I am ashamed to say that for the first year of my son’s life I sort of played him down at work.
I’d glide into the office all trussed up in silk and suede and waft about as if the working mother thing was a breeze. I wouldn’t speak about him unless asked and certainly didn’t have any family pictures on my desk. It was all an act of course.
Only the other mothers around me would know that I’d been running up and down the stairs at home since 5.30am, that scrubbing poo off the carpet resulted in me snagging my tights, that I’d locked myself in the loo for 15mins whilst Postman Pat was on so that I could do that call with Australia, that he refused to get in the buggy which meant me hoiking him and my laptop bag all the way downtown to nursery, that we left his ‘Wah-Wah’ at home (cue monumental meltdown in the corridor whilst other parents look on), that I missed the 8.05am to Waterloo, that I ran through Soho so as not to be late, that I arrived for the team meeting before everybody else and put on my ‘relaxed’ face for the rest of the day. Only to do it all in reverse at 5pm and then get back online at 7pm to deal with the States.
I completely over –compensated for not wanting to lose my standing in the workplace by being always available and never dropping the ball. As if to show that motherhood hadn’t changed me, that I was still the Lynn they all knew. It was a survival tactic.
Never mind the stay at home mums Vs the working mums divide at the school gates, the mums Vs the childless cliques in the workplace can be venomous. When I returned from maternity leave I really noticed a distinct segregation between the two camps which saddened me. Some louder, younger, kid-free colleagues had been hired by my new boss whilst I was away and they made it clear that ‘you mums’ needed to put into place. It wasn’t the joyous homecoming return to work I’d hoped for.
The heavy obligation to payback for ‘flexible working’ was obvious amongst the working mothers. It was heads down, no banter, a Pret lunch and just plough through without causing anymore fuss. I’d been brandished with the ‘lucky to still have a job’ stamp and felt unvalued, unheard and unhappy. I resigned within 6 weeks to take a full time job elsewhere. It was the best move of my career so far.
It was a 12-month contract working for a tough cookie who is based in LA so we only met a handful of times in person. She was a fantastic role model, not only because she seriously knew her onions, but because she made me realise that it’s ok to mention your kids in passing, it’s ok to turn your phone off on holiday, it’s ok to enjoy a chat with your colleagues …it’s all ok, as long as the job gets done to a high standard and you care. She trusted and believed in me and I thrived.
Businesses often loose trust in women once they become mothers. An HR Director asked a friend of mine who wanted to do the school run once a week, “So you want to work from home on Fridays? Why? So you can hang out in your PJs with your blackberry watching Loose Women?” Said HR Director has since had her own baby, so I hope that’s working out nicely for her.
Believe me, I get it – when a woman leaves a business for a year to have a baby, it’s a ball ache, it costs money and disrupts the flow temporarily. But when a women leaves a business for good because she can’t see any other option, that can cost £2million a year for companies employing over 1000 people according to She’s Back, a consultancy aiming to put an end to the female talent drain by getting highly skilled mothers back to work.
When I was younger, very single and working way too hard, I managed a team of 10 women, 3 of whom were pregnant at the same time – it wasn’t easy but through a combination of job sharing and project division, we made it work. I wanted to be a working mother one day, so the exercise was as much for myself as for my extremely fertile team members. Support in the short term to prosper in the long term.
There needs to be more role models out there, not just the Arianna Huffington’s and Sheryl Sandberg’s of this world. I’m talking real working mothers who are killing it in their jobs every day and have the respect and support from their colleagues. Ones that carry wet wipes at all times, that may or may not apply make up on the train and eat breakfast on the go. Ones that are obsessed with other people’s childcare arrangements, display family photos on their desk and leave the office loudly and proudly at 4.30pm everyday with the full intention of switching on their laptops once their kids are sound asleep and they’ve re-heated the weekend’s leftovers. That’s life.
My experience as a working mother in two very different environments over the past two years has taught me a very valuable lesson about corporate life in general. Only surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed, then there is no need to pretend to be anyone else but you.