Tag Archives: returning to work

Slight Return

When I was contemplating returning to full-time work after a six year career break, I cast around on Twitter and among friends for clues and tips and reassurance that I wasn’t Completely Mad for even considering it. There was lots on how to get organised, but very little that told me what it would actually be like. Almost two years in, what would I say to someone asking me the same question?

  • Be brave

I expected the tiredness and the logistical challenge of combining work and a hectic family life after the luxury of a few years where I only had to consider the latter. What I didn’t realise was how exhausting dredging up the courage to go in, day after day, till I found my feet again would be.

I was terrified on a daily basis, for a long time, in a way that I didn’t recognise from pre-career-break work, and in a way which I no longer experience now. I had a mantra of “don’t look down”: visualising myself on a tight rope, I willed myself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to contemplate the horrors lurking should I slip.

Little things I once and now again take for granted: composing an email, approaching someone senior, giving an opinion or advice which I know could come back to bite me should I be wrong, were draining in a way I simply hadn’t expected.

Battling imposter syndrome is nothing special, I know, but it took every ounce of energy I had to fight it down when it was armed with the ammunition of that time away from the office.

  • Be selfish

Wankerish as this sounds, I was brought up to believe in service to others, and having been acutely conscious of the additional time I had available while not working, like a lot of people I tried to volunteer where possible and fit in lots of social commitments with friends and family.

Volunteering and working are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it took me almost a year of becoming increasingly unhappy and ill to realise that a break while I reacclimatised to work would have been best all round. It wasn’t the lack of time which was the issue, so much as the need to prioritise family and my own mental well-being with space wherever possible not to be “in demand” from external sources while we all got used to our new normal.

Again, two years in, I now have the energy and headspace to start to be able to fit things in to the spare time I have available, but in retrospect it would have been helpful to have felt I had permission to take a step back. As with the friends point below, it’s natural to feel it important to prove a point – look, I can work and still do everything too! – but those who really care about you won’t be bothered either way.

  • Losing friends and inconveniencing people

Very much related to the above. Maybe this was just me, but it was hard to realise that to some people I considered friends, I had only every really just been valuable by my presence. A stay at home mum is a useful social acquaintance: able to step in at short notice, lend a hand in groups and  generally help move things along by the simple virtue of proximity to home during the hours when others are in the office or on the road.

Not everyone, of course; going back strengthened some lovely friendships by making me realise who was a friend because of who I am rather than what I could do for them, but it wasn’t an easy thing to process in the midst of readjusting back to work when I could have done with a bit of support, and it’s something I wish I’d been prepared for.

  • Be happy

I used to scoff at the idea that having a happy mother was a tangible benefit to children, perhaps because I just didn’t realise that I was bored and rather miserable by the end of my time at home, but it’s been true in our case. I’ve been incredibly lucky in a supportive employer and access to great, affordable childcare, without both of which it possibly would have been a very different story.

Terror notwithstanding, I felt even in my first day that way you do when it’s only on starting to eat that you realise you were famished. Tiredness notwithstanding, I am simply happier with the boost to my confidence and self-esteem which returning to work has given me.

It has been, and continues to be, hard. I miss my children, they miss me (and the luxury of not being in wraparound childcare) and I simply don’t have the degree of involvement in their daily lives that we once took for granted. But they are happy, and they continue to thrive, and we’re all more than managing.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether going back to work (or stepping back in to a more demanding job after a period of doing something to fit in around family commitments) is for you, I can’t give you an answer. All I can say is that it was the unquestionably the right thing for me.

Oh, and good luck.


Skiing backwards

Years and years ago, I read about a term applied to (or chosen by?) wealthy retired North Americans who ploughed their cash into giant mobile homes in order to overwinter in milder climes. There was  even a bumper sticker for them and their deluxe Winnebagos: “We’re SKIing”, they’d announce. “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I have no idea whether this is still A Thing, but it was a phrase that kept occurring to me during the years I was a stay at home mother. I felt, a lot of the time, like I was somehow frittering away something due to my children in the future. Saving was way down the list. Investing for their education, likewise. Hell, I was even depriving them of the example of an industrious working mother, with all the benefits I kept hearing came with that.

It was an insistent little niggle, not particularly assuaged by the knowledge that it was a luxurious niggle to have. I knew – I know  – that working far too often confers no such opportunity to build a buttress, however small, against fortune. In our case, though, provided I found a job which paid sufficiently to cover childcare, working would bring financial advantage…or, that whispering little voice kept suggesting, just put the children on a more level footing with their immediate peers.

I’ve written plentifully on here about the fact that having a parent at home full stop is perceived to be of little value. The papers seem to be full of the advantages of maternal employment on children, and study after study proving that they come to no harm through being cared for in a setting other than home. I have no doubt that either is true, provided that material circumstances are such to ensure quality of provision and a levelling of other factors domestically. I just wonder if, perhaps, in the perpetual race to demonstrate no ill-effects, there is a lost nuance of a benefit less tangible, yet no less real? There doesn’t after all, have to be one right answer.

When, half pushed, half jumping, I stepped into what I now know was a career break, it was as if blindfold, with no particular plan and little hope that I could go back to the profession I’d studied and trained for. Almost a year after returning to work, I still can’t believe my luck that it is, for now, working out. It is still faintly incredible that someone took a chance on me, and that I’ve ended up doing something interesting and rewarding, with the luxury and luck of supportive colleagues and near-perfect childcare. Along with the ever-present prompting from my resident Imposter Syndrome, who likes to remind me daily that I’m bound to cock it up soon, is a sense that is all too good to be true.

So far, so me. But what about the reasons for that career break in the first place? Are they thriving, now that I’m gainfully employed? Have I realised that I was, after all, squandering their dues by spending time at home with them? If I am being brutally honest, I think that this was one of my biggest fears when I went back. Fear that they would struggle with the transition, obviously; guilt that I was changing their lives so dramatically. Alongside that, though, a nasty little fear that I might have to admit that I had been wrong.

They are, of course, fine. There has been no sudden dramatic decline in their schoolwork; no outbreak of delinquency (or no more than they displayed previously). We don’t seem to have forgotten each others’ names, and they tolerate or seek out my company in roughly the same proportions as they always did. They are, in some ways, undoubtedly better off: I am better tempered, and marginally (though gratifyingly) more solvent.

Perhaps it’s a bad case of self-delusion, however, but I can’t honestly say that they, or I, were nett losers during the six years I was out of the labour market (excluding the birth of Number 3). There’s a relief, actually, in feeling largely the same. I still have the knee-jerk “It’s a job, love, not a fucking halo” reaction when I hear a particularly egregious example of Busy Working Mum-hood.

Yet how to quantify, how to value, how even to class as “gain” what they now no longer have? There are tiny details of their day-to-day lives I don’t share anymore. There are unscheduled, unlabelled hugs that don’t happen; walks and chats and games  that are replaced now with a briskly efficient-, timed-to-the-millisecond drop off and pick up. There is, on balance, less time – and how do you account for that?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without self-editing. So here come the caveats: of course I don’t think that every mother wants, or should want to, or should take any time out of her career other than that which biology mandates. Of course I appreciate that this whole vexed question is the domain of a relatively tiny privileged minority. But still, I see so many women who, after children, end up in jobs for which they are woefully overqualified, or scrabbling around to make a pittance peddling someone else’s dreams. I hear others who are working because, not to, would close a door forever on something they hold dear. Sometimes it’s a choice. Sometimes, a compromise. Sometimes, it really was the only thing going.

As much as it may sound it, this isn’t an exercise in smuggery. It’s just that, according to every available calculator, I am less than half way through my working life, and those few years out, in the overall scheme of things, don’t seem so much. And I can’t help wonder if my case (thank you, Imposter Syndrome, for as long as it lasts) really shouldn’t be such an exception. This isn’t about the choices people make; it’s about the circumstances in which they make them – and what could make it easier for time out with young children not to be an irreparable blot on a woman’s CV.

We have such a linear view of life, still; such a binary either/or approach to progress and achievement and worth. We’re programmed to stockpile for the future; armour our offspring as much as we can against their own forays into the world. But, perhaps, there’s not one single best way of investing; as we live longer and work longer and move around more, maybe a portfolio approach to building an “inheritance” makes just as much sense as anything else. Much more sense, in a lot of ways, than deeming anything which deviates from school-work-family-retirement as somehow doing things in the wrong order.

It’s an awkward exercise, I imagine, to shuffle a pair of skis in reverse. It’s hard to see what’s coming, and it’s fraught with the risk of capsizing. But perhaps, when you think about it, balancing on planks on snow doesn’t come that naturally either.


There’s a special place in hell…

…which by 10.30 on Saturday evening, I was rather hoping was reserved for railway engineers who decree that intercity trains should limp along between Peterborough and Doncaster and turn the journey home from London into an insufferable eternity of irate (and increasingly refreshed) day-trippers.

The next infernal circle, though, is – according to Heather McGregor – the preserve of women who don’t help other women. I know this, because (10 hours before sitting in coach B and losing the will to live) I was in the glamourous surroundings of the Bafta headquarters in Piccadilly, listening to a succession of inspirational women brought together by Mumsnet for their first ever Workfest.


I was lucky enough to win a ticket having written this post , all about my wobbles (real and virutual) about shedding my mummy-skin and returning to work. When I first read the day’s outline, it sounded perfect for me, although I must be honest and admit that I couldn’t have afforded to pay to go (I understand that there are plans for future events outside of London).

The day started with a slightly rushed arrival into the main auditorium (note to self: read streetplan before arriving into central London ) just as the panel discussion got going. On the theme of “How Do You Do It All?” six inspiring women with pretty stellar careers took questions from the audience and discussed the realities of combining family life with full-on (even if not full-time) work. The overwhelming answer seemed to be “Don’t” – take whatever help is available; share parenting duties with partners; be proactive in presenting solutions to work and taking ownership of your career; recognise that some things have to give.

The day then split up into break-out sessions, my first of which was “The Importance of a Great CV” with Heather McGregor (FT’s Mrs Moneypenny and presenter of Channel 4’s Super Scrimpers). The copies of my CV which I had dutifully printed off and brought with me curled up inside their plastic wallet in shame as it became increasingly apparent that they and greatness were somewhat far removed. Too long (one page!); too boring (no list of single present participle interests: reading, travelling, swimming); too gappy (account for all your time, no matter what). My leaner, meaner CV will showcase the three key facts about me which are apparently all that anyone will take from an initial read; and make much more of my “social capital” – an idea which anyone planning a career break for whatever reason should heed. This includes everything you do which is unpaid; drawing attention to all the skills and experience you’ve gained elsewhere. I am not sure how to spin the talent of distracting a child from a tantrum for refusing to allow him to pick the moles off my skin, but Mrs McGregor has inspired me to try.

My next session was “Boosting Your Confidence”. Maybe it’s a woman thing; maybe it’s just me, but confidence is a tricky, elusive quality. Actually, I don’t think it is just me, given that the same session was the only one to be repeated three times over the course of the day, each one fully booked. Whatever the reasons, working life for many women I think constitutes a kind of tight-rope walk of holding your nerve. Once you look down, once you stop, the balance is gone and it’s a fiendishly difficult thing to retrieve. The theme of confidence came up time and time again throughout the day: women ask for less, take on more, have lower expectations and yet, very often, out-perform their male counterparts both in terms of quality and quantity of work. Was my confidence boosted by the session? Perhaps not as such, but it was – as always – good to remember that the majority of the people are quaking inside a lot of the time.

Lunchtime: delicious food and the chance of a ten minute career coaching clinic, mine with Zoe Finton of CareerLovingMum. Again, no answers, but it felt incredibly helpful and rather indulgent to be 100% selfish and self-focussed even for that short period of time.

Lunchtime also gave me a chance to look around the sponsors’ lounge, where Barclays, Honda and Asda were on hand to give advice ranging from business finance to choosing a new wardrobe (though sadly not, I discovered, for those of us long of leg).

For me, the highlight of the day was the first afternoon session, “Returning to Work”. There was a fantastic range of talented, enthusiastic, passionate women, with a vast range of experiences to share, and the discussion could have gone on for hours. This, I think, was the strongest point of WorkFest for women like me, who are neither contemplating an initial return from maternity leave nor looking to start their own business. Being able to be frank and open with women with whom I had so much in common; hearing other people’s stories and aspirations, and with expert input from career insiders, helped me to formulate some of the ideas and emotions I have about returning to work and to put it into a context other than the purely personal.

The final session I chose was Interview Skills, an excellent, thorough, practical guide to – as the name suggests – preparing for an interview. My notes from this one are legion; bullet points, reminders, pointers, suggestions – they will be typed up and filed away as a “how-to” instruction manual alongside my made-over CV and newly-confident interview poise.

The day wrapped up with two keynote speeches from Thomasina Miers, who won Masterchef in 2005 before going on to start her own chain of Mexican restaurants and Apprentice 2009 winner Yasmina Siadatan, who now works for James Caan of Dragon’s Den. A small, Northern, un-entrepreneurial part of me was prepared (unjustly) to be slightly resistant to these speakers on the basis that they didn’t obviously match up with my own dreams and aspirations, but I found both to be passionate, charming and inspirational. Hearing that people who are now so obviously successful went through periods of not knowing what on earth they were doing with their lives; that they even now, loving where they are, they walk into a situation and quake with fear – women, as Tommi said, are great at getting everyone else’s shit together, but they can be equally great at reassuring and encouraging and inspiring.

All of which leads me back to my opening quote. I struggled how to write this post, actually; not because I was asked to review it in return for my ticket (which I wasn’t), but because it was hard to split out a birds-eye view of the day to give others an idea of what it involved from what it meant to me personally at this stage of my journey back to work. It was, actually, a kind of heaven to be around other women facing the same decisions and challenges, and to hear other people’s ideas, success, suggestions and overview of the market.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about work, and whenever I do I feel the Privilege Fairy sitting on my shoulder muttering that middle-class mothers’ career problems are deserving of the world’s smallest violins (if that). She is doubtless right. They are problems nonetheless, though, and I think Mumsnet have identified a great way of starting to help us address them. If only they could do the same with the trains.

****Fellow blogger @The40yearold also won a ticket to Mumsnet; you can read her blog (complete with fantastic notes!) here****