Welcome to Flexi Mamas, a series about barriers that working mums face. This edition features Cath, a 40-year old Irish ex-pat now living in Portugal. Before that she had been living in South Wales for over 10 years.
She has one little boy who was born in Abergavenny. Before, and for a while after her son was born, she worked for a company that did chemical analysis, mainly in the petrochemical industry. She was a chromatographic analyst and spent her days analysing a variety of things, generating reports and helping with the day-to-day running of a busy laboratory.
“I had spent nine years in university getting my PhD and knew that I would return to my job once our son had been born and I’d taken my maternity leave,” says Cath. “There was absolutely no question about it. I loved my job and wasn’t prepared to give it up after our son was born.”
However, she found that she faced some serious barriers almost immediately after returning to work.
“Childcare costs weren’t an issue, thankfully, as I found a very reasonable full-time nursery near our house. Despite being located in South Wales, I found the costs varied considerably when I started looking into nurseries for my son. One wanted £50 per day simply because they were a Welsh/English-speaking nursery. The nursery I found charged £32.50 per day, which is very reasonable compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard about childcare costs in the rest of the UK, particularly London.
“However, work was an hour away in rush-hour traffic and the evenings is when I really started to feel stressed by my return to work. My hours were a standard 9am to 5pm. I was already paying extra to drop my son into nursery just after 7am in order to make it into work by 8.30. However, on several occasions I was late picking him up (after 6pm, the closing time of nursery) because of traffic or accidents on the roads between work and nursery.
“I started to question whether I was right in returning to work. Within two months of returning to work I requested to change my working hours to 8.30 to 4.30pm to ensure I would be back to pick my son up before nursery was due to close, yet it took a month and some serious discussions to get this approved.
“My change in working hours eased things somewhat, but as our son started growing I started feeling like I was missing out on things and wanted to spend more time with him, especially during the week. However, a clause had been out into my first request that said I couldn’t make a further request for a change in working conditions and terms for a year.
“I had to wait 12 months and work full-time until I could even think about making any other changes. But I did, as soon as my 12 months were up. And this is where the real battle started.
“I put a request in for shorter, more flexible working hours and was immediately met with a no, despite other colleagues with no children being on reduced hours. I had to fight for four months, with meetings back and forth with a manager who had no children of his own and one of the directors of the company, and with the full intention of leaving the company should I be denied, before they finally relented and allowed me to change to working 8.30 to 3pm.
“I still managed to do all my full-time working duties within this shortened time, without any effect on productivity within the lab. My laboratory manager was fully supportive, but above him is where I met my biggest challenges.
“I knew that if I was forced to leave my job, a job I loved, that I would find it impossible to find work within my area that would fit around my child and his needs. But it was a gamble I was fully prepared to take.
“When my flexible working hours were finally granted I continued to work Monday to Friday but from 8.30am to 3pm, a reduction of only one and a half hours a day. I did not have to delegate any of my duties to other members of staff, nor did any of our productivity and output in the lab suffer, these being two reasons why my initial request was denied. I showed that I could still do my full-time job within the hours I was now working.
“Another laboratory manager who also supported my request said he’d rather have a member of staff working reduced hours from Monday to Friday, rather than someone who was working full-time hours but only Monday to Wednesday as another colleague was doing. My proposed hours and working days meant I was present to cover anything that would crop up at any time during the week and that there would always be cover in my laboratory for every day of the week. With enough warning I could also do some extras hours when needed on occasion.”
Cath thinks that more companies need to be open minded about flexible working hours for parents, especially mothers.
“The company I worked for was a medium-sized family company, run by the same family for at least three generations, and despite calling themselves a family company, they did not hold family values for their employees. Just because someone has had a baby doesn’t mean you can discriminate against them because their outside commitments have changed. I proved that despite working one and a half hours a day less, I was still more than capable of completing all my tasks and duties within that time frame with no detrimental effect to our laboratory.
“I think companies need to realise that women (and men) will at some stage want to start a family and they need to be prepared for some changes to happen when they return to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean their work will be affected or that their output will go down. If anything, you might find them a greater asset than before, even working reduced hours, because they are commented to getting their job done to leave on time at the end of the day to get back to their children.”
You can find out more about Cath on her blog, or on her social media channels:
Have your own story to tell about struggles with flexible working – or a story about how you made it work for you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.