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.

4 October 2018

Breastfeeding and returning to work "early"

I am one month into being back at work, and the wee one has turned 4 months old. Given the amount of times friends and colleagues have asked me about my return to work, accompanied by a concerned look, it’s pretty clear that the general understanding of when you go back “early” is that it's not easy and it’s out of the ordinary. A quick definition of “early” is required here: there is a difference between early (in relation to the generally accepted duration of maternity leave) and too soon. I went back when I was ready. The challenge has been breastfeeding around my work.

My workplace is ok: I have the option to work flexibly and there is a feeding / expressing room on campus should I need it. I’ve not needed it yet, because I have a private office space and I have a husband on shared parental leave bringing the wee one in to be fed during my breaks and at lunchtime when I am on campus. My daughter, one week after I returned to work, decided she didn’t want to take a bottle of expressed milk after all, which at the most dramatic point involved me having to leg it out of my office, into the passenger seat of the car as Mr B pulled in on the main road outside and shortly after whacking a boob out in a layby a few streets away whilst downing an M&S meal deal.

It was dramatic, it was quite funny and it’s an anecdote to pass on to friends and the wee one when she is older, but there is a serious other side to this beyond the legislative compliance of my employer and my own practical organisation around feeding my wee one. It is that however well planned your return and how accommodating your workplace is, babies are unpredictable. 

My anecdote to friends, when they ask about what returning to work has been like, ends with this: the woman in the lay-by, wearing breastfeeding friendly work clothes, trying not to get mayo and breast milk all over herself and checking through emails on her phone isn’t the image we get in the breastfeeding literature. It certainly isn’t the image we get in the mainstream media, where the breastfeeding mother is generally found dressed in white, lying on a bed bedecked with white bedding. Search online for an image of a “breastfeeding group” and you’ll get a mass of photos of women knocking about in casual clothes, looking off duty. Google “breastfeeding working mum” and you get pages of half-comedic shots of mums holding babies over their laptops, usually in bed, wearing a business suit and heels whilst resting on those white sheets. None of it is realistic for the working mum, whose main considerations include no going over-time unexpectedly at work, because your boobs just can’t take it and never being more than two paces from a packet of baby wipes. 

Further in my favour is that I have a good milk supply and I’ve not encountered any challenges directly related to the process of breastfeeding itself. What if I had struggled with my milk supply or any other of the predictable and unpredictable challenges breast feeding can pose? Where could I have gone for help? Well, for in-person support, the answer is nowhere, because as I have discovered, community breastfeeding support isn't set up for women who go back to work “early.” NHS and other services for breastfeeding new mothers work from the assumption that we are all off for an extended period and can wander along during the day for a chat. Sure, my employer would give me time off if I needed it but how many other women would be comfortable asking for time off? And then the question is, who would they meet as a peer supporter? A full-time working mum, a true peer, just like them?

I breastfed my older child until he was two. I’ve been asked to become a breastfeeding peer mentor, but how does a working full-time mum find time to be the mentor women like me desperately need? Training is during the daytime for a number of weeks and while the commitment for a peer mentor varies, some ask for two-three hours a week, at set times, in the local community. Breastfeeding mums like me who are back at work can’t do this. For working breastfeeding women, it’s helplines and online chat-only to solve breastfeeding challenges, despite research demonstrating how face-to-face support is hugely beneficial to breastfeeding mothers.

How to solve this issue? I would suggest breastfeeding cafes / group support in the evenings and weekends, training working mums like me for breastfeeding peer support in the evenings and at weekends and some funding to develop breastfeeding support groups in the workplace. 

3 October 2018

IAEVG - Poster

I am unable to attend the IAEVG conference in Gothenburg this week, as I am currently navigating work and life around* a four month old baby.

A poster summarising my PhD research, titled "Addressing gendered career decision-making: adapting career guidance and counselling practice to the contemporary family unit" is on display at the conference in my absence and can also be viewed below.

*quite literally - right now she's on my lap trying to get to the keyboard of my PC!

18 September 2018

Academic FOMO

I had a perfectly timed academic baby this year: she arrived the first weekend in June, just before the quieter period, where academics with greater teaching responsibilities in the first two trimesters of the academic year get on with (amongst other tasks) writing papers and undertaking research. You'd be surprised by how many of us “coincidentally” time things just right when growing a family to keep our academic careers on track, whilst acknowledging that any time out is a risk.

I've missed out on a lot of excellent conferences in my field this summer-autumn, including turning down presentation spots that would've been REF-able and good to have on my CV. I'm back at work but attending events away from Scotland is becoming increasingly tricky. I'm not averse to taking one or both children with me, and their dad. Like many academics, a conference trip often becomes an opportunity for a “workcation” for me with the family in tow. Plenty of folk have met my entourage already, and now it's expanded.

But it has suddenly become much more difficult; my eldest recently started school and I've returned from maternity leave “early”. That is, when my child is barely out of the newborn stage, (breast)feeding around the clock and still somewhat unpredictable. I'm increasingly reminded of how unusual it is that I took only 16 weeks off, even within academia, where short maternity leave is prevalent - more on this in future blog posts! The baby doesn't yet have a passport, however inclined she and I might be to turning up to a conference with her in a baby carrier, where woe-betide anyone taking issue with her presence (I've said many times before how there really are minimal adjustments needed to accommodate babies within academic environments). The requirements of my face-to-face teaching and annoyingly complex flight connections to seemingly easy-to-reach European locations have in fact been the main barriers. Why? Because the potential for a flight being cancelled is enough to put you off a convoluted trip with a baby in tow and potentially unsuitable sleeping environments, or with one left at home in need of breast milk.

The family can't always come along now, because one of them is in school and I'm a firm believer in children only missing out on their education when it is essential. At 4 years old, selling the “cultural experience” opportunity is still a bit premature for my son, although he did get to spend his 4th birthday in two different Nordic cities, while mummy (who was battling morning sickness at the time…) worked. It's a familiar story though: extended family are the main providers of childcare in the country, but if, like us, you don't have a queue of healthy, local, time-rich relatives nearby things have to slide. It seems like, as ever, the issue is the same and both the problem and the solution are summed up in one word: childcare.

Despite all of this, I count myself lucky: I already have a permanent academic post and can make these choices not to attend. There are many parents for whom missing out on a conference slot has the potential for greater detriment.

With one child cutting about in his school uniform, the other being (as in, right now) in my arms pretty much every moment I'm not on campus teaching, in meetings or working from home at my desk, I’m reminded of how fast times passes, of how soon they aren't so wee and don't need you as much. But it's always going to be emotionally challenging, when you see colleagues trotting off to cities you'd quite like to see on your way to a speaking slot, and Fear Of Missing Out, or Academic FOMO as I'm referring to it, creeps in.

My research and teaching focuses on how all career decisions are complex and multi-faceted. Due to my subject area, I'm aware I am perhaps more explicitly and overtly making choices in relation to my career path at present and trying to make those decisions visible, as they affect academic women more than men. Yes, there will always be other conferences and no, there won't always be first babbles, first sideways rolls, first crawls, first steps. But turning down opportunities, in the current climate in academia, isn't easy.

6 September 2018

Conference Poster - Encouraging workforce diversity in our sector

I am unable to attend this week's NICE network conference in Krakow - I have a 3 month old baby at home and travel at present is difficult plus it is both my first week back after maternity leave and the first week of our new academic year at UWS in Paisley.

It is really disappointing to miss this superb conference but I have sent a poster for display in my absence: "Addressing under-representation in our sector: Recruiting more diverse employee groups to Career Information, Advice and Guidance roles" which details a new project we are looking to establish in Scotland, focusing on how we address under-representation in the training routes that lead to the career development professions.

Krakow Poster