Challenges and priorities of maternity leave

maternity leave
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“Her priorities have changed since having a baby”. As an employment lawyer acting for companies this is something I have heard some clients say about women returning to work after maternity leave.

It is usually said in the context of a woman requesting to return on a part time basis. It is not meant as a compliment and suggests that she has the ability to choose her priorities.

Times have changed a bit and I do not hear it so often now, but when I was pregnant with my first child nine years ago that, and similar comments, played on my mind. I enjoyed my job, was applying for partnership, and was determined that my priorities would not change after having a baby. I was cringingly naive and believed that all I needed was hard work, forward planning and military-style organisation to ensure that my baby would not interfere with my career.

I had no idea what was about to hit me. I spent my maternity leave feeling completely overwhelmed, exhausted and out of control.

When I returned to work, I was already three months pregnant with my second child. I enjoyed my second maternity leave more than the first, but after spending 12 months with a baby and toddler I was definitely ready to return to work. I had been promoted to partner while I was on my first leave and my firm, Lewis Silkin, had agreed to let me work four days per week on my return. My husband (also a lawyer) and I decided to share the nursery drop-offs and pick-ups because both of us sometimes needed to be in the office early or to work late. It meant that I could work as late as necessary two days each week. On the other two days, I would need to leave the office at 5pm in order to collect the children from nursery at 6pm, but I would then continue working after I had put them to bed.

So far so good with the military-style planning and organisation. But I was not prepared for the impact that two maternity leaves, sleep deprivation (my youngest was still waking in the night long after I returned to work), the stress of leaving work early to collect the boys from nursery, children who seemed to pick up every bug going, the weight of responsibility of raising two human beings, and the pressure (mainly from me) to perform well in my new role as partner, would have on my confidence and self-esteem.

I remembered those comments about priorities. The idea that I might be able to choose whether to prioritise my family or my career seemed inconceivable – a luxury even. Both were important to me and I wanted to be a good mum and a good lawyer but I felt like I was failing at both. I felt guilty that my working pattern was impacting on my performance at work. And I felt guilty that my time with the children was not ‘quality time’ because I was paying more attention to my Blackberry than them.

Several associates in my team were pregnant at the time, I wanted to be a good role model to them, but knew we needed to find a better way to make it work.

Not long after my return to work after my second maternity leave our firm was facing two specific and separate challenges: 1) pressure from clients to find cost effective ways of dealing with high volume, day-to-day HR matters; and 2) the risk of losing talented lawyers because the traditional law firm career did not fit with their changing personal circumstances. As a solution to both of these issues we established a new business called rockhopper. rockhopper is an HR support service, provided through Lewis Silkin.

The lawyers who provide the service are experienced, specialist employment lawyers, most of whom have spent several years in Lewis Silkin’s employment team before transferring to rockhopper. They work from home on fixed hours they choose for themselves, allowing them the flexibility to pursue their careers whilst devoting time to family or other responsibilities. And rockhopper does not only appeal to those with children – because they work exclusively from home, rockhopper gives our lawyers the flexibility to live wherever they choose; they are not restricted to commuting distance from our offices. We pass on the reduced overhead costs to clients, making it an excellent value service.

We launched rockhopper in 2014 and I manage the service and the team. We now have 12 lawyers and are expanding this year. Most of them have children and work hours to fit around school or nursery. They often tell me how much easier and less stressful it is to manage their family lives and careers – it is a pleasure for me to manage such a happy team. When people are honest about the challenges they are facing, it makes it so much easier to find solutions. And when there are solutions available that allow people to pursue their career as well as spend time with their family, their priorities do not need to be questioned.

About the author

Laura Farnsworth manages rockhopper, a fixed fee HR and employment law support service providing innovative and low cost services from a team of specialist employment lawyers. Laura is also a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin.

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