Speaking to the women in my life and taking from my own personal experiences it brings up a myriad of often very conflicting emotions from heartache and guilt at leaving behind your baby; fear that you somehow have “lost your touch” and therefore your value resulting in your confidence nose diving or indeed a very real worry at being forgotten or sidelined when it comes to promotions and career development. There’s often a deep rooted desire to get back to the “old you”, the person you were before you brought a child into this world, whilst understanding that your priorities have changed and you are still figuring out how this new world and new you is going to pan out. Not to mention the exhaustion from sleep deprivation and hormones flying around your body.
It’s really tough and it’s also often ignored or shoved under the metaphorical carpet by employers and let’s be honest, ourselves, with little real support out there to help women as they navigate a return to work.
We’re continuing to see a startling gender pay gap with many women opting to take career breaks because of astronomical childcare costs in early years (the UK is one of the most expensive early years sectors in the world) that perpetuates the problem and feeds into a socio-economic ripple effect that is deepening inequality across our society, not to mention the 54,000 women who lose their jobs every year whilst pregnant or on maternity leave.
It’s pretty shocking reading and the PR and comms industry is no exception and it’s time we addressed it head on because it is and should be possible to have both a career and a family.
Below are some clear actions that both employees and employers can implement to ensure that we retain the incredible talent in our industries, support those choosing to have a family, as well as making a return much easier and more enjoyable, which will ultimately increase happiness, productivity and therefore profit.
Offer flexible, hybrid or part time working options where you can. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that working remotely is not only possible but can offer huge benefits. Trust your team and focus on the output, not the hours. If your boss or line manager is pushing back, request a trial period to demonstrate and open their eyes to what is possible. Informally map out a proposal and run it by your boss but be realistic – there is no point asking for one day in the office, three days at home if you have a client-facing role.
It’s hard starting a new job and the same applies to returning to work after a baby. Onboard or ask to be onboarded in the same way a new team member would be to give you the tools to better do your job from the very start.
Work with a buddy for the first six months+ to ensure you have someone to confide in, not your line manager and preferably a woman who has previously returned to work with shared experiences and knowledge.
Ask women what they need when they return to work and really listen. Never assume anything. Be open to making changes to how it’s working. Check in on them and ask if they are ok? Have an open dialogue and understanding.
Ask women what their physical needs are when returning. For some women they will still be breastfeeding so allocate a safe space where they can pump. The toilet doesn’t cut it.
Imposter syndrome is rife for women returning to work and I don’t know any woman who hasn’t felt their confidence take a hit. There is however lots you can do to help build it back up through daily affirmations “I am good at my job”, “I am inspiring”, “I am an expert in my field” & so on; through to visualisations and meditation. Being time poor is probably every parents biggest challenge but a few minutes a day can be transformative.
Create an environment where your team can be honest about any struggles they are facing and in turn ensure you are being honest with your employers if things are not working. Be solution orientated where you can. Collectively you can make the changes to make the environment and circumstances work for everyone.
Ensure policies are up to date and create new ones. Having formalised policies helps both employees and employers feel secure with the written facts of how situations will be managed. And if you think a policy doesn’t cut it or needs updating let your employer know. Often this will be an oversight rather than a deliberate ploy to alienante and can therefore be easily fixed.
Be kind to yourself. Returning to work is tough. It takes time to adjust. Life is different after babies and you won’t be able to do the same things you did before. That can be really hard. However, you will get there. Set your boundaries from the beginning and if you can, stick to them. And don’t forget to take time out for you to avoid parental burnout – without making self-care a stressful part of your to-dos – find small ways to nurture your body and mind. Get to bed at a decent hour, meet a friend for coffee, exercise.
You’ve got this. You’re amazing at your job. Never forget that and the skills you’re learning from being a parent will make you even better in your role.
Ella McWilliam is Co-Founder of Creative PR & Communications agency Full Fat working across lifestyle, culture and brand sectors from festivals, cultural spaces, food and drink brands and experiences. Ella is mum to two girls and has recently begun navigating a return to work after her second child.
Follow Anna Whitehouse aka @MotherPukka on Instagram and her brilliant flex appeal campaign and support of women juggling careers and motherhood.
Listen to anything and everything from Brene Brown and Elizabeth Day’sHow To Fail to get some perspective on challenges leading to success. Dr Rangen Chatterjee’s Feel Better Live More’s podcast with inspirational stories and practical tips from incredible guests to help support your mind, body, and heart.
Book in some sessions with coach Liz Ward founder of Slick Pivot to help you boost confidence, work on your vision and propel your career wants and needs to new heights.