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!