At 34, I’d spent years building up my career in the Corporate Sector. I was well qualified, experienced and had a good reputation. That wasn’t enough though because, in my mid-30’s right when my career was beginning to peak, I dared to have a child. I hadn’t planned it like that. In my 20’s I had no intention of having children. I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids ever. Things changed when I met my now husband, and all of a sudden children became part of the life ‘plan’. A difficult pregnancy made things a struggle at work, long hours working in London with a fairly lengthy commute to and from the office became an issue along with some medical concerns which meant I had to take my maternity leave early and suddenly I was sat at home, alone, bored and away from work for the first time in 13 years.
Fast forward a few months down the line, with every intention of returning to my Management position, I made a flexible working request asking for some leeway in how I worked my job. Maybe I could work condensed hours, or work from home 1 day a week — something I had successfully done previously — or there might even be the possibility of a job share. I was open to any suggestion of how I could still be effective at work whilst being a mum. The answer was no. To all and any of the above. Silly me for believing I could simply pick up where I left off. The job I’d worked so hard for, the position in Management that had taken me years to get to, the salary that was finally reflecting my education and experience all gone in one letter from my boss. To be fair he had made it very clear that he had no intention of allowing me to work part time or flexibly before I’d even gone on maternity leave, something which I should have followed up through official channels because it’s at best unethical and at worst unlawful. BUT, and it is a big but, I was ill through my pregnancy and then had a tiny baby at home, living 250 miles away from my immediate family, and with no friends because we had moved to a new area when I was pregnant. I had nothing left in me to fight this person who just didn’t really want me any less than full time with any other responsibilities than the job he paid me to do. So I left.
Financially life became difficult. Looking back I’m not sure how we survived. There were no savings because we had ploughed everything we had into our house, which still needed a lot of work, and there was another human to feed and clothe. I’m not looking for sympathy — it’s hard for lots of families — but being stripped of the ability to return to my career because I’m a woman who chose to have a baby seemingly and suddenly made me, in some people’s eyes, less capable of doing my job and not able to financially contribute to my family. As a mum of 2 now, let me tell you that becoming a parent has made me more capable than I ever thought possible and my organisational, multi-tasking and communication skills are a thousand times better than they were before I had kids.
What to do? I looked for another job obviously and when a part time position came up at a local college looking for a Lecturer in Business and Law — which I happened to have a background in — I went for it. I got the position and worked 18.5 hours a week but to make sure I was in post for the beginning of the new term I had to return to work when my son was only 5 months old. That was difficult. If I think about it now I still feel terribly guilty. I’m not sure why — he is a perfectly well balanced, happy little boy who has just started school and has no recollection of mummy going back to work when he was so little. When he gets older I’ll explain to him that I did it for our family, so we could have a reasonable life together and so that we had a little bit of extra money so that I could take him to baby classes and swimming lessons and playgroup on my days off. I could have stayed at home with him for a few more months maybe, but there would have been none of the ‘extras’ that we were able to give him and that he got lots out of.
I’ll be honest, I also work for my own sanity. I didn’t relish returning to work when my first born was so young, but the ability to hold an adult conversation, use my brain and get out of the house can be bliss when you’ve only seen the same 4 walls for month, upon month. The job wasn’t everything I wanted though — it was just a happy medium for that moment in time. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t make me ecstatic to go to work everyday, and it wasn’t what I saw myself doing forever. My second son was soon on the way, and this time I knew I’d be able to return to my role after maternity leave. I took some more courses and qualifications and was even able to take on a slightly different and more flexible role when I returned that has really worked well for our family but I’ve had to make some effort. I had to be prepared to study a bit more and to put myself out there to learn something new even with 2 small kids at home.
But it wasn’t what I want to do forever and as I hurtled towards 40 (happening later this year) I had to ask myself what is it that I really want to do? Years ago I’d studied for a Master’s degree in Media Management, then a Diploma in Public Relations and did a bit of freelance dabbling in media consulting. Another thing I’d always loved, and been good at, is writing and since I was a teenager I’ve written articles, stories, blogs, poems — anything. So I found an MA in Creative Writing that I could do around the kids, I put a portfolio together for my application and hoped for the best. I was accepted and a year later I’m the proud owner of a Masters degree with Merit in Writing. How I did it, I’ll never know but a bit of hard work and tenacity doesn’t go amiss along with buckets full of coffee, lots of late nights, a few too many gin and slims and a decent Malbec at the weekends.
Now I’m well into my journey of building my business and career as an Author and Women’s Confidence Coach between the school run, the nursery drop, walking the dogs, feeding the cats, washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning and it’s crazy, chaotic, exhausting and exhilarating because for the first time in years I can see a career that will work around my choice, and need, to be a working mum and that will fulfil me personally and professionally. It’s a long slog, and some days it takes everything out of me, but with drive and motivation it’s possible to see a way to make family life and professional life work together.
My top tips are:
Be organised and write a list.
Decide what it is you want — do you want to work? Do you want to be a stay at home mum or do you want to wait until the kids are older? Either is fine, you shouldn’t feel judged for choosing one over the other.
Consider what it is you need — With lots of women now the main earner, or a large contributor to the household income, finances are going to need looking at. Do you need to work? If so, how much money do you need to bring in to make it worthwhile taking account of childcare? Where would you get your childcare? Are there waiting lists or age limits that might affect when you can return to work?
Think outside the box — Get your CV together but don’t bore potential employers with a rubbish cover letter — use the opportunity to really tell them about yourself. Are you funny? Let them know! Can you do 376 things at once? Describe that to them! Sell yourself and all the experience you can bring — being a mum doesn’t make you unemployable, it should make you more employable.
Be honest — If you can only work part time, school hours, term time only, go for the job, get an interview, smash that interview and then ask them if there is any flexibility in the working hours. You might be surprised at how receptive a prospective employer can be if they really like you and are considering you for the job.
Be confident — Putting yourself out there is scary but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t go for what you really want. If you see a job you like the look of but don’t think you’ve got quite the right background, go for it anyway and tell them why you’re still the perfect person for them in spite of not being an exact match — convince them you’re exactly what they’re looking for even if they don’t know it! In the last 18 months I’ve appeared in the National press several times as well as several women’s magazines talking about parenting, body confidence, childcare, and women’s lifestyle issues such as being a working mum — that’s only being possible because I’ve had the confidence to sell myself and tell my story.
Go for your dreams — Having kids is life changing but it also gives you the time and opportunity to re-evaluate things. If you hated your job before, or didn’t feel like you were in quite the right industry see this as the reason you needed to rethink things.
Connect with people — Other mums are a great source of information and inspiration so don’t see them as just friends or competition. Get out to networking groups, go to coffee mornings and spark up a conversation at play group — you never know who you might meet and what connection you might be able to make with them. Find the women who inspire you or have the career that you want and seem to ‘have it all’ (by the way no-one has it all, it’s just not possible, but you can have a lot of the things at many of the same times) and ask them how they do it. Follow them on social media, read their books, find out exactly what their path to success was and then formulate a plan that works for you and your family to help you reach your own goals.
Pretend you’re starting out again — Think about work experience. It’s not just something that teenagers or graduates do. If you want to change industry or want to start on the path to something completely new the best way to see if you really do love it is to do it. Companies are often really receptive to taking on older people with experience elsewhere because they don’t have to start from scratch with them. Tell them why you want to get experience, tell them what you can bring to them and sell your value.
Know your worth — Career women who’ve chosen to have children are often looked down on like we somehow should expect to give up everything we’ve worked for because we own the reproductive organs to have a baby. Becoming a mum adds value, it doesn’t cheapen what you already know, it doesn’t make you worth less, make sure you see yourself as valid and don’t allow anyone to tell you that you aren’t.
Most of all, have the self belief that if you can raise a tiny human you can definitely change careers or return to work successfully. Never give up, there is a little person watching your every move and what you put out there will shape them as much as it does you.