What really happens when you return from maternity leave?

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No-one ever said it was going to be easy. But things might finally be improving for working mothers. looks into the issue. Plus your chance to vote in the Mumsnet Family Friendly Awards.

It’s hard to understand how we’ve created a culture where women are somehow made to feel ‘greedy’ for wanting both a family and a career. Stylist recently discussed the rise of the power maternity leave where women use their baby break to kickstart a new business. But for those of us who are happy in a salaried job there’s still some worry. A survey by the national Childbirth Trust (NCT) found that one in three women return to work after maternity leave to find their job ‘unrecognisable’ to the one they left, whilst recent figures from a Mumsnet survey found that 84% of mums feel that having children has made it harder to progress in their career, 76% feel less employable since having a child, and 85% believe that UK employers are ‘poor’ when it comes to being family friendly.

When it comes to encouraging mothers back into the workforce, the UK is lagging far behind. “In the UK we have the longest work hours in Europe coupled with the most expensive childcare,” says Mumsnet CEO and Co-Founder Justine Roberts says. “And we’re behind some other European countries such as Norway, who have addressed the glass ceiling issue directly through policies requiring 40% of every company’s board to be female.”

It’s not all bad news, however. Justine believes that we’re finally starting to see serious improvements – and the catalyst for change is flexibility for all workers, not just mothers. “When we launched our Family Friendly campaign, our survey found that flexibility was the single biggest key issue amongst parents. 86% rated flexible working hours as a priority,” she says. “What employers really need to do is offer flexibility to the entire workforce so that there isn't resentment towards parents being offered part time work or flexible hours.”

And some employers – like those recognised by Mumsnet’s Family Friendly campaign – are starting to make positive changes. What’s more, employers are finding that offering flexible working is good for business. “It’s a popular misconception that flexibility is bad for business,” says Justine. “In fact, the evidence suggests that offering part time work and flexible hours increases productivity and helps with staff retention.”

How We Make It Work

Three working mothers share how their company has helped them keep doing the job they love.

“Working for a family-friendly organisation might be a better goal than chasing a higher salary”

Jane Holding, 35, Business Director at Starcom MediaVest Group, London

“I loved my career from the start and I’m realistic enough to accept it plays a huge part in my identity and self esteem. And sadly I’d watched several friends having to go freelance or seek alternative careers after having children. But I’ve worked at SMG for nine years and things have been evolving constantly. Our CEO had first-hand experience of how flexible a big organisation can be when his wife had their children - I think when you see it can work, the arguments against all disappear and you find a way.

Even so, coming back to my job was thrilling and nerve-racking in equal measure. There were phases during my maternity leave when I feared I’d never be the same person I was before! I spent the last few weeks writing schedules, checklists, menus and online shopping lists to make things easier. And there were several things SMG did to ease the transition. I met up with clients and colleagues on KIT (Keeping in Touch) days, and attended several training days, including a workshop specifically for mothers returning from maternity leave. I was sceptical about maternity coaching at first, but gained some really valuable insights – for example, I realised that a lack of confidence is completely normal and will evaporate after a few positive meetings - which it did. I went down to a four day week, with Friday off to spend with my little boy. So far the balance works extremely well, and I find that I really throw myself into my role when I’m in the office.

If anything, I think I’ve come back more energised and enthusiastic; motherhood has probably made me much more efficient in my approach to my role. Clients and colleagues have generally been extremely supportive – most of them don’t much like big meetings on a Friday anyway!”

“As technology enables more workers to work remotely, flexible working arrangements for mothers will become accepted practice”

Caroline Castle, Senior Associate with Squire Sanders law firm, Leeds

“Even at law school I was concerned about how I would one day balance my career with having a family. However, in the nine years since I qualified as a solicitor, technology has developed, and Blackberries and laptops now allow for more flexible working.

I made the decision to return from maternity leave when my son was 11 months old. If I’d gone back before the nine-month mark I think I would have been too sleep-deprived to function well in the office, but by now I felt I’d developed the skills to be a mother, and needed something more in my life. I was also looking forward to earning again!

My main concern was leaving the office at 5pm to collect my son from nursery, because previously it was unusual for me to leave before 7pm. Seven months on, I’m still not used to leaving on time, and feel that I am not working hard enough! This has nothing to do with my colleagues - it’s deeper than that, something cultural that I’m trying to adjust to.

The main policy which eased my transition back to work was a ‘phased return to work’ policy, which won Squire Sanders a Silver award in the Mumsnet Family Friendly programme. For the first month I worked three days a week, then four days a week in the second month, being paid for five. The phased return greatly assisted me in settling my son into nursery, helping both of us get used to our new morning and nightime routine. He loves nursery now!

I have since reduced my hours to four days a week. I take him swimming and to playgroups so I don’t feel I’m missing out on the mother and child pre-school years. I set my out of office email but check my Blackberry in the morning, at lunchtime and after my son has gone to bed to ensure that nothing is missed and that client demands are met. Thanks to technology, and family-friendly employers, it’s much easier to get work/life balance than I once imagined.”

“We need more senior women functioning as active role models, so to create a greater awareness of how we can make it work ."

Suzie Smith, 39, Transversal Projects Director at O2 in Slough

“Before I had kids I thought you had to choose to sacrifice your home life or risk not being taken seriously at work. Back then there weren’t so many senior women, or role models demonstrating how to juggle the two. And I’d seen plenty of examples where companies refused mothers part time hours, or made women feel awkward for leaving at 5pm to pick up kids from nursery.

The first time I went on maternity, it was hard to leave my job in some one else’s hands for seven months - but stopping work three weeks before Joseph was due was about right, because it gave me time to panic about being a mum! Second time round I knew that I was going to be away for longer - 10 months - and I was also more focused on how I was going to cope with two kids under two…

O2 has a really flexible approach, recognising that different people want to work in different ways, which makes it much easier for working mothers. A good relationship with your manager is also key, as this determines whether or not the company’s policies work in real life!

I made it work was by doing compressed hours for a year and then becoming a home worker. After my second maternity I came back full-time for two years, then moved to four days a week.

I start at 8am and leave the office around 4pm as I live a 90-minute commute from Slough. I’ll take calls in the car and deal with emails in the evening if I need to, but that works for me because I get to pick the kids up. I count myself really lucky to be working for a company that recognises the value of having working mothers, and values all the great skills that women bring to the table - particularly on the emotional intelligence side!”

To vote for this year's Mumsnet Family Friendly Innovation Awards, click here. You'll need to log in if you're an existing Mumsnet user or join Mumsnet for free.

Words: Anna Hart. Pictures: Rex Features, Monkey Business/ Rex Features.