With research showing that women taking 3 years off work to bring up children lose 38% of their earning power forever, it seems that managing your maternity leave is more important than you probably expected.
I asked the BCS Women’s group – a group of women working in science, technology and engineering – what advice they had for women returning to work after maternity leave. And the answers were both illuminating and a bit scary.
“Get all the help you can beg, borrow or steal, or can afford,” said Terry. “Make it as easy as possible. Whatever that means for you, an extra hour of child care a day, ready-made meals for kids (there are even some mildly healthy ones out there), or asking your neighbour to take the dog for a walk.”
In Terry’s case, her daughter decided to stop sleeping the day she went back to work full-time and she stumbled through a year without sleep. A friend told her to hire a sleep consultant – an approach she fully recommends to anyone having difficulty getting their children to sleep.
“The one thing I found amazing when I went back to work was how very little had changed in the 8 months I had been off,” she said. “The same people, in the same meetings, talking about the same things. It took a few days or weeks, but I soon realised that I hadn’t forgotten everything I had known and that baby brain wasn’t quite all that was left rattling around in my head.”
Getting back into office life
Getting up to speed at work is a challenge if you have been off for a while – and many UK mums take longer than the 8 months Terry took off work. “My company operated a return to work process,” explained Louise. “You had 3 months to work up to the hours you said you were returning to. For those three months they paid you for your full hours, so that stress was taken away.” When Louise returned to full-time work she found this policy very useful and she also managed to use outstanding leave and doing half days which meant she didn’t work a full week for a year.
“I think it’s also wise to have a plan for what you want to do,” she added. “When I submitted my plan it was accepted. Maybe I was lucky, but it forced me to think through what I wanted and to read all the policies relating to maternity leave and returning to work. I was also forced to evaluate what I wanted from do-ability perspective which so I had answers to potential questions.”
The job you did before might not work anymore
However, some women don’t appear to get the choices that they want. “It has got better for women in the last 25 years, because there is better enforcement of equality and diversity legislation,” said Judy. “For me in the late 1980’s it was very difficult to go back to work, and to work the hours I wanted/needed without impact to my career prospects.”
For Judy, going back to her old company on part-time hours was impossible because there wasn’t that option for management level head office staff. “Although funnily enough,” she said, “it was OK for store staff.” She also felt that the travelling and long hours wouldn’t work with the times that local nurseries were available.
“I stayed at home for 6 years then was very lucky to get a full-time job locally in an organisation that worked flexi-time,” Judy said. “In my first week a devout Christian told me that my role was to be at home, and he didn’t get challenged.”
Later on Judy became a single parent and changed to working part-time. But she still needed to be in the office every day for her team to have access to her. One manager repeatedly scheduled meetings 30 minutes before her going-home time and then complained that she wasn’t keeping up.
“When I had to have 3 months off for an operation I missed out on key training that was never rescheduled for me,” Judy said. “But, I survived it all…and so did my child. My advice is to always keep believing that it is your right to work if you want to. And it is better for your child/children for you to have a fulfilling life that sets an example for them, than to live a life of martyrdom which puts pressure on them to fulfil your aspirations.”
It isn’t just women who returned to work in the 80’s that found it difficult. Karen was forced to leave her job 4 years ago after it just wasn’t practical to go back to it. “I worked in a male dominated role in computer forensics and was working a 60 hour week and travelled internationally,” she said. “When I got pregnant I battled to be office based as I just couldn’t lug hefty kit around the world heavily pregnant.”
Karen took maternity leave with the option of going back to work, but she knew that going back to her old job would be a challenge. The commute into London from Essex, working long days, and having no family or friends to rely on made it impossible. “To make matters more difficult for me, a colleague 10 years younger than myself got pregnant a few months after me and returned to work full-time after 6 months,” she said. “They were relieved when I decided not to return as they didn’t know what role I would do.”
Karen is now desperate to get back to it. “My skills are only useful in London and I’ve no confidence anymore,” she said. “I feel I’ve gone from having a successful career to being a nobody just because I decided to have a child!”
Part-timers miss out on opportunities
If you do have the choice to go back to work, managing the lack of opportunity seems to be a common theme.
“The biggest challenge for me was not being offered the same opportunities as the full-timers,” said Marian. “Although not overt, that was nonetheless made quite clear to me. In order to avail myself of promotions and advancements I was told I had to return to full hours.” She was also told that she could only work part-time if her customers weren’t adversely affected.
Marian took a promotion and returned to working full-time recently. “I’m sure after a year at this new improved position I could apply for shorter hours again, and probably get them,” she said. “But then we’re back to being overlooked again when nice interesting opportunities come up. I just can’t quite see how to balance the two sides.”
Resist going full-time if you can is Marian’s advice. “Actually you will resist fairly easily if it is important enough,” she said. “At some point we have to weigh up the pros of having that time at home against the con (if it is a con) of not advancing where and when we’d like, and whichever is heavier on our soul then that is how we must jump.”
Managing your return to work
Going back to work can be difficult, and this idea from Queen’s University in Belfast may help make the move to the office less daunting. “Create a support group to link women going off on maternity leave with those recently returned from it,” suggested Lorna, a single parent of 14 years. If a formal support group isn’t possible, she recommends talking to someone else in the company who works part-time or who has a similar situation to you, even if they are in a different department.
Queen’s has a gold Athena Swan award for addressing gender equality. “Another idea from Queen’s is arranging a formal re-induction meeting with your line manager and others in your section,” Lorna said. “Asking for the dates of any team meetings to be planned well in advance will help you to make sure the meetings fall on the days that you are in work.”
As well as sharing the lessons and best practice from the university, Lorna has her own experiences to draw on too. “I only survived because I had a great child-minder,” she said. “I had to travel all over Northern Ireland and she looked after my boys or had one of her grown-up children babysit for me on the evenings that I was working late.”
She said that women returners shouldn’t be afraid to be a ‘broken record’ about their needs. “It may take some time for the new situation to sink in,” she said.
Managing your return to work, if you have the option of returning at all, can be a huge challenge. In the end, the piece of advice that most struck a chord with me was from Louise. “You have to be happy with your choice,” she said. “If you aren’t it won’t work.”