Why do so many women fail at working full time after having children?
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18th January 2019
A Complex Question
I feel in my bones that if we did a better job of helping women transition back into their careers after having children, the dreadful stats about women's comparative pay and women's representation in the highest echelons of business and society would improve. The hard work comes well before they get near the top of the greasy pole: it comes when they first have kids, more accurately the first time they return to full time work.
Let's take a step backwards to assess the whole picture for a moment. This is a massively complex issue, and there isn't one right answer, but many right answers, many circumstances I don't know anything about. I do know a fair bit about the subject though, as a mother who returned to work full time after maternity leave, an employer who had women in her team returning to work after maternity leave and then a mother who changed careers, partly to create a better environment for her family.
I'm definitely not going to give anyone 'the answer' here; I can't tell you about your life. I'm just going to talk about my own experiences. I'm also not going to include those women who don't want to go back to work full time, or restart their careers. I'm just focusing on those who wanted to, intended to, who tried, and maybe failed.
All about me me me!
I took two lots of maternity leave, 6 months each time, then picked up my career where I left off, barely missing a beat. How?
Circumstances, nothing more. It was absolutely miserable. Circumstances made me the main bread winner just as I became pregnant the first time.
Rewind ... I was very smug, as I had married a Structural Engineer. I was a teacher, and teachers marry teachers, so I was very cheerful about bucking the trend. Then within a month of getting married I was pregnant, and before the next month was out my husband said 'I don't want to be an engineer ... I want to be a teacher' 🤨. So while I had a new baby, and my husband was training to teach, I had to get straight back in full speed, and I needed to be earning enough to support us. There was no way I could 'go part time'.
What makes going back to work so hard?
Everyone 'knows' how hard it is when you have your first baby, but in reality people only think they know. Consider this: everyone knows what it's like to miss a night's sleep, but how can we describe what it's like to barely sleep for year?
My first child was a banshee. Here she is, lulling you into a false sense of security with her delicious cuteness:
She looks asleep, but don't be fooled. This child rarely slept, ate hardly anything and high-pitch-shrieked her way through her first 12 months in the world.
At 6 months old, maternity leave was done, and I was back full force into my middle management teaching job. I was extremely lucky. I had a super-supportive headteacher (appreciation here comes in retrospect, as I've since done his job), a super-supportive department and lots of other working mothers in my team. Despite this, it was hard. Really really hard. Given a choice, I would absolutely have swapped to part time.
The guilt was constant. Guilt about sending my baby to a nursery all day. Guilt about being too tired and grumpy to 'love every minute' with my daughter. Guilt about being a rubbish wife because we did nothing more than survive. Guilt about being pregnant again and needing a second maternity leave. Guilt about not being a shining light of optimism all the time for my team. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
My husband was just as tired, just as busy, just as stressed, but he didn't feel remotely guilty. The guilt is a woman's burden. The guilt is definitely one reason women give up full time work, cut back, take a career step back, or stop work altogether. This is something we do to ourselves: it's a self-imposed purgatory.
Here she is today, looking every bit as perfect as her mother thinks she is, and half grown already in a heartbeat.
Pressure From Colleagues
New babies get sick a lot. All those germs to experience for the first time provide a great immune system for their future, but if your child is in a nursery, or with a childminder, the slightest little fever or cough and they are sent home. And there's nothing in the world gets sick as often as a baby going to nursery for the first time. And there's no one gets sick as much as a mother newly returned from maternity leave trying to do two full time jobs in the space for one. So mothers returning from maternity leave have more time off to care for their children, and they get sick more themselves too.
Often both parents share this load, often they share it equally: but colleagues don't see these absences equally. When a woman stays home to care for a sick child, her colleagues perceive this as her being unable to commit fully to her job, she is slacking. When I was a headteacher, I had teachers coming to me to complain about the number of absences a freshly returned from maternity leave mother was having. In reality, she and her husband were sharing the load absolutely equally, often swapping half way through the day to ensure the minimum impact on their respective teaching commitments. Only, the other teachers weren't just coming to me, they were whispering about it in corridors, then loudly sharing their grievances over after work beer (after work beer is entirely the domain of those without young children in child care) and going to HR to find out what the policy was on such absences. In staggering contrast, at her husband's school people were stopping him in corridors to congratulate him on how well he was balancing his commitment to his family, how much they appreciated how carefully he planned his schedule to meet his core commitments. His boss invited him in for a meeting to say how grateful the school was. For him, being committed to his family was good for his career, it made him appear more reliable, more stable. For her, being committed to her family made her a less reliable, less valued colleague. Her colleagues were not remotely bad people, not consciously prejudiced, but simply as subject to the unconscious bias of our society as the rest of us ... and they hadn't yet had any children of their own.
In truth this phase of increased absences is just that, a phase. Children develop a better immune system, mothers become accustomed to the load and just get tougher. If everyone weathers the storm, then after about a year it settles. Only by then, sometimes it's too late and the mother, feeling unwanted and incompetent, asks for a meeting to say 'I want to go part time'. I've worked hard as an employer to keep women in work full time past that first year, but I found that any interventions or supports I put in place were seen as playing favourite, blatant unfairness.
It's not fair!
On one occasion, I wrote a timetable that allowed a new mother to keep the first lesson of each day as 'non-contact' - her non-teaching time. This did nothing to reduce her work load, not so much as a stitch less, it just moved all her classes to after 08.40 each day. I wanted her to have five minutes peace each morning, a coffee perhaps alone in the staff room. It caused outrage. No, it caused rage.
Maybe it is unfair, but from my perspective her colleagues wake around 7am each day, having slept through the night, maybe after a few beers with friends the night before. Perhaps their partner will bring them coffee in bed, perhaps they even have time for a cuddle or some quick sex, or a morning run round the park, maybe breakfast together 'How would you like your eggs darling?' or 'Shall we stop at that new coffee place for a croissant on the way to work?'. The mornings for that mother on a good day start at around 5am with a fat nappied bottom in her face; usually she's already been up three times in the night - teaching your baby to sleep is a kind of voodoo after all. Then she showers rapidly with a toddler pressing her face against the glass 'Mummy look at me', and a baby screaming in the next room. This is only the start of the chaos, as the toddler rejects breakfast by throwing in on the wall and the baby has a poonami up her back - again. She gets three people ready, two of whom are hell bent on fighting her 'Where is your jumper, get your jumper, get your jumper, where is your jumper, I SAID GET YOUR JUMPER' , and she practically falls out of her front door carrying a baby in a car seat, her work bag in the other arm while needing a magical third arm to get the toddler in the car. She has eaten nothing, except perhaps the remnants of the toddler's breakfast, a soggy, pre-chewed toast soldier. Breakfast carnage is left as it ended, ready for her to clear up as she walks in the front door after a hard day's work, racing to the nursery to get the baby before 6pm because they charge an extra hour if you are five minutes late. Then she will tackle the breakfast debris - now encrusted into concrete - before starting dinner preparations, which has to be served before 6:30pm so the toddler won't fall asleep hungry and be up half the night.
Meanwhile, her colleagues are having a cooling beer in an outside cafe, bitching about favouritism because she left the after work meeting ten minutes early to collect her children and 'Shall we go to that cute new Italian place on the corner for dinner?'. When her husband leaves his after work meeting twenty minutes early to collect their children, it is to understanding smiles and whispers of 'He's such a good dad... bless'.
So she's tried coming back full time, it's relentlessly hard: she makes a meeting with her boss to say 'I'd like to go part time', and the world of education loses another potential leader, another potential headteacher, another potential Ofsted inspector, another potential educational consultant, workshop leader and advisor to the government. Once she's 'gone part time' her colleagues will assume her priorities are elsewhere, that she leaves her intellect at home each morning, she can't fulfill any promoted posts or responsibilities part time and she won't try working full time again until her kids are much much older, at least in Secondary School, likely not until they are teenagers. By then she will feel past it, like there are younger more lively candidates. Maybe she'll be a department head. Maybe not. Or, her boss can try to dissuade her and say 'I know it's hard, I've been there, I understand, what can I do to help?'.
My husband worked as a newly qualified teacher in a Science department with thirteen older women: all of them worked part time. Any one of them had the experience, skills and intellect to run a school, but the department head was a young man in his twenties, destined for greatness, unburdened by the judgement of his colleagues when he had children. Surely we are able to be more evolved than this?
Be flexible: in hours and in attitude
It's easy to say that flexible working is the answer, and often it is.
The problem is, that 'flexible working' is all about the person working different hours, the flexible working we need is the workings of other people's minds. A big giant bite of the problem is the attitude of colleagues and employers. We need a society where flexible working is normal.
If someone teaches the same thirty lesson week, what is it to anyone else if none of those classes take place at 08:00?
If one person does all their class preparation right after school in their classroom, going home at 6.30pm each evening, and someone else leaves at 3.30pm, goes home, then does all their preparation when their kids are in bed after 8pm, then what difference does it make to the quality of education they provide?
Quite frankly, the difference it makes is in other people's mind's. The latter gives the impression of taking the same money for less work: rushing off at 3.30pm just looks lazy. The former could be surfing the internet for all anyone knows, but they certainly appear to be committed and hardworking. We've all known people who studiously work on their social media input at their desk each evening, waiting until they've see the boss go home: 'Goodnight Sam, don't work too late', 'Nearly done boss, see you tomorrow'. That little trick is not in the options booklet of a mother with a baby at home, and there's no one watching at midnight as she finalises her presentation on her dining-room table.
My examples here are from the world of education, but you're smart people, you'll be able to find examples from your own line of work.
Why should we care? Women choose to have kids, they choose the sacrifice, they choose to work part time. Why should anyone else be flexible for that?
It's a fair question.
We should care because the men are choosing to have children too. In fact, just as many men have children as women, but it is women whose careers risk staggering to a slow plod.
We should care because women are 50% of the population, and without representation in the decision making ranks, then their interests are neglected everywhere: in politics, in education, in business, in consumerism.
We should care, because all the evidence says it's good for business; it will makes us richer in both meanings of the word.
We should care because as a society we all benefit from a society that self-propagates, whether or not we partake in that propagation. Children become our doctors, our politicians, our police officers. our scientists, our artists, our farmers, our road builder, our chefs, our leaders. Saying people should entirely carry their own child rearing burden is ridiculous, because if other people didn't have children, the world would be in a pretty sorry state for us all in our old age. It's like saying 'Why should my taxes pay for that bridge you drive across every day, I don't need that bridge'. The answer is because a developed society benefits from identifying its needs as a whole: you benefit from my taxes paying for the bridge you cross each day, I benefit from you paying taxes that provide my children's education, you benefit from that education when you need a surgeon, I benefit from that surgery when you are well enough to fix my car and so on.
We should care because there will always be women who don't want to return to work, who want to stay home with their children; to be a caring society, we should collectively enable that to happen. This means that there may always be proportionately fewer women with children remaining in careers than men with children remaining in careers. To be a representative society, we should collectively ensure that those women who wish to remain in full time work are empowered to do so.
We should care because this is the 21 Century, and we can choose what kind of society we want to live in.
This Girl Can.
Or ... my advice to mothers returning to work after maternity leave.
It's going to be unimaginably tough. Strength does not come from an easy life, it comes from struggles. Be resilient.
Just as you made assumptions about new mothers who came before you, people will make assumptions about you. Develop a thick skin. Be resilient.
Everything is a phase. This is true for all the good and bad about having children; this particular hardship will pass. Be resilient.
The higher up the ladder you climb, the easier childcare becomes. It becomes more affordable, but more importantly you'll have more control over your own calendar, you decide for yourself when, where and how to do things. In fact, it was my boss, a working mother, who taught me this. I was a head of department, I was exhausted. I was thinking of going back to just classroom teaching. She smiled wisely and said 'That is an option, but if you push through to senior leadership, it gets easier again on the other side'. She was wise in so many ways, the world of education would have suffered a terrible loss if she had 'gone part time' years before. As a headteacher looking after my two young children was massively simpler than when I was a middle manager; I didn't ask anyone if could have permission to go to my children's school play, I just added it into my calendar. Instead of going part time, think about going for that promotion: although you definitely won't work fewer hours, you may have more control over your hours that way.
Instead of 'going part time' maybe start your own business. The world of start-ups is heaving with working mothers like me. The odious word 'mumpreneur' is a testament to this; there's a reason all those mothers out there decided to work for themselves, and it wasn't 'baby brain'. Choose your own hours, write your own calendar. I started a business designing and printing t-shirts for mighty girls - what will you do?
When your children are older, and everything is easier, look out for the younger women coming up behind you who will themselves have to decide whether to push through or 'go part time'. Here's a great article to show you how 'Ten top tips for retaining women post maternity leave': click here
And finally ... watch this. Michael McIntyre's 'People without children think they know'. It will either make you laugh or cry!
If you enjoyed this blog, why not have a look at my earlier ones? Here they are: