A few months ago, I wrote an article for my local NCT branch magazine, giving information to women trying to make the tough decision about work options following maternity leave. I thought it would be useful to share this information in a blog post:
Careering On: your post-baby work options
It is safe to say that those first few months of bringing up a baby are all about the milestones - the first smile, rolling over, moving on to solids, sleeping through the night (YES!). The fixation on your baby’s achievements is probably helping to disguise a fairly big and looming milestone of your own - the dreaded return to work.
The last few months of maternity leave can be an anxious time. Far from enjoying our last few full weeks with our little ones, we are naturally becoming more aware of the changes that are creeping up on us, and we may struggle to work out the best way forward to suit our own family circumstances. Often the anxiety is not helped by lack of understanding (on our part, and/or our employers’ part) on what we are entitled to, and what options that really leaves us with. I’m hoping to address some of them in this article, along with some of the issues that you may need to be aware of, and resources to help you on your way.
Returning full time
After months of playing mum, it may just be that you are looking forward to reclaiming the old ‘you’ and returning to work full time. Maybe full time work is your only option, due to financial reasons or to the dictates of your employer. Whatever your reason for returning full time, and even if it appears uncomplicated, it is not to say that you won’t have concerns. Loss of professional confidence can be common after significant time out of the workplace. Add to that the anxieties you may have about leaving your child in someone else’s care and it starts to appear far from straightforward. If you are having anxieties it is important that you try and address them before your return date by speaking to your boss, HR or a sympathetic colleague. Make the most of your KIT days throughout your maternity leave and consider phasing in your return by using accrued annual leave, so you have sufficient time to adjust.
Part-time working can be an excellent way of ensuring a balance between parenthood and career but there often exists a certain amount of confusion as to what your flexible-working rights are. To summarise very briefly, if you have a child aged 16 years or under (18 years if your child is disabled) then you may be legally entitled to submit an application for flexible working. And whilst your employer does not have to accept it, they do have to show that they have seriously considered it. The DirectGov website (www.direct.gov.uk) is the best place to give you the information you need on your rights here, including information on what constitutes a flexible working pattern, the legitimate reasons your employer may give as to why they are rejecting your application and how, if need be, you can fight this decision.
Ultimately, how this process pans out for you will depend on a number of factors including the attitude and experience of your boss and HR department, and the culture of the company and the industry. For example, trying to negotiate flexible working within a team where a precedent has already been set by another staff member may either make it easier or harder for your case, depending on the outcome of their request. What is important is that you make your initial application with plenty of time to spare. Employers are notorious for stretching these decisions out, which can become increasingly stressful as your return date draws closer.
Looking for a new job
If the two above options don’t work for you or your employer, it might be time to seek a new job opportunity which uses your existing skills and experience. Maybe your commute is no longer practical and you need something closer to home, or perhaps you wish to find a part time job within a new company, more amenable to the idea of flexible working. Luckily, in this case, there are people who can help you. Organisations like www.ten2two.org (various UK offices) and www.womenlikeus.org (London) specialise in sourcing part-time opportunities that are suitable for working parents. It seems that the penny is slowly dropping with many employers that not only do working parents make hugely efficient staff members (all that multi-tasking experience paying off!) but that employing on a part-time basis can be a great recession-buster when times are tough. Supply and demand may still remain a problem in some industries however. Whilst the aforementioned companies are doing a sterling job of promoting the benefits of flexible working to employers, it is important that you check out what is realistically available within your own industry before you before making any major work-related decisions.
Has time out from the workforce led you to reflect on what is really important to you in a career? Have you always harboured a secret desire to become a social worker/zoologist/astronaut? This could be the perfect opportunity to start a new career chapter. For the fortunate among you, you will already know what you want to do and you may even have spent your maternity leave researching it. Others may know little more than “I want to do something else”. In this instance it can be useful to seek professional help. Talking things through with a third party may help you to identify your goals or perhaps realise that the answers were right in front of you all along. If you are finding it a little more difficult to pinpoint exactly how best to use your skills, there are a number of very useful psychometric tests available on the market that should help you to do just that. Try www.morrisby.com for a range of resources including testing services, career planning resources, and course locators. This can be a very good time to start afresh. A natural break from the job market can be a positive time to make career changes.
Maybe the time is right to consider the ultimate test of flexibility: going it alone and becoming your own boss - a way of ensuring that you can work your own hours around the needs of your family. This obviously works better for some people than for others, for example, if you have a particular talent to sell or have discovered a gap in the market for a service. Perhaps you already do a job that can be done on a freelance basis? Or you could consider buying into one of the many franchise opportunities that exist and that are an attractive option to many working parents (loads of websites to help you here - google is your friend). Another popular work option for parents is childminding (check out www.ncma.org.uk) which combines a great way of being able to stay at home with your child whilst bringing in an income.
Obviously there are risks involved in self-employment of any nature and no one says it is going to be easy, particularly at first. Take your time to do the research you need and don’t forget the paperwork - you will need to register as self-employed with HM Revenue & Customs for tax purposes. Their website also has lots of useful resources that may help you out with the more detailed financial aspects of running your own company.
Becoming a Stay At Home Mum
OK, so the financial rewards here may leave much to be desired but the job satisfaction can be truly immense. Remember, however, that being a SAHM is rarely a permanent position and you will probably need to think about re-entering the job market at some point in the future. With this in mind, it’s worth keeping yourself up-skilled. If you are planning to return at some point to your old career, it can be a wise move to keep up-to-date with industry developments via professional memberships, journals and occasional networking events. If you are looking at more general ways of staying active and work-ready, consider voluntary opportunities including, of course, getting involved in the NCT. Alternatively www.do-it.org.uk contains a great voluntary work database. You will be amazed at the amount of opportunities out there and the impact they can have on confidence and skill development.
Before making your decision on which work option is right for you it is worth reiterating just what a personal and individual choice this is. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to the dilemma of juggling career and parenthood and there is certainly no right or wrong. Don’t forget that after all the stress and worry of the build-up, a great many people experience the transition back to work to be surprisingly positive. You may just find that the long-feared return to work helps you to achieve the perfect balance in your professional and personal life, and that can only be a good thing for the whole family.
Momentum Careers Advice offer a number of services which help returning parents make their next career steps.</span>