31 August 2018

The end of maternity leave - the start of a new routine?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a proper blog post, so here I am, attempting to get back into the swing of it. There’s a simple reason why I have the headspace and time to do so: I had a baby at the start of June.

That’s probably not what you’d expect to come at the end of that sentence. Maternity leave is meant to be all about sleepless nights, being covered in milk/wee/poop, fighting extreme tiredness, trying to entertain a baby, right? Yes, there has been a lot of washing, nappy changing, wondering when I last ate or showered or managed to leave the house in less than an hour. But it’s also been a welcome break from the demands of my work, which had pretty much overtaken my life for the last 3+ years, in every moment when I wasn’t also co-parenting a lively toddler who turned into an even livelier pre-schooler. There is nothing like an enforced period of total confinement, of being “tied down” to a new baby who needs you 100% of the time, to force you to reset.

Not least, because I am taking such a short amount of leave by general standards (3 months, and in new baby terms, the time period often referred to as the 4th trimester) I’ve appreciated every moment of it, whilst still being aware that my brain has had to stay in gear to some extent so the jump back into full-time work next month isn’t too harsh.

I would call it far from a sabbatical (my maternity leave was wonderfully well timed-again-to tie in with a football World Cup and a very hot summer) but I have been taking stock and planning ahead. Having a baby in your arms, feeding or sleeping, forces you to be more mindful, in the sense of at least having more thinking time.

I’ve had a busy few years. The last 12 months in particular have been demanding. But I have to give myself credit, while I might not yet have my PhD, after just over a year of doing it, I landed the job I’d hoped to get in the years after I completed it (and in my previous job I had already delivered major projects on a nationwide level linked to the research I was doing). Some might say that’s the careers adviser in me proving I am the best at what I train others to do. I might respond with, “Be careful what you wish for!” as doing a PhD whilst working as a full-time lecturer is no easy feat.

There is something special about being “trapped” by a baby during bedtime and night-time feeds. There’s no pressure on what else you might be doing, because your baby is number 1. I am happier and more content than ever. But there is something else of key importance that has happened since I have been on maternity leave: I’ve not been ill. Not one sniffle or sore throat, no more recurring tonsillitis, coughs, colds or similar. Now, I could attribute this to the glorious summer, or I could say it’s the lack of stress, despite the newborn in my arms and the P1 child dealing with the demands of starting school. It’s the lack of extra hours put in outwith normal working time, desk-time and the thinking about work or study even when you aren’t working or studying. I’m fearful my return to work next week after my maternity leave might lead straight on to recurring low level maladies. I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think and read about the impact of children on working women’s (and PhD students’) careers, mental health and general well-being.

This recent article in The Times hit home for me more than anything else. There is something in this piece for every working parent, albeit that the article’s focus is on the working mum. It spoke to me because it is not just about the mum with a full-time job, but the mum with a full-time+ job. There’s nothing I can say that the author hasn’t already said or alluded to in this article, and for once I urge you *to* read the comments. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish) which will be published, coincidentally, upon my return to work from maternity leave on September 6. So rather than repeat what we know but often don’t say, we working mums must take our own positive action to counteract the “big little lies.”

Demanding work in its many forms needs to be compatible with having a family, but it is for the working mothers amongst us with the ability to be vocal about how we create that work-life balance and continue to progress in our careers to shout the loudest. And we must do that without ‘sugar coating’ or pretending we are managing better than we are. By stating facts about the sacrifices and the ups and downs of successful careers and parenting.

But first a few facts, because I am not the superwoman I might appear to be and it is down to circumstance as well as the meticulous career planning I have to espouse, due to being one of only a handful of permanent full-time lecturers in career guidance and development in the UK (come on, I wasn’t going to write this blog post and not highlight how if we all had better access to life-long career decision-making support people’s career satisfaction might improve).

Facts:
  • The only reason I can go back to work next week and continue to progress in my career is because I have a husband who works part-time and him taking shared parental leave makes financial and career sense
  • I can work flexibly, and do not have to be in my office from 9-5 every day of the week
  • I have space to have a home office where I can shut myself away (although my eldest child has recently taken to coming and demanding I leave, so he can get on with his “important work” of drawing and writing his name)
  • My life is time-managed to the extreme.

I’m doing well, but I have missed out on a lot of family time through work over the past 5 years since becoming a parent. How could things be easier? I started a long point here noting how we don’t have relatives nearby to provide free flexible childcare, the cost of childcare, the availability of childcare etc. etc. but do you know what, let’s just sum it all up quite simply and say: because childcare. Everything would be easier if childcare options were better. We must keep lobbying for it, even if the consensus across those dreaded comments sections is that if you have kids you just have to suck it up. Whatever “it” might be and regardless of the importance of the existence of a future generation equipped to support us in our dotage.

What can I practically do then? It’s simple and it is the scourge of the life of all academics: I need better boundaries around my work time. I need to be strict about email downtime, no picking up stuff at weekends however “urgent” it might be, not carrying on until midnight to get something pressing done. Serendipitously, my laptop (used around the house, out and about, and pretty much chaining me to my work when I’m not even at my home or workplace desk…) broke during my maternity leave. I’ve not yet replaced it.


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