How to have children and a career and stay sane(ish)

Huge childcare costs. Reduced earning power. Diminished status. Discrimination. Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs, reveals the truth about returning to work after having a baby.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 31 Oct 2018

When I became a mother, it never occurred to me that I would want to give up my job. But the truth is, combining work and small kids is hard – and when I tried it, I found myself desolate with misery.

Whatever your emotions about your baby and returning to work, most people feel they have very limited choices for practical reasons. Some have to go back at a certain point to keep the household solvent and others, who want to go back, find that the cost of childcare (especially for multiple children) means it makes absolutely no sense to do so.

Broadly, there are three approaches I see:

1) There are women who run back, thrilled to escape this strange new world and revel in wearing proper clothes and spending time with adults.
2) There are those who walk back, torn between work and home, but ultimately feeling they need the stimulation and income of work enough that it’s the right thing for them and their families.
3) And then there are those who are pushed or dragged back and never feel the same way about work again.

For the first two groups, returning to work comes with risks. A 2016 Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report found that three out of four mothers in the UK had negative or possibly discriminatory experiences during pregnancy, maternity or upon return. It also found that one in nine mothers reports they were let go in some way (dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they had to leave).

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Even if active discrimination is avoided, the process and return can be very difficult. A hairdresser explained how she was only allowed two hours’ paid time off for each medical appointment throughout a complicated pregnancy but, because she drives 45 minutes to her salon, had to take unpaid half and full days every time she went to the doctor or hospital, despite having worked there for 10 years and having desperately tried to save up for the baby and maternity leave. Another mum told me that, as her second maternity leave ended, both of her children got chicken pox in succession. Her boss made her take this time as holiday, leaving her with almost no holiday days the first year she was back.

Some evidence suggests that about six months is the longest you can take off without starting to risk losing status and future earning power at work. For example, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who wrote Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, showed that a woman who took more than two years off lost 18% of her earning power forever. If she took three years off, this soared to 38%. But two maternity leaves of about six months had little or no effect on future earnings. Hewlett believes that the greater number of women at senior levels in American companies is an upside of their poor maternity policies (a paltry six weeks for many women): that by having and taking our long leaves in the UK we are setting women back in the workforce. Anyone ambitious might take note: although a degree of scepticism may be advised given that some American companies were among the worst pay gap offenders in the UK.

Part of the value of maternity leave (alongside bonding with your newborn, obviously) is that it is often the only protracted period during your career when you can see the world from a different place and perhaps make different decisions. It’s a clear juncture in life when you can take time to think about what is really important and what you want for yourself, your kids and your family in the future. I recently heard a CEO at a conference saying she thought women should do leadership courses during their maternity leave. I understand her goal but would strongly argue that this is the one period if your life when you can think about something other than work.

Many women are surprised by their own decisions. I interviewed mothers who thought they would love being at home with their baby and then couldn’t wait to get back, and those who thought their career was their pre-eminent motivator and never put a foot in an office again. The key is not to assume how you will feel until the time comes. Part of what changes the desire to go back to work or not is the experience of motherhood. Those who have a good birth, bond well and really enjoy mothering are unsurprisingly more likely to want to keep at it than those who might have started off in a bad place, and through no fault of their own, find it harder to adjust. A few working mums have imagined maternity leave would be so boring they would turn it into an extended holiday and explore Europe by train or get fit for a triathlon or convert the loft (this doesn’t usually seem to work out too well!). And sometimes women who really enjoy their first maternity leave, perhaps thinking that motherhood comes pretty naturally to them, hate their second maternity leave if it follows within a few years. Unlike the first, which enables full attention on one baby, the second makes them feel ripped apart by the different demands of a baby and a toddler. This can trigger a personal crisis along the lines of ‘I thought I was a career person but had a baby and realised I should be an at-home mum but now I find that I’m not good at that either.’

I take two things from my own experience. One is that it’s remarkable how well you can function on very, very little sleep even if, before kids, you were an eight-hours sort of person. The other is that this phase passes in such a daze that you don’t remember it very well afterwards. Factually I know that our second daughter refused a bottle when I returned to work at six months and chose instead to feed all night, since I was there and she had no problem sleeping all day. If anyone can remember what happened in those months, do please let me know, because, for me, this whole period is like an old joke about not remembering the 60s. Minus the acid and casual sex.

This is an edited extract from The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish). Price: £12.99. Published by Green Tree, an imprint of Bloomsbury.


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