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Here’s what I learnt from my maternity leave

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Is there subtle sexism facing new mums? This month’s anonymous column, everywomanIncognito, tells the tale of one woman’s return to work after having her first child – and what she learnt about herself and her colleagues.

Just before I went on maternity leave with baby number one, my boss’s boss pulled me aside and told me that when she’d had her three children, she’d worked right up until her due dates and on each occasion was back at her desk within a fortnight of giving birth.

I knew that wasn’t going to be me, but I was too focused on my last weeks of pregnancy to pay attention to the implications of her words.

When the time came to think about my transition back to work, I approached my boss about the Keep In Touch days I knew were built into my organisation’s maternity policy. He made it clear it was up to me to figure out how I’d spend the hours; I’d be paid for my time, and the inference was I needed to make it worth the company’s while. I’d assumed that KIT days were designed to ease me gently back into work, but it felt more like ticking boxes.

The experience didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for returning.

I know many women lose career confidence during those months at home and struggle with leaving the baby when the time comes.

That wasn’t the case for me; I’d enjoyed being a stay-at-home mum but children were never going to be my sole reason for living; I loved my job too. It’s important to me that my daughter grows up knowing I’m more than just her mother and that every woman can have a successful career. I also knew that being in group childcare was going to be a great experience where she’d make friends, learn independence and get so many creative experiences. It felt like a win-win.

Furthermore, I was super-prepared to return. My husband and I secured an amazing childminder who gave us total comfort our baby would be in the best hands. Mindful of how difficult it would be to cut the metaphorical cord on day one in the office, I booked her early, giving myself a grace period of two weeks to get my sense of self back. At home we agreed on a rota for baby feeds and housework; the morning routine was orchestrated with military precision.

The first few days were predictably tough.

Everything had changed during the nine months I’d been on leave – there were new faces, new IT systems and new processes.

I was envious of new starters who were getting a formal induction to the company; that was exactly what I felt I needed, but the mentality in my team was “you know what you’re doing; get on with it and deliver that report by 5 pm”. Getting used to a computer again was a challenge in itself – the most technical I’d been in nine months involved posting baby pictures on Facebook and a bit of online shopping. Staring at a screen for hours on end suddenly felt quite scary!

Nevertheless, I enjoyed using my brain for something non-baby related. In fact, I was on fire – I came at work with a totally fresh perspective, soaked up everything that was going on, engaged, enthusiastic and so pleased to be there. Absence had taken off the cynical edge, and, removed from office politics, I was seeing everything so clearly. Reduced hours sent my productivity levels soaring: organisations get a lot of bang for their buck from part-time mothers. They’re the ones sitting out office gossip and skipping lunch so they can bash through that to-do list. It was obvious however some colleagues didn’t really see the value I was adding.

One of the biggest organisational changes to have occurred during my maternity leave was the appraisal system. There was less focus on what individuals achieved, and more on what we did above and beyond job descriptions. My workload and key objectives hadn’t reduced in accordance with my new part-time hours and my personal priority was getting the work done. And even though I was achieving everything I was asked to do, I began to see that leaving at 4.30pm put me at a distinct disadvantage, particularly while sharing desk space with a guy who’d made his director ambitions clear and was willing and able to work 12-hour days to demonstrate his commitment.

 

If you’d asked me before I had a baby if I’d ever experienced sexism in the workplace I’d have said absolutely not.

 

Then I had a child and realised that though it’s subtle, it definitely exists. Decreased visibility means I’m no longer given the more exciting projects; instead, I’m the go-to person for softer, fluffier tasks – particularly those involving kids or families. And over time a team leader became very challenging – calling me to her office fifteen minutes before my agreed finish time to give me a deadline of 10 am the following morning. I was doing as much as possible, but it was never enough. I simply wasn’t valued as much as those who were the first to respond to weekend emails or accept overtime.

After many exhausting months of extra hours, I made an informal complaint to my division’s director, and, thankfully, he listened.

I’m currently on maternity leave with baby number two but my return to work date is looming and I’m starting to think about Keep In Touch days. Knowing I’ll be expected to take the lead I’m going to plan these so they’re as valuable as possible – I’ll align them with important team get-togethers, staff training days, and meetings with key stakeholders, ensuring that I’m as ‘visible’ as possible.

This time around, my transition back to part-time work is going to be planned every bit as much as the nappy changing and dishwasher unloading rota at home. On day one I’ll have a conversation with my boss to manage expectations around my first few weeks back, and I’ll be taking the advice of the NCT (the UK charity for parents) by tackling how we’ll pro rata my objectives in accordance with my hours – and, crucially, what support I’ll get.

Visibility will need to be a key priority so I’ll be scheduling my work time around the meetings that count more than others, and on my home working days I’ll be dialling in and making sure I’m heard. I’ll put my hand up for the extracurricular activities that I can fit around my objectives.

In the early days, I’ll take my kids in for a short visit. Oddly, people are often shocked to see you not pregnant – they get used to you that way. By showing off the fruits of my ‘labour’ I hope to draw a line under those perceptions and help people realise that I’ve been busy since they last saw me, but now I’m leaving the kids at home and going to work just like them. Dressing sharply and presenting myself in a business-like way will be more important than ever.

I’ve also made a conscious decision to keep work and life as separate as possible.

Having a desktop decorated with pictures of my kids will only reinforce those ideas that being a mum is the only thing on my mind. And I won’t be complaining openly about my workload or feeling tired – I remember what it was like to work fulltime and see part-timers ‘slope off early’. Now, of course, I realise that they’re not sloping and it’s not early – they’re doing the hours they’re paid to do. But nobody needs to hear the person who works fewer hours moan about lack of sleep or the length of their to-do list.

Finally, I’ll be joining a trade union. It sounds like a very formal move, but there is comfort to be found in having that back up. Internal support, decidedly lacking last time around, is so important, so I’ll be looking to find another part-timer at a higher level within the organisation who’ll have my back if things don’t go according to plan.