to work for some wonderful, supportive organisations and managers. Despite that though, without a doubt the lowest point for me in my career and life, was the 16 months that I worked part-time between having my first and second child.
In all honesty the only thing that kept me going was the fact that I wanted a second child and that happened quicker than expected so I knew I’d be on maternity leave again soon. But, with my husband working full time for an organisation that totally failed to grasp the concept that parenting is a shared responsibility, both of us having long commutes and me having a job that meant I could massively let other people down if I couldn’t be somewhere at short notice (I was working in assessment at the time – imagine you’d taken the day off work for an interview only be told that morning that your interview is cancelled because your assessor’s child is sick) it was a physically and emotionally exhausting juggling act. I definitely didn’t feel I had the best of both worlds – whatever role I was doing I felt guilty about not being available to the other role. That was compounded by a sense that I’d been effectively demoted by about 10 years. My company readily agreed to a 3-day week, but as a result wouldn’t give me back the large, prestigious accounts I had been running before my maternity leave. I tried 4 days a week to get more career fulfilment, but my daughter struggled with that and was clingy and whiny on my day with her. So, I just couldn’t win. And I was left with a sense that there must be a better way.
If you’re at that stage yourself, there is hope. Five years on from the end of that low point, I have a much more satisfying balance that feels about right for me and my family. But, that hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride and would not have happened without the support of many others, not least my husband, sister and our mothers.
When I set up my own firm, Flourish Business Psychology, one of my key priorities was to set up services for individuals and organisations that would support women to transition back into the workplace and feel fulfilled both as mothers and in their careers. As part of that I surveyed women about their own experiences of returning to work. Here is what I found:
Let’s start with the positives…
Our survey shows, that mothers are a resourceful bunch. “Mumpreneurs” are finding creative solutions to attaining a better work-life balance. More than five times as many women are self-employed after having children than before. And a significant proportion of women are using motherhood to their advantage in their career; 18% feel that being a mother has opened up career opportunities they might not otherwise have experienced.
77% of working mums felt that working makes them a better role model to their children and almost half of working mums, given the choice, would still choose to work.
94.4% women have returned to some form of paid employment since having children.
The most commonly cited reason for women returning to work is the financial need (no surprise with the increased costs of living and the fact that, having children later in lives means we have built an established lifestyle based on two full-time incomes). However, personal fulfilment and career progression/continuity were also highly influential factors in women’s decisions to work. So, we need to work, but we also want to for our own fulfilment and progression, so is the reality meeting expectations for those women?
Unfortunately for a significant proportion of women, that does not appear to be the case. 87% of working mums feel pulled in different directions and 43% feel they work harder to compensate for people’s perceptions that mothers aren’t as committed. A common complaint is that between the children, work, the house and other commitments there is no time left for mum. So, working when you are a mum is hard. But we knew that!
What toll does it take on our careers? 55% of women who work feel their career has been set back as a result of having children and 73% feel that they have more limited job opportunities as a result of having children. That is a large contributory factor to the gender pay difference which is a topical issue at the moment. But beyond that, it means frustration for a lot of women and also that industry is missing out on the full potential of women’s talents. 32% report to doing a job that doesn’t fulfil them, just because it fits around childcare. So, for those who work, the majority feel they have had to make compromises to do that.
Are those who are not working, better off?
Certainly, some will be (as there will be mothers who are happy and fulfilled in their jobs). However, being a stay-at-home mum is also a tough job too. As one mum put it, “The cost (of child care) is barely worth it but I’d go crazy at home.” 38% of mothers who don’t work feel they would be happier if did. The main reasons for not working for this group are a lack of affordable childcare (33%), not being able to find a suitable job to fit with family life (29%), and their previous employer not being supportive around flexibility (19%). These are practical issues which should be easy to overcome with a bit of open minded, adaptable thinking by employers to avoid missing out of valuable talent and experience. Unfortunately though, only 43% of women felt that their employers had effectively supported their return to work. There really is room for improvement there!
So, what can you do as a working mum to really create the get of both worlds?
1. Build a supportive network that you trust. That includes good regular childcare, but even more important is the informal support (friends and family) you can call on at short notice. In my experience, this is where other mummy friends are worth their weight in gold!
2. Set yourself a career goal and create a plan to reach that goal. You may have to do something less fulfilling in the short term, but as long as you can see that it is leading to better things or see the light at the end of the tunnel it will help you
3. Don’t be overly grateful for flexibility. Know your own value and be prepared to use it as a bargaining tool.
4. Don’t forget to look after yourself. Letting guilt run you into the ground in an effort to keep on top of everything is a recipe for burn-out and poor wellbeing – and as a result you are not likely to be the mother, wife, colleague or manager that you want to be. Prioritise, learn to say no and don’t feel guilty about doing something for yourself once in a while (or even regularly).
And if you are a manager, or in HR or another influential position, what can you do to support women transitioning back to work?
1. Keep an open mind. Does a job really need to be done from a certain location/in certain hours etc? At least trial some alternatives before saying no.
2. Be explicit about your open mind. In job adverts and descriptions avoid statements about location and hours and instead actively encourage applicants to put forward their suggestions for how and when the job can be done.
3. Measure output not input. Create performance objectives which are based on clear outputs. That way, the organisation can measure whether a role is meeting expectations but the role-holder is empowered to achieve those outputs in a way that works for them
4. Encourage positive work-life balance practices across the whole organisation. Don’t create a divide between parents vs non-parents, women vs men – happy employees are productive employees so create an environment in which everyone feels empowered to manage their lives as they wish
5. Use technology to support flexibility but not to create a culture in which 24/7 contact-ability is expected.