First-Class Coach: Returning to work after a baby

Many people struggle to readjust after having a baby. MIranda Kennett offers her advice for mums who've lost their work mojo...

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 23 Nov 2010

Q: Before my maternity leave I loved my job, and my work was just about the most important thing in my life.Since the birth of my son last year and my return to work, I've felt extremely dissatisfied. My priorities have changed but also, because I now work part-time, my role has changed and I find it a lot less interesting. Am I condemned to do unrewarding, unambitious work in perpetuity, just because I'm a mother?

A: In theory, all should be well for new mothers returning: many women actively want to go back to work, and legislation has enshrined their right to do so. Many businesses are keen to attract mothers back into employment, appreciating their skills and maturity and, often, a determination to make the most of their limited time in the office. Yet, despite these positive factors, it's true that many women find their return to work less than satisfactory. Some feel marginalised by their colleagues; others are frustrated with the difficulty of trying to make a significant contribution within their restricted working hours and a lack of consistent contact with key people. Some, like you, are alarmed to find they seem to have moved from the fast track to the bus lane.

Looked at from the employers' point of view, it's understandable that, even if they are happy to accept new mothers back into the workforce and to offer them flexible working, they won't want to put them in positions where their new circumstances and part-time contract might prevent them from being as successful as someone working full-time. Roles where there is a lot of client contact tend not to be given to part-timers for fear they won't be around when the customer calls. Similarly, jobs with overseas travel tend not to go to new mothers, though I know at least two high-flyers who took their infants and their nannies on business trips and paid for the extra room themselves - not an option for the less well-paid.

Of course, it may also be true that some employers give women returners more mundane work, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to want to change jobs at that particular juncture in their careers.

How can you make your work more meaningful? That's the crux of the issue. Being parted from your offspring wouldn't be so bad if you found work more rewarding. So, look at your current role to see if you can make it more satisfying. The chief frustration for a client of mine in this position was the volume of work she was expected to do: tasks, meetings, e-mails, administration ... the list seemed endless. And despite working at home in the evening and on her days off, she didn't feel she was making any headway.

We sat down and sorted her work into three piles: stuff where she could make a unique contribution; stuff she could delegate to others; and stuff she could safely ignore. Some bits fell into a grey area - for example, a cross-departmental meeting that she didn't need to attend every time but needed to be seen at occasionally.

It came as a great relief to her to realise that there were things for which she did not have to take responsibility and that could be handled better by someone else. She started to focus on the areas where she could personally make a difference, and soon felt she was making progress. Gradually, her job satisfaction improved.

Look around the organisation to see if there's a role you'd enjoy that would suit your logistical requirements. One of my clients switched from a client-handling role to a more strategic one, with less need for her consistent presence. A lawyer I know moved to run the information department of the large legal practice for which she worked after she became a mother, so she could continue to exercise her forensic skills but leave the office in time to collect her son from school. Even if there isn't an obvious role, there might be a project or a new responsibility that would improve your sense that the job is worthwhile.

Finally, make sure that there's nothing in your behaviour at work to reinforce any prejudices about working mothers. Make it obvious that, despite the dull nature of your current role, you're doing it really well and are ready to tackle something more challenging. Your dissatisfaction is understandable, but if it's making you openly grumpy, perceptions of you will inevitably be negative and add to your difficulties in changing to a more satisfying role.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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