Here on the Clearleft blog we share a lot about our experiences related to our client work, events, and different areas of expertise as practitioners. I want to take a moment to shift the focus and talk about culture, which affects everything.
Last time round
Looking back at my last time off on maternity leave six years ago, I was in a different career as a secondary school teacher. I returned to work when Oliver was only 5 months old. I felt pressured to go back as soon as possible for a combination of reasons: the feeling that I had increased the pressure and workload for my colleagues; my perceived disruption to the students; as well feeling the financial pressures of being a young mum of 25. I remember the feeling of complete and utter dread, right in the pit of my stomach, at the thought of going back and leaving my baby in a nursery so young.
Time off in term time was frowned upon, I relied on my mum and husband a lot, which wracked me with ‘mummy guilt’. I felt like I was letting my family down and letting my employer down, I couldn’t give enough of myself to either one.
Being in a job that is about educating children, you would expect there to be support for families. Yet I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be a mum. This was my experience of teaching. But teaching is not in the minority. I know many people in other industries that have felt the same on their return.
Eventually, the pressure to share myself between the two fairly, without one of them suffering, led to me leaving the profession altogether.
This time round
Let’s skip forward five years. I went into labour six weeks early and I hadn’t even started my maternity leave, but no one flinched. The team here wished me well and gave me oodles of support and some very nice choccies! I had been working for Clearleft for almost three years when I went on maternity leave and they gave me a great maternity package which allowed me to enjoy my time off with the twins.
I loved my time off, but felt excited to come back this time round - a completely different feeling from last time. I wasn’t worrying about teething issues with settling back in, and I knew that the team would understand. At Clearleft you get treated like an adult and the setup is flexible: no strict, set working hours, and when I am sick I’m not going to be penalised (you are actually encouraged to stay off and get well so you can work to your full potential, and not spread your germs to the rest of the office!). If I have childcare issues I know I can work around it, as long as you work hard and get the job done, the rest can be flexible. So in returning to work, I felt completely supported both in my job AND as a mum; what an amazing feeling!
Before my return, I had a few meetings, all positive and focusing on what Clearleft could do for me, what hours worked for me and how we could go about progressing my career.
I am on a fair few ‘mummy blogs’ and so many posts come up about how people go back to work to roles completely different to what they were doing before, with no prospects. Many mums have experience of being bullied in the workplace and made to think that they cannot have children and a career.
I am now into my second month back and there have been a few bumps along the way, but Clearleft has been nothing but supportive. As an employee this makes me feel valued and confident, which in turn gives me huge motivation and drive.
Three things that make a difference
Earlier in this post I spoke about the power of small changes in a situation like mine, and what a difference they can make.
In my experience, there are common feelings that crop up when you become a working parent and journey back to work - and these challenges, if left unchecked, can become seriously corrosive to the individual and to the company. Feelings like resentment if you’re returning before you’re fully ready, confusion (in communication and managing expectations and isolation), and feeling like you are failing, alone and not able to talk about it.
These are my top three changes to try and tackle these feelings:
- Manage expectations. Make sure that expectations from both sides are communicated, with the team and with clients. This way no one will be ‘let down’. This conversation should be ongoing. I always felt that I could get in touch and ask questions and update on my return to work situation.
- Support. I was supported in my right to take as much time off as I needed with my babies, no one made me feel that this was a burden and when I came back I was welcomed back into good position at work that suited me and the company. I feel valued so will work hard. Showing support and understanding in the transition back to work and allowing some ‘wiggle room’ in those early days is so important.
- A slightly bigger one - maternity package. I know for many companies this may be not possible, but in giving me a good maternity package Clearleft enabled me to enjoy my time off and be truly ready to come back, rather than be forced back before I was ready.
So in summary, not making me feel guilty about taking time out whilst having children and welcoming me back as an equal has empowered me to work harder. Surely that’s a win-win?
One last thing, if you’re interested in looking further into the life of a busy working mother this book by Tiffany Dufu is on my (ever increasing) reading list. http://tiffanydufu.com/.