21 January 2019

Milestones, balance and support

A milestone has been significantly, and quietly, passed: it is over 4 months since I came back to work off maternity leave. A milestone because this date means I've been back at work for over half of my baby daughter's short life already. And we have all survived.

I'm continually infuriated by the lack of inclusion of mothers who "go back early" from the maternity leave narrative, the lack of focus on the benefits of and barriers to parental leave, the difficulty in finding baby changing facilities in academic institutions and the fact that my daughter is being set up for a lifetime of disappointment once she realises that girls' and women's clothes don't all contain the multiple pockets she's become accustomed to in her baby wear.

But I'm also invigorated by how welcome my baby has been at work. We've joked about how she's clocked up more CPD hours than most in our profession since she arrived in June, but it's true. She's attended conferences, partnership meetings, seminars and at this stage, if you are one of our students, you're more likely to have met her than not met her. She's part of the team. And has having her around had any detrimental effect on the outcome of any of those meetings and events? No. Has it meant that I am happy in my work roles and in my home life? Yes. Has it been a juggle? Yes. Have there been unpredictable challenges? Yes. Has it been hard work? Yes, and, no.

I've been back at work now for longer than I was off on maternity leave, when the general perception is that all women are off for a year. They aren’t. But we "early" returners have all the same issues as those mums who do take a longer maternity leave. For me, the baby is 7 months old and still very much attached. She has never taken a bottle and isn't keen on being spoon-fed so after 6 weeks of offering purees we have given up and gone for complete baby-led weaning. She doesn't want to roll but loves sitting. She hates being on her tummy and her favourite place is being held by mummy or daddy. Basically, she's the entire opposite of her older brother. Which proves only one thing: all babies are different and you can't plan for all eventualities because nothing is predictable. Except perhaps that they will sleep eventually and that the absolute killer nappy will occur as soon as you've dressed them in a brand new outfit.

Not all babies are as content as she can be (my first was a lot harder work!) but if I've done nothing more than prove that it is possible to be a full time working woman and a good mother to a newborn / infant, and be the role model I wished I'd had in my own life, then the last few months have been worth it all round, not just for me.

But I had a tough December. My health nose-dived. I had throat issues, a couple of viral infections and lost a weekend (and the last of my pregnancy weight) to a vomiting bug. This all followed on from a short episode of poor mental health. I didn't want anyone to know, because I didn't want fingers of blame to be pointed. It's not because I went back to work “early” or work too much - I love my job, my work and even though I'm doing it at the pace of a snail, my PhD. I have a supportive partner and my children are doing OK (nits, colds, tonsillitis have all struck recently but they are just things that happen - the having of the kids far outweighs any stress they bring me). But life is overwhelming and after two very demanding work years it was more the realisation of how hard it's been that hit me as much as where we are now. I experienced unexpected anxiety and low mood and several of the other symptoms of PND which I didn't experience after my previous child's birth. But I can say once again that the NHS support I've had has been excellent and that if you find yourself in the same position, you must seek help and support sooner rather than later.

I'm doing a lot better now, taking more time out and switching off. I'm sporadically back running, albeit slowly for now, doing a couple of classes at the gym, and I'm working on getting regular massages to keep myself at my full height rather than potter about with hunched shoulders. A couple of commitments have had to fall by the wayside and I'm wary of taking on too much in the way of extra work projects.

So for 2019 it’s priorities only: health (for as much of it is within my control), balance and a refocusing on my PhD, on which further blog posts can be expected as I finally have a good clear stretch to concentrate on exactly what I need to get done over the next 2 years to get it finally finished! I can’t have two children in school and the damn thing still rumbling on…

PhD Survey: Prize Draw Winners

Thank you to the 464 respondents to my PhD survey which ran in the second half of 2018. 

The draw for 5 x £20 Amazon gift vouchers has been made today. Congratulations to Chelsea, Michael, Kirsten, Ryan and Greg, who have been contacted by email to confirm their email addresses and to ensure safe receipt of their prize which will be sent shortly!

A ghost from the past - a tiny play

An interesting start to the week as I received an email asking for the text of a very (and I mean very) short play I wrote some time ago for Gi60 which was staged a few times in the UK and US. This time it's heading over to a theatre in New York for it's mini-revival. Full text below! Looking over it I'd describe it as more of a sketch than a play, so I hope it raises a smile.

Househunting for Ghosts

 A ghost (white sheet) sits at a table, opposite a vampire (cloak and fangs).

Ghost:             I’ve been in a graveyard the last three years and the nightly wailing’s bringing me down.

Vampire:        There’s been an upsurge in consecrations in the area that you’re looking at but I think I’ve found the right property for you. Four bedrooms. Unblessed. Family of heathens. Three children. Full cable package.

Ghost:             ESPN and MTV Europe?

Vampire:        Oh yes, and the eldest can apparently see auras so you can play around with her a bit when you’re bored. I’ve two poltergeists looking to relocate-

Ghost:             I’ll take it.

18 October 2018

Career planning for expectant and new mums

Over the past year, throughout the period of being pregnant with and then having my second child, I’ve discovered that very little career development support exists for new or expectant mothers. Perhaps because it is assumed that we don’t want or need it. I would argue that this period is, in fact, when career information advice and guidance interventions should be considered essential.

For starters, the assumption is that we are happy in our work, and that we’ve chosen to have children when work is stable, or that we are riding the storm and plan to use maternity leave as an excuse to get out and never return. But women do want to work, indeed have to, around very small children. While financial considerations might be paramount, they should be equally weighted with mothers’ own emotional needs, which, if career is a lifelong process that incudes periods of education, work and caring, we forget are directly related to her career development.

Straw poll time, I know, but I have two close friends who also had children this year around the same time as me. One is back at work as she runs her own business / is self-employed and the other has changed jobs (paying back a chunk of maternity pay in the process - disproving how women on mat’ leave “cost the business”) to something that better suits around health conditions and a small child. For the three of us, there's been not a suggestion that careers advice is something we might need at this stage (OK two of us are qualified careers professionals, but regardless …). Both times I’ve had children I’ve had a well-planned return to work lined up but many women have no idea what comes next after childbirth, aside form 18 years of raising a child.

Figures on the average duration of maternity leave are quite difficult to obtain but suggest that a full 12 months off work are far from the norm. And further complicating any figures is that many women don’t return to work after childbirth because their work no longer suits. And as soon as the first child is out, there comes the inevitable next question, about when you are planning to have another. If another is on your radar, there’s plenty of “good advice” (aka speculation and ill-evidenced hearsay) online about child spacing and how long to best leave it without utterly destroying your children’s well-being or your own career, for new mums to read during the night-feeds.

What do I suggest? Indeed, what have I suggested to my local health board when they asked for my feedback on my experience of having my second child? A strong starting point would be careers service involvement in health visitor programme. For example, offering a CV clinic at baby club and referrals to careers services. Prior to maternity leave all employers should offer a maternity leave interview rather than leave women to complete the paperwork and wait for the pink, blue or yellow cupcakes to arrive during their last week. And my own bugbear is shops selling cards that say, “You’re leaving to have a baby.” Leaving? Is it still the olden days and the law says I can’t come back? We need to stop discouraging mums of young babies to work and we need to stop making those of us who come back “early” (see previous post!) feel like we’ve done something so unbelievably out of the ordinary that life has to be tough.