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Mum skills: Working it

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a modern woman who has just had a baby must be planning to return to work. Or is she?

If someone had asked me years ago what sort of maternity leave I would take,  I would have said, "I'll take 6 months off and go back to work. I'm a career lady. I'll be bored silly talking to a baby all day." My career was of huge importance and having a husband who was keen to stay at home slaving over a hot stove, I was pretty sure we had it all figured out.

But it's just not that simple. You don't know how you're going to feel once you have that cute little gurgling spew monster in your arms. It’s not easy to find the confidence to go out and talk yourself up and when you finally do, you face a new kind of prejudice.

For me, it would have been incredibly hard to go back to work when Elliot was 6 months old. It seemed too soon, but many people do it. In Australia, it’s a financial necessity. In the states women only get 12 weeks off which seems incredibly harsh. At 12 weeks I was still wincing from back pain, delirious from broken sleep and likely to leak spontaneously throughout the day. But that's the reality for so many women. If you're serious about your career, you have to keep calm and carry on, but only if it's right for you. 

In his book How Not To F*** Them Up (one of my favourites) Oliver James talks about the importance of the mother's happiness in a family unit. Statistically, families where the mother feels depressed about her position, whether she's bored in the home or frustrated with work, are more likely to fall apart. The mental health of the mother, more than any other family member, impacts on the rest of the family so the decision to return to work has to feel right for the individual. There is no shame in giving up your career for your family, or going straight back to work, whatever makes you most fulfilled is the right answer for you.

As it turned out, the time I had off wasn't nearly as boring as I'd imagined, but I had to manage my time in new and clever ways. So many people said "You need to sleep when he sleeps" Which sounds great, but it fails in two areas;
1. Babies tend to sleep when you walk them around in a pram ...and although I've tried it, it's actually quite hard to sleep while doing this.
2. If you do manage to get a baby to sleep during the day in his own bed, you have approximately forty five minutes to do everything you need to do that day, like; have a shower, brush your hair, make lunch, make dinner, eat, look in the mirror, find a clean jumper, tidy the house, pay the car insurance and locate at least two shoes that match. Once he's awake, he'll want to leave the house, so it's best you prioritise these tasks and find the matching shoes first.

I found it hard to come to terms with the amount of time I had to spend 'doing things'. Babies need to be stimulated constantly, even if it's just watching you have a conversation. Suddenly I had all the time in the world to go to cafes and eat cake, but no time to write emails or clean the house. All this time 'doing things' gives you time to think. As an out of work creative person with no creative outlet, I found myself bursting with ideas, but no time to do them, which is incredibly frustrating.

Making the transition a year ago from 'Emma The Art Director' to 'Elliot's Mum' was a challenge, especially because I felt that up until then I had defined myself by my job. After a little internal struggle and a minor identity crisis, I have embraced being known as 'Elliot's Mum' (I did make him myself after all) and just when I'm getting comfy in my new skin, it's time to revisit my former self. It's all fun and games daydreaming about becoming a pro blogger or starting my own gift-wrap/book-design/party-planning company, but truth be told, if we ever want to have another baby, I need to make some money. So it's back to work for me.

This TED talk from Facebook COO (not sure what a COO actually is but it seems important) Sheryl Sandberg hits the nail on the head. It's not fair for women, it's just not, but the more aware we are of our challenges, the more we can overcome them. Much of succeeding in the workplace is about believing you're the best. Confidence is hard enough to find most of the time, but when you've taken a year off to become expert in hard to lift stains and discreet places to get your boobs out, it takes even more mojo to get you there.

Perhaps starting from scratch and finding a whole new job is harder than going back to a your old one. (A familiar desk, familiar colleagues, same bus route sounds quite nice.)  But even still, the biggest shift to get used to is that you have changed so much, but everyone else has stayed the same. The first few times I went out without Elliot I thought, "No one knows I'm a mum, I just look like a regular person" then I realised how many other women might be thinking the same thing. "I wonder who else has a tiny pair of spare socks in their power handbag?" And I realised, there are so many of us who make it work. I felt like the time was right.

So I sent out some emails with a CV and examples of my work. I contacted former employers, recruitment agents, advertised positions. No response. A month later I got the confidence to do it again. I wrote a different email, sent it out and instantly received calls and emails and got myself a job!

So what was the difference? The first email started with, "I am returning to work after my maternity leave and I'm looking for freelance or full-time work", the second started with, "I am looking or freelance or full-time work". U-huh, that’s right, plain old discrimination.

People aren't allowed to discriminate against mothers. But perhaps they can't help it. Perhaps I am guilty of it myself. They assume we're out of the loop, we can't work long hours, we aren't passionate about our jobs. And maybe that’s true, we've got other important things in our lives... but we're still capable of doing our jobs. We can still come up with great ideas, solve problems, manage teams and handle tight deadlines. We're actually more experienced at those things than we were before kids. Because although we can't stay at work until 10pm every night, we're doing all those things 24 hours a day without even knowing it. That's just what mums do.

So in a few weeks when I start my fancy new fashion job, I'm not going to feel inferior to the guys talking themselves up and the girls with up-to-the-minute hairstyles, because I have all sorts of new skills that I can unleash on my career.

I can function perfectly well on 4 hours sleep.
I can diffuse a temper tantrum through the powers of distraction
I can get ready to leave the house in 10 minutes flat
I can instantly come up with a new solution when the first one is thrown on the floor
I have patience for those who need a little more help than others
I know how to stand up for what is important to me
and I can accomplish all manner of tasks in 45 minutes and I can do it one handed if need be.


Bek said...

Thanks for sharing this!! Such an inspiration! Good luck at your new job- not that you need it! xx

Anonymous said...

Wow great post Em. Liz and Amos were talking about it at breakie this morning so I had to come on and read. You are a superstar! And don't forget one of the best things you've done this year (using that creative outlet) was entertaining us all with "Elliot the ... (Insert latest crazy outfit)" - so that is a community service in itself. Good luck at the new job! XX Jules

Anonymous said...

I love this post. And I've read it at just the right time, starting back at work on Monday! I've had the "no one knows I'm a mum" thought when I've been out without Sofia too, never stopped to wonder to myself why I was dwelling on that. On a slightly different note, I read an article in the Sunday Times Style magazine about the new "hipster mums" and it made me think of you! You're going to be absolutely fab at your job Em, no question. Sarah xx

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