Why my theory of being a successful working mother still isn’t a reality.

I returned to work a year after the birth of my son, working four days a week. Truth be told, I really enjoyed it and work made my son more enjoyable and vica versa. This was unexpected and I was a more attentive mother after a year of ‘eat, poo, sleep, repeat’ as well as the ‘awesomeness’ (which goes without saying). Despite the fact that I needed to return for financial aspirations for the future, it was the right move for me at the time.

Fast forward a year and a half, a new job, moving to a new city and becoming a casual commuter twice a week to London, I find myself in a different place.  I want a break from a very fast paced (and at times pressured) job to be a more present mum. I want my work to fit round my family not the other way round. I don’t want to hear my two and a half year old son wanting to play with my laptop over his trains and saying things like: “Mummy, my want to work now” or “No more work Mummy”. I don’t want him to be the first in and last one out of nursery twice a week. They (Daily Mail Research Reports and equivalents) say that children whose mothers work go on to be more successful and grounded but it doesn’t feel this way to me at this age. It feels to me that my son has a negative connotation about me working. This has led me to ask three questions:

  • What has been this catalyst for my change of heart a year and a half later?
  • Why is it so hard to truly maintain a career and have a family in the UK still?
  • What might be a mutually beneficial solution to both mums and organisations?

Having spent some time thinking this through, the answer to question one lies in the fact that my cognitive son can now communicate his thoughts, observations and feelings around my work. It may well be that he felt this way  before he could speak or it might be that he has just developed this level of awareness. Either way, the research makes sense in the long term but can only become relevant when my child is able to comprehend and experience the concept of competiveness, work and reward (aka. school). At the age of two and half, all he knows is that my work competes with him for my attention.  I can truly say that I am jealous of my eighties mum who could afford to stay at home with us three kids until we went to school due to the availability of affordable housing. For the first time, I look at ‘fourth sector’ mums and am jealous.

I work for one of the top companies in the world when it comes to supporting women. I suspect this is largely a result of the industry tending to be significantly more male. At graduate level, there are more women than men recruited to the firm. At manager level there are 30-40% more men than women. No surprise that the average age of a manager coincides with the ticking of the biological clock at around 30.  I report into our board and (not for lack of trying at a very senior level), there is still only a 20% representation of women at each meeting. Please don’t quote my figures but you get my drift.

My company campaigns for gender parity, equality, diversity and flexible working all of which have contributed to it being voted one of the most desirable places to work globally. They haven’t set a foot wrong since the late eighties. But from my perspective (as one of their target retention demographics), I still don’t feel like I can balance my work round my family and still maintain a career. I put this down to modern day society and culture not having yet caught up with the stark reality of equality and people can only operate within the conventions of their society. Without ever having been told, I am pretty confident that if I was a part time worker, I wouldn’t be able to get promoted. I also know that there is no way they would consider a job sharing role. These reasons are driven by the balance sheet (business case as it is referred to in corporate terms).

I read a ‘day in the life’ article a few years ago, and I can’t remember who was featured, but she was the CEO of a beauty company. Her thoughts on motherhood and working ran along the lines of: “Why isn’t it socially acceptable for women to slow down to less demanding roles while their kids are young and be able to upscale once their kids go to school – without losing credibility in their organisations?” GENIUS!

In my mind, this approach is the only way to truly achieve gender parity. Companies need to start thinking about the big picture. This means reviewing departmental structures and flexible working around the people who make up the organisation, rather than being driven by strategic organisation objectives. In the long run, retention would outweigh any operational savings, particularly as company tend to change their strategies every few years to meet changing market conditions. This usually results in an extensive and expensive change programme or rebrand. Combined with an assurance around financial and career progression opportunities, women might be able to have long term flexible careers which support the individual rather than the worker.

The corporate world has come so far and huge credit to one of the Big 4 accountancy firms and others who are actively hiring from a recruitment firm which focussing on bringing back skilled mums to careers after they have taken career breaks. If only this was standard across the board… Now there’s a quota system that might work… more on that later.

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Observations of working in London – By a casual commuter

Having relocated from the north to the Midlands four months ago, I now commute to London on a regular basis a few days a week for work. It struck me on the 8.30 Baker Line last week that a whole new assortment of concerns are now a part of my average working day in London.

  1. City warming syndrome – You dress appropriately for the weather at your house before you leave for work at 7.00am, only to find that it is consistently five degrees warmer or colder in the big smoke. You look ridiculous (interpreted as stupid by the natives) in a woollen coat or bare legs.
  2. Tube FOMO* – Type I: The fear (and visible sigh) when you think or see the tube doors closing without you. Type II: You count the number of people ‘minding the gap’ at rush hour as they depart the train, in the hope you will be able to board this time round. Note -The knowledge that the next train will arrive in a minute is not helpful in quelling these anxieties.
  3. Lift Capacity Optimisation – There is master lift panel which must be pressed by all our office workers which will assign you a lift from A-J. Irritatingly it is situated 3m away from the actual lifts. At least twice a week you either miss the lift as you sprint round the corner or forget which lift you need to take. Alarmingly there are no buttons inside the lift.
  4. Geographic oversight syndrome- You discover that pretty much everyone who works in London actually commutes only 45 minutes less than you. But you still allude to the fact that you are travelling for your job, so you can leave the office at 16:30.
  5. Varicose vein predisposition – The flash of anxiety as you alight the elevator only to find that there are no ‘hotdesks’ available. You will now aimlessly wander the floor for at least five minutes only to land up in the lunch quarter.
  6. Workplace of the future – In the early days, you don’t quite grasp the social norm of not conversing over a cuppa with your colleagues while seated at your ‘hot desk’ (if you find one). That’s what collaboration zones are for. Communication with unfamiliar workers is unthinkable.
  7. Debit card decline anxiety – Not unexpected, but it still startles you every time you pay £6.00 for a £4.00 lunch and £7.00 for a £4.50 glass of wine.
  8. Full nest syndrome – Pretty much all your colleagues under 30 are still living with their parents as they either can’t afford rent or property.  No wonder their clothes are always ironed.

*Fear of Missing Out

Things I wish someone told me before I gave birth in a hospital.

1. The labour ward is small. I’m talking Ryan Air cabin baggage small and orderlies will challenge the baggage restrictions. Take two  – a big one for the car to store everything and a small piece of cabin baggage for  refilling.

2. Bring your own squeezy water bottle. Hospitals provide jugs and small plastic cups with straws. Firstly, a cup just doesn’t cut it during labour. Sipping isn’t an option once the contractions speed up.  It’s about sucking as much H2O as you can before the next one arrives. Secondly, regardless of what type of birth you had, you will ache. Reaching across for a cup and straw of water ‘conveniently’ positioned on your raised side table while also holding a new born is nearly impossible and is so painful I’m sure most people prefer to just quietly dehydrate.

3. You won’t sleep for the duration of your stay and you can’t use ear plugs because new born need to be fed a lot (I know pretty obvious).

4. You will make up stories about the random women who move in and move out of the ward to pass the time (I was in for three nights because I couldn’t feed Baby J). Second time mums stand out like beacons of calm radiant light.

5. Breastfeeding really is hard and painful and (in my case) didn’t come naturally to me or my little one but was worth pursuing because it really is a 1000 times more convenient than bottles.

6. The labour ward is hot. I mean it’s really hot. Bring singlets and shorts even in winter. Conveniently the days right after labour are also the time that your body sweats out the gallons of fluid you retained in a room warmer than a hot bikram yoga class. This brings me back to ‘Point 2’ and reason number three to bring a pump water bottle.

7. None of the newborn clothes fitted my good sized 7.5 pounder. He was in ‘small baby’ clothes for a fortnight. This is more common then you think. Unless you want the first pics to be of you hubby and a beige teddy bear emblazoned piece of fabric… Buy some smaller baby clothes.

Round and round and round we go and where I land, I still don’t know…

To hijack the words of Meredith Grey’s mother from Grey’s Anatomy (a personal favourite): “Infertility [life] is like a carousel, it keeps on turning. You can’t ever get off”.

I did step off the carousel briefly but I am now back on. I have moved between eight horses: Endometrial cysts on my ovaries leading to diminished ovarian reserve; failure to conceive naturally; ridiculously low sperm and motility; failed ICSI cycle with four eggs and zero fertilisation; discovery of an ejaculatory duct obstruction and resulting surgery which returned hubby’s sperm count to quasi normal; ICSI round two with four eggs and two embryos yields no pregnancy; third ICSI with four eggs and one embryo. Miraculously I’m pregnant with M (a little boy). Second frozen embryo returned from ICSI two is negative; keep trying every month naturally while planning next ICSI (it keeps us regular so no downside). Unbelievably – a surprise pregnancy – ends in sad miscarriage at nine weeks in March 2015. Round two of trying naturally underway.

Why I am I sharing this? Two reasons – this has been a significant part of defining me for the last nine years and secondly,  given how many issues we have encountered, if it helps one person, that makes me happy.  If you are seasoned carousel rider, the jargon above will make perfect sense. For those who are just getting on, it’s worth remembering that  some people’s rides are shorter than others and yours may well stop quicker than mine so don’t lose heart. For those who haven’t experienced infertility and never take that ride, be respectful when interacting with those of us who have been through this. Think and speak without assumption, try to put yourself in our shoes and imagine your questions being asked of a barren you before you initiate any related conversations.

I am naturally an optimist which has helped and there isn’t a time when I don’t feel lucky to have had a child. I have learnt that the infertility process is a journey not a destination and more easily tolerated when thought of over the course of all treatment options or years rather than month to month or procedure to procedure. A doctor once said to me:  “IVF is science not luck, the more research and experiments you do, the more likely you are to have a successful outcome. Chin up – it’s a numbers game!”

I think that the human body is made to heal itself and often it’s the small details that make the biggest difference. Cuts heal, colds get better and viruses vanish so surely this holds true for other conditions? I have and continue to research and hypothesise around why my or my hubby’s bodies aren’t doing what nature intended and it has led me down a number of roads from gluten free to acupuncture to herbal supplements. If it wasn’t for this we never would have found out about my husband’s obstruction (we booked in a private appointment with an urologist against our fertility clinics advice) or my gluten intolerance (my endometriosis disappeared after I gave it up and I attribute my surprise pregnancy in part to this).

Arguably, this is my way of staying in control and it may well be that I have no control over that horse firmly bolted down to the carousel being impaled by a pole. But I reckon it makes the repetitive circular motion of the carousel, contrived music and the face painted horses a bit more bearable.

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