It’s a daunting prospect, but there are ways to ease the transition of returning to work, says Jessica Jonzen
There are few things more divisive in the world of motherhood than the question of returning to work. When Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo! announced last year that she was planning to take just two weeks’ maternity leave for her twin girls, she sparked a heated debate. Columnists either praised her commitment or derided her parenting, with some claiming it was tantamount to child abuse.
Our entitlement to a year’s maternity leave here in the UK is unimaginable for our American counterparts, where it is common for new mothers to be back at their desks six weeks after giving birth. And though we are fortunate to be allowed this lengthy period at home, and with the introduction of shared parental leave (only four per cent of men have taken it up so far), for many British women things are not as rosy as they may seem.
A recent survey by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs each year – dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they felt they had to leave. Research carried out by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) also revealed that mothers who returned to work after maternity leave get less pay and fewer promotions for ‘decades’ and are often cornered into ‘softer roles’. The CMI have dubbed this the ‘motherhood penalty’.
No wonder, then, that these findings, together with the costs of childcare, inflexible working hours and a strong desire to be their child’s primary carer leads many women to decide not to return to work, choosing to wait until their children are at school instead.
For 40-year-old Frances Oppenheim, a mother of two from Wandsworth, the decision not to go back to her job in media after her first child stemmed from her own childhood. “My mum was single and had to work full time. I really missed her. I was lucky to have grandparents who looked after me but I still remember the feeling of being left each morning,” she says. “Had I remained at the company I worked for, seeing my children for any more than half an hour a day during the week would have been a rare occurrence. That wasn’t for me. I was fortunate to have a husband willing to support that choice. I have plenty more time to work over the next 20 years or so.”
Lucy Blythe, 38, from St Margarets returned to her sales job after three-and-a-half years and found that the break did not affect her career trajectory at all. “I always kept in touch with my boss and my contacts, and when my son Oliver turned three-and-a-half, it felt like the right time to go back,” she says. “The first two weeks were tricky for all of us. I was expected to hit the ground running, but after a few weeks, it felt like I’d never been away.”
Blythe was promoted three times by the time she left to have her third child last year. She has decided not to return to work this time but knows she will again in the future. “Going back has given me the confidence to know I can,” she says. “Nothing you do has to be forever. Your skills and experience aren’t suddenly deleted because you’ve taken time out for your family.”
So, if you’ve taken a longer period of time to care for your children but want to take steps back in to work, what can you do? “Making the decision to return after more than two years off can be difficult,” says National Careers Service adviser Sophie Graham. “If you have decided to go back to the job you were doing but feel your skills are out of date, you could do a refresher course,” she says.
You may feel concerned about juggling work and family commitments, so Graham says, “be sure to discuss any policies your employer has. Explore options such as working part-time, working from home or freelancing. Employers need to consider all requests for flexible working hours, if you’re unsure where to start, ACAS is a free and confidential service which can talk you through this.” And be sure you’re claiming all the financial help you are eligible for, such as working tax credits.
It’s not just the parents who need to adjust to the new status quo: children used to having a parent around will need help through the transition as well. Parenting expert Jo Wiltshire suggests giving them something they can depend on. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but try to find things you can definitely stick to – you will be there for breakfast every day, for instance, or you will always be home to help with homework by a certain time. These fixed points will become the framework your new schedule will hang upon, and your child will feel more secure for knowing they are there,” she says.
But, says Wiltshire, you also need to be prepared for the inevitable guilt trip. “You’ll probably be feeling this anyway, and your child will invariably use it as a bargaining chip at some point. Stay calm. Acknowledge their grievances, but be resolute – you are being a good role model to your child, you are contributing not only to your family’s finances but also to their collective life experiences. Be proud! Sooner or later, your child will be proud of you, too.”
Visit nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk or speak to a local adviser on 0800 100 900