Welcome to the fourth edition of the Flexi Mamas series, which tells the stories of mums who want to work but struggle with the barriers in their way. This week’s Flexi Mama is Sam, who actually did return to her job after having kids, but she found that things had changed.
So. When E arrived, I had some wild notions that when I went back to work, perhaps I’d just do a day a week. Something light, you know, to keep my toes dipped into the career pool. Then, as the months of maternity leave stretched on, my mind grew restless and I didn’t think I could feasibly lop my previous full time working hours down to a piddly 7.5. My happy hormones had done a runner and I realised my manager probably wouldn’t be too keen on the idea, either. I had a chat with her, and said that I’d like to drop to three days. “Your old job is a full time job though, Sam. I’ve tried and there’s no escaping that.” Ah. Then – “So, I’ve pulled together a new role for you. You can do it across three days, and you can choose which days you do. You can build the role into something that suits you – it’s a bit of a blank canvas as I think you’ll do well for the challenge.”
Bloody bingo. Everything I’d wanted, handed to me on a plate.
And by Christ, I built that role. I LOVED it. I saw areas of improvement everywhere, I re-wrote processes, I implemented national strategies. I researched, I briefed, other staff in all the business units knew who I was. People came to me for help and advice and I revelled in it. “What would I do without you?” my colleagues would sometimes say. So, I took on more. And more. Soon, I was working every evening and giving the business an extra day for free in unpaid overtime. I got ahead by answering queries on my days off, my work mobile was permanently in email mode as I pushed the pram one-handed. This meant that when I was actually in the office, I could start projects and run them, giving it my all because I was dealing with “everything else” after hours.
My manager gained a professional chartership, then my closest colleague did, too. Ironically, he was my maternity cover when I had E, and he stayed on in my old role. Now, he was going places. We compared notes on salaries and his was steadily progressing upwards, as was his job title.
But I stayed the same.
When it came to the promotion window or salary review time, I thought, surely it would be recognised.
I stayed the same.
Then I got pregnant with H. I told my boss that, when I returned this time, I’d really like to go up to four days a week and start my professional chartership. I was ready to take my career to the next level, and I was excited about what I could achieve with a bit of investment. “Absolutely – we can look at booking you on to some of the courses using your KIT days, if you like.” I waddled off into the sunset, happy and content. Ten months flew by, and soon I was submitting my formal request to increase my hours.
“I’m sorry, I’m under pressure to keep resources the same. I can’t give you an extra day. There’s a training freeze too, so for the moment…..” You guessed it. I stayed the same.
I stayed the same, on the same hours, with two children in childcare instead of one. But something certainly didn’t stay the same.
Changes were happening at the top, which directly affected the way that my team operated. I had to seek permission for everything. I no longer had purchasing authority. Everything needed tiered approval. I was told to place projects on hold, with no explanation why. I watched my manager disappear off to “high level” meetings that I didn’t get invited to, I only got the crumbs of the tasks that resulted from them. Top tip, managers – never say that a meeting is high level, and that’s why your staff aren’t required to attend. I cannot express how instantly demotivating that is.
I carried on my old habit of taking my work mobile everywhere and responding to emails on my days off. But it had changed. People were ruthless now, the pressure was palpable. I received no extra thanks for delivering a quick answer, I just got more queries. “Why are you doing it for free, Sam?” my husband would ask. “If you keep willingly putting in the extra, they’ve got no incentive to start paying you for it.”
So I stopped. I tweaked my out of office responses so that my colleagues were named as direct points of reference in my absence. I tried to walk out the door on a Wednesday and not give a second thought to work until Monday morning. I had to let the control slip, to prove a point. Emails that I would have acknowledged instantly, I sometimes had to leave for weeks because I didn’t have time to look at them. I would spend all of Monday and some of Tuesday catching up. My appraisal goals for the year sat as a calendar entry for every working day, to remind me of my objectives. In the first six months of being back, I didn’t hit any of them. My chartership was dangled, like a carrot, then whisked away again.
I don’t know why I’m using the past tense, actually. This is me now. My entire three days are spent being reactive, sorting out dramas that have already taken place. I don’t have the time to be proactive. I’m still not invited to high level meetings. I used to travel fairly regularly for my role – I’ve visited another office once in six months. I’m missed out of conversations about areas that I’m supposedly responsible for, then copied in at the very end of the email thread because someone doesn’t know where to find the original file. I’m an afterthought. I’m faceless, disposable.
And I have two children. Children who get ill, and have nursery phoning me to come and fetch them with every rash or high temperature. E starts school in September. That means settle sessions and meetings, which I pray will fall outside of my working hours but they never do. My manager is incredibly flexible, but with every “sorry, nursery have phoned…” that I have to make, I can sense my authority slipping. And my pride.
I always said I never wanted to just be the mum sat in the corner, chipping in her hours then leaving her work at the door. I’m offering so much more than that. I wish I was high level.
You can find out more about Sam on her blog, Mouse, Moo and Me Too, or on her social media channels:
Have a story about your struggles with childcare, flexible working or returning to work that you want to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.