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Why motherhood needs to be more compatible with having a career

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A tweet about working mums has sparked an online debate: how does motherhood really affect a woman’s career? To find out, stylist.co.uk’s digital features editor, Sarah Biddlecombe, meets four women – and one man – who regularly take their children to work with them, and discusses what needs to be done in order to make parenting more compatible with work.

Over the weekend an American woman called Rebecca Johnson, who works as Dean of Academics and Deputy Director of Marine Corps War College, attended a professional conference with her baby - and sparked international debate about working mothers.

Tweeting after the conference, Johnson wrote, “At a massive professional conference. Brought the baby. People seem astounded.” 

In response to the shock, she offered a simple solution to a problem faced by many women who return to work after having children. “Here’s the thing: If you want women in positions of authority, you have to get comfortable with motherhood. You’re welcome.”

The tweet quickly went viral, with over 10,000 retweets and 48,000 likes (at the time of writing), and more than 850 responses from fellow social media users. Some were in support of Johnson’s point (“being a parent and being a professional are not mutually exclusive,” wrote one user), while others were aghast that she would bring a child into a professional environment (“Only professionals should be present at a professional meeting. It is called a professional meeting for some reason,” was one notable response).

This is not the first time the issue has been thrashed out in the public eye. Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has been in the press numerous times for taking her young daughter into parliament, while earlier this year Australian Senator Larissa Waters made international headlines for breastfeeding her two-month-old daughter during a parliamentary vote.

Here in the UK, most parents do not have the option to take their children into work with them, but with childcare costs rising seven times faster than wages and employers putting an increased focus on flexible working, there is hope for the future.

As the debate continues on social media, stylist.co.uk meets with four women (and one man), all of whom regularly take their children to work, in order to discuss the challenges and benefits of doing so. And, perhaps more importantly, what more needs to be done to boost women’s careers after motherhood.

Catherine Mills, visual director of Harnaam Kaur - The Bearded Dame

“I have three daughters. My work involves a lot of events and meetings, which all of my children have attended, and during the week my youngest comes to all photo shoots and interviews with Harnaam’s team and myself. We never go anywhere without her and she really has become a vital part of the team.

I can’t imagine living life any other way, as I like to involve my children in all aspects of my life. Yes, sometimes it can be stressful, such as when the work calls for silence, but my team are great and a good colouring book and stickers seems to work.

When I was growing up my mum was either working from home or working in our schools, so she was always there when we needed her. I took that on board and adapted it to what suits me and my children. I truly feel everyone is different and therefore my way of parenting may not work for someone else. But I am passionate about my career. I want my children to see the passion and love I have for my work and realise that is what’s important: doing what you love.

The companies we work with are very understanding and so accommodating – I have been very lucky with my work. Harnaam is a body positivity activist, so we travel all over the place, and my baby will be joining us when we go travelling next year.” 

“I think more parents should have the opportunity to take their children to work. Obviously this is not always realistic, depending on your job, but if possible I urge all parents to take the leap. I have grown closer to my children through doing this, they have met some incredible people along our journey and it gives me an opportunity to teach them things I never dreamed of.

And they love asking questions and talking to me about my work. Children love to learn and they love seeing you enjoying what you do. As a single mum, artist and photographer, this is what works for me. And that’s what it’s all about. Doing what works for you and your children.”

Nadia Hussain, fashion model and beauty salon owner

“I have four children and I take them to work at least twice a week. They mostly get a positive reaction from my clients but I will be very apologetic if they start making too much noise in the salon.

As I run my own business there’s no one to tell me not to do certain things, so I do things my way. I think it’s very important for women to be able to take their children to work, and it should be easier for working parents to do so.”

Natasha Bent, booking agent at Coda Agency

“I have one child, and when he was seven weeks old I would go into work once or twice a week with him up until he was about 10 months old, after which he went into nursery.

I’ve always wanted to be a hands-on mum and, with Winston now almost three years old, I genuinely feel that his language, social skills and confidence are partly a reflection of his environment, and of being at my work place as well as festivals and shows. With the job I have, Winston has been able to travel the world with me and interact with different cultures, all while being around music.

I get mixed reactions to having Winston at work. Young women and men say they feel inspired, and that they feel its ‘possible’ to change the current way most people work. I feel a responsibility with that – a lot of young people are afraid of what having children will do to their career, as well as not being able to see their child.

Winston was very quiet and happy when he was at work with me, and I genuinely believe he helped with colleagues who were having stressful days. I had comments on it being distracting for a few people, and I’ve also had a few comments at festivals that they were ‘no place for kids’, but there will always be negative comments, and I will always do what I feel is best for me, my son and those around me.”

“I definitely think a lot of work needs to be done across all industries to help more parents be able to bring their children to work. It can be hard to come back from maternity leave and carry on as you did before, especially if the job or set up doesn’t adapt.

I’d like it to be a more normal practise. We need to continue to create better ‘smart working’ environments where men, women, mothers, fathers, and people of all genres, races and social backgrounds, have equal opportunities. We aren’t going to get that if we don’t look at what works for each individual.

Success is a word that means different things to different people. But if you can create success in people on what they feel is important, I’m sure that companies will thrive. If companies can support men and women in one of the hardest parts of their lives – when their children are babies and in their early years – then they will get a loyal workplace that will also result in more women in senior roles.” 

Gemma Guise, co-founder at Journolink and founder of MammaFit

“I have one little boy, who is turning two this month. The structure of my work timetable is (and has to be) flexible around him. I work full time for Journolink but only one of those days is office based, when he goes to nursery. The rest of the hours are manly put in at home, and when necessary he comes with me to meetings or joins conference calls.

In regards to MammaFit, I run seven classes a week and my little boy comes to all of them with me. I started MammaFit when I was on maternity leave as I found exercise helped me to regain a bit of normality in my life, and helped me mentally cope with my new life as a mum.

The main reason I take my son to work is simply the cost. Running a small business, I couldn’t justify taking more money out of the company just to put my little boy in childcare. I worked out I would make less money once I had factored in travel costs alongside childcare. I have no family close by to support me, so I really didn’t have any choice. Hence why I came up with scenarios where he can come with me or I work around him.”  

“When it comes to people’s reactions, with MammaFit I expected the reaction to be positive because the entire business is around mums and babies – many meetings are run in parks or soft-plays.

But with regards to Journolink, I was surprised by how positive the reactions were. I would breastfeed in board meetings, he would get passed around for cuddles and he would always keep moral high in the office. I never had any negativity with breastfeeding in public and I was always made to feel comfortable. 

Of course, there were disasters too. There were days when he didn’t stop screaming so I had to duck out of meetings early and catch up in the evenings. We had exploding nappies on colleagues, projectile vomiting on clients and many, many tuts and grunts from fellow commuters at rush hour on the tube. It definitely wasn’t easy.

But everyone has been understanding, helpful and complementary. I have always, without fail, warned new colleagues or clients about my mum and baby work ethic, and this means there are no surprises. 

We need to work to address child care costs, as this is one of the main reasons why mothers don’t return to work. I think as long as people are truthful with their colleagues and clients about their demands, and they can still do the work required, then I think bringing a child to work could be introduced more widely. However, I do think parents have to be realistic about working with children – they can cause disruption if they haven’t planned the best way to approach it.”

James Whitting, partner at CODA Agency

“I’ve got one six-year-old son. For the first year of his life, he came to work with me when my wife, who is a freelance make-up artist, had work and we were unable to arrange child care.

At that young an age, it wasn’t stressful for anyone to have him at work. He would be by my desk in his pram, or getting passed around whoever wanted a cuddle, and he was perfectly happy. There was no negativity from anyone at work – he actually had a very calming influence on the overall office atmosphere.

My office has a very open attitude towards flexible working. We work very irregular hours and people understand that it’s difficult juggling a home life and a career, and we try to make things as easy as possible. Part of my work involves travelling to shows and festivals and if I’m away for a long period of time, I try to arrange it so he and my wife can come with me. I appreciate that we are very lucky and have the opportunities to take him into work, while not everyone gets that choice.

More help needs to be given by both the public and private sectors to enable people with children to be able to work, and if that means taking your child into work every now and again, where possible, then it should be encouraged.”

Main image: Rex Features