Thursday 20 June 2019

Balancing's all in a day's work for mothers

Returning to the office can be a daunting task for some new mothers -- but that doesn't have to be the case, writes Katie Gunn

Katie Gunn, with
her three children,
Marley (2), Baxter
(3mths) and Kaya
(4). Picture by Jean
Katie Gunn, with her three children, Marley (2), Baxter (3mths) and Kaya (4). Picture by Jean Curran

Katie Gunn

It was a childcare decision that got women everywhere talking. French Justice Minister Rachida Dati returned to work just five days after giving birth to a baby girl because she was determined to hold on to her shaky job.

It was a gamble that didn't pay off, as she has now been politically sidelined.

But the impact of her decision continues to resonate, prompting debates ranging from 'when should mothers return to work?', to 'should mothers return to work?'; and from 'what damage has she done to our hard-fought maternity rights', to 'is it really any of our business'?

Having given birth to my third child in October, I find my own return-to-work date fast approaching, so I have taken a keen interest in the story.

My new arrival, however, will be five months rather than five days old when I don my suit and heels and return to office life in the financial services.

Although I'm not really looking forward to packing my three under-fives -- Kaya, Marley and Baxter -- off to a child minder, I know how lucky I am that I only work a three-and-a-half-day week; know and trust my children's carer; and live locally to my company's offices, which are all big pluses for a working mum.

My return to work first time around, following the birth of my eldest child in 2004, was very different.

Not only was I leaving my precious baby with a virtual stranger, I was also returning to what seemed like a life sentence of a five-day working week. Like so many others, I couldn't simply give up working because, at the time, I was the main breadwinner in the family.

I felt trapped, unhappy, and, I must admit, angry at my husband, who was then working as a customer services rep, for the situation I was in.

Having spoken to many other mothers over the years about their own experiences of returning to the workforce following maternity leave, it seems that overwhelmingly women feel 'forced' to go back to work, or at best choose between working full-time or not at all.

One new mother admitted that on her first day back at work she cried all the way from dropping her six-month-old off at his new creche until she walked red-eyed into her company's offices 30 minutes away, and that was only after pulling the car over twice to phone and check if he was okay.

Another took her full annual holidays at the end of her maternity leave in a bid to postpone the inevitable move back to work, with perhaps the hope of winning the lottery in the meantime.

My own first days back at my desk were spent with a knot in my stomach, worrying about my new baby.

Questions flew through my mind -- was she being looked after properly (yes); had I chosen the right child minder (absolutely); would she settle to sleep without her mother (who was I kidding)?

I also desperately missed my little girl - after all, I had spent every waking hour with her over the previous six months. I was now going 'cold turkey' by being forced to be away from her from 7am to 5pm five long days a week.

Every evening when I raced back to collect her, I struggled with my emotions as I carried her to the car.

Those first weeks back at work were the hardest because I had an overwhelming feeling that my days at work were a complete waste of my time, that what I should really be doing was raising my little girl. How annoying that no one was willing to pay me for it!

However, as time went on, I became more immersed in my job and began to look for logical ways to reduce my working hours, rather than emotionally just throwing my hands in the air.

Soon after I put forward a written proposal to change my working hours to a three-and-a-half-day week, rather than my five-day one.

I was over the moon when the proposal was finally accepted on a trial basis. That was four years ago. Thankfully, I had a supportive husband at my side -- though I'm not sure how much the promise of home-cooked meals and ironed shirts influenced the matter.

The deal was agreed and we tightened our belts for the months ahead.

So was this part-time arrangement everything I had hoped it would be? Certainly I felt my life was more balanced than before -- divided evenly between work (three-and-a-half days) and home (three-and-a-half days).

Our home life became a lot calmer as I had more time to ensure the laundry pile didn't get so big that the baby could get lost in it; and the kitchen cupboards had more than baked beans, Weetabix and a couple of sprouting potatoes in them. I felt far less guilty than I had previously, and in truth actually enjoyed getting out of my jeans and into some adult company on my work days.

Using my brain for something more than building a tower of blocks and knocking them over for the 20th time in a row was also welcome. My days in the office were busy and challenging, as I worked harder than ever to prove myself to both managers and colleagues. I knew that I was lucky to have my part-time set-up and did all I could to keep it.

The downsides were that at times I had the feeling that I was doing both jobs badly, rather than one job well. Often, it seemed like I was having to squeeze five days' worth of work into three-and-a-half days, just so that I wouldn't 'upset the boat'. There was also the perceived aggravation to colleagues when meetings or calls had to be rescheduled to my 'in' days.

Of course, there were adjustments to be made at home, too. As I now had so much time 'off' it was expected that I would take on all of the household chores all of the time -- it took a while for us to work that one out!

All things considered, though, both my husband and I were more than happy with the arrangement.

A lot of the stress of running a family whilst both parents worked was lifted. He got a happier wife, and I got more time with our baby. Less office time meant more family time, and the result was a far more harmonious home.

Not everyone is so lucky. Many employers still believe that only full-time, office-bound workers are worth their salaries.

Various studies have disproved this theory, showing that in reality staff who have been given the opportunity to work part-time or flexi-time are far more likely to value their positions, and work even harder to ensure that the arrangement is successful.

In a 2007 survey carried out on a variety of Irish companies, managers reported that work/life balance options such as reduced working weeks and flexible working hours "fostered good employee relations ... and helped to retain employees (in particular, experienced employees with specialised skills)".

They also reported that these practices improved the well-being of employees, and can increase productivity and help lower absenteeism.

All in all, it seems that employers and employees working together to find a solution usually provides a win-win situation.

Employers keep their hard-working, loyal, and productive employees, and their workers get a more balanced lifestyle, and therefore a happier and healthier outlook on their lives.

Of course, the part-time arrangement would not suit everyone. Some mothers are delighted to get back to the dynamics of working life, having spent months changing nappies and doing the daily pram push around the duck pond.

By returning to full-time work, these women often find they regain a piece of themselves, and become happier and better mothers as a result.

So it seems that the question is really one of choice, and how to make more options available to mothers in the workplace so that they do not feel trapped and unhappy.

With more and more businesses being challenged by the current climate, and therefore looking for cost-saving measures, perhaps now is a good time to put forward that long considered proposal?

My own personal experience has been an extremely positive one, and I will be returning to the workforce with optimism and enthusiasm, rather than the dread and resignation that many working mothers face.

Hopefully, more and more businesses will start to understand this complex situation that the majority of families now face, and become more open to flexible working practices.

If they do, they stand to gain increased employee satisfaction, retention, productivity, and business reputation, which doesn't sound like such a bad deal to me.

Perhaps someone should have told the French Government?

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