The (not so) Working Mum

Now that Reuben is nearing 12 months old, I’m regularly asked when I’ll make my return to work. It’s a painful reminder that I don’t have a job to go back to. Unfortunately I was one of the many women made redundant whilst pregnant or on maternity leave. Worryingly, this happens to women more often than it ever should.

I received an email 3 days after the birth of my baby to tell me my employment would be terminated at the end of the following month. My heart broke, my mind raced and panic set in. I’d worked so hard to get to a place that meant welcoming a baby into our family didn’t bring with it financial worries or concerns and I was confident that we could provide everything our family needed. Then just like that all that I’d spent years working hard for and building up was so easily snatched away; at a time I was at my most vulnerable.

Despite this, I decided to continue with my original plan and take 12 months maternity leave. I’d made the decision early on in my pregnancy that I wanted to stay at home with Reuben for those extra months, albeit unpaid, as I had a lifetime ahead of me to work and make money but he’d only be little for such a short period of time. We’d saved hard to make the unpaid leave a possibility.

That 12 months maternity leave has flown by and now I sit here genuinely not knowing what is best for my family. I want to return to work and I want Reuben to experience nursery but I don’t want to do so if financially we’ll be no better off or worse off. As I’ll be starting a new career path I would take a huge cut in salary; likely in the region of £8-£9K. By my calculations, once I’ve been taxed, paid for childcare and shelled out on commuting costs I’d only just breakeven – or in some situations I could be worse off than not working at all.

I’m part of a huge community of mums on instagram and reached out to better understand their relationship with work following maternity leave. I ran a number of polls and asked my instagram followers for their thoughts and feelings on returning to work post baby. I was overwhelmed by the volume of interaction and the similarities of the responses.

When asked ‘are you planning to or have you returned to work post baby’ 75% of respondents said they were planning a return to work but only 27% of them were returning on the same basis as before maternity leave. Many had made the decision to return on reduced hours, different shift patterns or had taken up a new job entirely. With the latter, a number of respondents had decided to chance their arm at setting up their own businesses/become self-employed in a bid to have a career that better worked around their family life.

When asked why 73% of respondents weren’t returning to work on the same basis as before maternity leave, the overwhelming majority said this was due to childcare costs; with some going as far as to say that childcare costs in their area equated to more than their salary. Some had totally changed careers to work around childcare issues with a number saying they’d taken up jobs which meant that their partners would return from work and then they’d head straight out of the door to their job.

On top of concerns about finances in relation to child care, many said that their previous hours/shift patterns meant that they wouldn’t get to spend enough time with their families. A number of women shared that their ‘flexible working’ requests had been denied and without the change in hours/days they were unable to make their job fit around family life. I also noted that a number of mums who’d previously had children said they felt like they’d missed important milestones with their other children and weren’t willing to let work be a factor in that going forward.

Of those women who’ve decided not to return to work the reasonings were the same as above. The general theme was that high child care costs didn’t make a return financially viable. Many also said they couldn’t find flexible childcare to fit in with their shift patterns. Other’s pointed out that on top of ‘standard’ childcare fees they would have to pay for/arrange additional care for the time they spent commuting which wasn’t covered within a nursery’s usual hours. Most again said that they felt quality time with their children would be jeopardised by a return to work.

My final question was ‘has your view on work changed since you had children’ and a huge 87% responded yes. Most highlighting they’d had a shift in priorities since having children and that work no longer felt like the most important thing for them. Some saying they’d rather have less money and get to spend more time with their children. Others saying they now realise the importance of a work life balance. One mother said ‘my child is more important than any career ladder, I don’t want to miss a thing with him’. Another woman stated ‘I don’t define myself by my career anymore’. There appears to be a big shift in a career focus to a family focus and an understanding that as much as we’d love to have both we’re all to often forced to let one take precedence over the other.

On the flip side of this were women who felt empowered by being a working mum ‘I want to show them they can do anything’ said one and ‘I have a bigger reason other than myself to go out and make money’ said another. With some, sadly, expressing that they are made to feel guilty for wanting a career whilst having a young family.

To paraphrase a quote I recently came across, it seems society expects that we work like we don’t have children and raise children like we don’t work. There’s the expectation we give our all to our jobs and our families at the same time. The reality of meeting that expectation is exceedingly difficult and for many of us sacrifices have to be made.

I’m beyond saddened that the cost of childcare has robbed many women of their careers and the social life and companionship that comes with a job that they love and enjoy. A career that has given them a sense of identity and one that they’ve put blood, sweat and tears into. Yet finances have forced them to chose a different path. Some pushed into making compromises and having to leave their old lives behind to make way for a new one.

We live in a society where a lot of us have parents and family who work full time and are not nearing retirement. We don’t have the same luxuries as the generations before us who had Grandparents and family members available to chip in and help with childcare. The cost of childcare means that many women are only just breaking even (or are worse off) after childcare fees, commuting costs and tax.

Together the cost of childcare and inability of employers to allow flexibility is stealing away the careers and ambitions of women who want to work. Not only is this utterly devastating for these women but it also has a huge financial impact on the economy. We’re meant to live in an equal society but it appears that women are all to often asked to chose between their careers and their families. Government and society needs to do more to support women back to work following maternity leave; should they wish to do so.

For now I’m going to make the most of spending this precious time with my son. I do want to return to work and making my family my priority doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious and that I’m not career orientated. If I could take a job that worked around me and my family I would do so in a heartbeat but at this moment in time it doesn’t seem as though it’s meant to be.

To the working mum – I see you. To the stay at home mum – I see you too.

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