Welcome to Flexi Mamas, a series about barriers for working mothers. This week’s Flexi Mama is Lou, who’s 36 and has a 14-year-old son and a 10-month-old daughter. She qualified as a teacher just after her son’s birth and worked for several years a secondary school teacher teaching English.
She had always wanted to return to work after having children.
“I’ve always been someone who needs to work – in a financial sense, but also in the sense that I feel fulfilled by work,” said Lou.
“It gives me a sense of satisfaction and a feeling of self-worth. I don’t agree that it should, but it does. I would, however, have preferred to work part time to ensure the right work-life balance for me and my family.”
Her biggest struggle was around lack of flexible working in the teaching profession.
“I asked my headteacher whether there could be any flexibility, as I was finding that I was leaving just before my son got up on a morning and by the time I collected him from nursery, it was time to start the bedtime routine which meant that I never got any quality time with my son until the weekend. And, even then there was marking and lesson planning to do.
“My headteacher was sympathetic but I knew there was limits to what she could do. The timetable was drawn up and it was my responsibility to teach my classes. It was difficult – I could understand completely that teaching was not the most flexible job in the world.
“It was harder than just turning up at school and teaching though. The paperwork took up huge amounts of my own time at weekends and evenings (and in school holidays), meaning that even my own time wasn’t my own time. Even when I was meant to be off work enjoying family time, I had a lot of paperwork to catch up on.”
She stuck the teaching out for seven or eight years, by which point she was finding it really hard.
“The mummy guilt was eating away at me. My boy would say on a Saturday morning ‘no work today mummy please’. I felt like I was missing out on so much of him and he was growing up so fast. I realised that something needed to change. That change wasn’t easy, though.
“Being qualified as a teacher with a specific qualification, it was difficult to see where else my qualification could take me, and the avenues I did explore didn’t offer me any increased flexibility. I decided then that I had no choice but to establish my own business, something that would enable me to work on my terms, and allowed me to take the family time I craved”.
“Of course, it wasn’t quite as easy as waking up one morning and declaring myself self employed (if only it was that simple!). I still had to earn a living, I still had bills to pay. I did some supply teaching whilst I explored various business options. I set up three businesses in total before finding the right one for me. It was all a case of trial and error for me.
“I had to teach myself new skills and gain new knowledge and understanding. There were times when having to do all that seemed like I was worse off than when I taught as I was working ridiculous hours, pulling all-nighters sometimes so that I could keep up with the pace of my own business whilst earning through supply teaching.
“Three businesses later, I have now found and settled on the business I established just over two years ago now. I run a temporary staffing agency and we have been privileged enough to have seen enough growth to justify my husband working for the same business too, so it really is a family affair now and this works so well for us.
“I don’t think I would have had my second baby if I was still teaching, as my full-time career was restricting time as a family so much that I don’t think it would have been fair to have another baby. It’s awful that something like work would impact on key decisions such as whether or not to have another baby.”
Lou has just gone back to work following a period of maternity leave after having her daughter.
“I returned quite early due to being self-employed, so I initially returned on a part-time basis as I felt she was just too young to be working full time.
“I’ve since then returned full time, and although I’m working Monday to Friday, I am able to take late mornings and early finishes if I get my work done, and I can also work from home if needed or do work from home on an evening so that I can do a shorter day at the office the following day.
“I have joked with my friends that if I had have been employed by someone else, I would have been fired by now due to the time off I’ve had to take due to my daughter picking up various contagious infections and viruses from nursery.
“That is perhaps where I have been most appreciative that my job is flexible – when she has been unwell and needed me. At the drop of a call from nursery saying she’s unwell, I don’t have to think about it or ask permission to leave. I just go, knowing I will catch up on work from home if needed.
“Like at the moment, she’s off nursery with hand, foot and mouth, I have been able to re-jig my diary and be at home for her, and that is a huge benefit for me. I would have felt extremely uncomfortable leaving her with someone else when she’s so poorly.
“I don’t think there’s a particularly good understanding of the need for parents to be off work with their sick children; I know I always felt guilty phoning in sick when my son was ill and I was always asked ‘have you not got a relative that can have him?’
“As it happens, I didn’t have. But even if I had, would it have been fair to leave my son with someone else when he’s poorly? I doubt it. It wouldn’t have been fair on whoever I left him with and it wouldn’t have been fair on him. And on me actually. I already dealt with enough guilt being a working mum without the added guilt of not being able to be there when he needed me most.”
Lou understands that not every job lends itself to flexible working or working from home, but she thinks that childcare costs and the quality of childcare available can be a huge issue for mothers who want to work.
“Our nursery fees are three times our mortgage. It’s ridiculous really, and our nursery was one of the cheapest ones we saw. So I can see why this would deter mum’s from working, but I also think that the quality of childcare is a factor too. As a mum, you have to feel reassured that you child is being well cared for so that you can go off to work without any worries or anxieties.
“A better understanding of the need for parents to take time off for children’s sickness, medical/dental appointments and so on would also be good.”
You can find out more about Lou on her blog, Baby and the Boardroom.
Do you have a story about struggles with flexible working and childcare – or how you overcame them? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.