Why parents of ASN children need flexible working: Kimm’s #FlexiMamas story
Welcome to #FlexiMamas, a series about the barriers that working mums face. This edition features Kimm, who originally hails from the US and came to Scotland to do her PhD in 1999 in Glasgow.
She met her Glasgow hubster in 2003, and decided to settle down in Scotland. After finishing her PhD in 2006, she worked for an archaeological services company as a historical researcher for a year before getting pregnant with her son, Max.
She would have loved to have had more time to spend with her son after he was born, but she was on a short-term contract with no maternity leave.
“I was held to ransom by very low statutory maternity pay,” said Kimm. “We could not afford for me *not* to go back to work! I looked for academic jobs in my field of study but was unsuccessful, so I took a part-time higher education (HE) admin job when my son was 4 months old.
“I was lucky to have my parents-in-law close by who could look after my son for a few hours a day as we could not afford childcare costs. But it was really tough! I was breastfeeding, had to travel for my job (and find places to pump breastmilk).
“My employer was flexible with my hours, at first, but not necessarily very child-friendly or understanding of my needs as a new mother and parent. This job also didn’t last – I was made redundant within the year and had to look for something else. On top of all of this, I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD (after a near-death experience in childbirth) and trying to manage as new parent, having mental health issues and work, was pretty tough.
“Jobs in my field of research are few and far between (as well as competitive) and kept looking for academic roles whilst working in HE admin for the next 5 years. Both my husband and I were geographically mobile until my son started school and determined to find something that would be flexible around childcare and supportive of working families. Regrettably, this did not happen as planned, so I continued to work in HE administration so we could pay bills and support our little family.
Her employment contract required her to be in the office, with 9-5 working hours and limited flexibility of working from home.
“Asking for flexibility in working hours or working from home was almost seen as a weakness and unacceptable for women at the time. No one talked about it,” said Kimm.
“Looking back, I am sure that my own determination to appear to be a ‘strong’ woman in the face of so many challenges was partly the reason why I never discussed it or even asked about it.
“We also simply could not afford any reduction in my hours – part-time working hours could never be on the table. We had to rely on free childcare from the parents-in-law (we were very, very lucky), and they were absolutely wonderful in supporting and helping with Max in his early years. We did realise, however, that this arrangement could not go on forever.”
Things really changed when she found out that her son was being put forward for an autism diagnosis in 2011, when he was four.
“We didn’t know what this meant for our family. It took two years before he was officially diagnosed in 2013 (he was 6) and it hit us pretty hard. He was also diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder in 2015.
“We knew that our whole life had to change. We were no longer geographically/economically mobile (looking for jobs outside of Scotland) and our energies had to be on what we could do to support our son. We also had to think about childcare costs for the first time, as we could not be home for the after-school run or rely on parents-in-law due to their age.
“At the time, I had moved jobs roles within the same organisation. Flexibility was never on the table and if you mentioned child care or the school run it seemed you were either a pariah or had to change your work pattern to part time (which we could not afford to do).
“Max is now 10, going on 11, and not much has changed in the working environment in those 10 years. There is still pressure to be in the office, work 9-5, and almost no flexibility around those who are carers to children with additional support needs.
“There is a real lack of awareness and understanding of the challenges and issues parents of children with ASN may have and what we may need in terms of flexible working arrangements. We often have to attend meetings at his school or with social work and these take place during the day or faced with unpredictability that autism may bring each day.
“For example, Max may refuse to go to school because something made him feel upset (change of routine, classroom layout), or he may suddenly become ill with anxiety because of sensory overload/underload. There might be days where he is physically and mentally exhausted because he suffers from sleep deprivation (common in autistics).
“Employers may ask us to take unpaid leave, use annual leave if we have to be off with a dependent, or explain in detail why we might be late in to work, have to leave early, or why we are simply exhausted! Lately I have asked for more flexibility in my work to help with my own mental health and to manage any meetings we may have to help support Max. I have been successful (!) but felt I really had to explain this in detail to be allowed one day – just one day—to work from home.
Kimm believes that allowing for open and frank discussions about the needs of mothers would be a welcome shift to help support working mums.
“Give mothers the space to talk to their employers without feeling guilty for wanting more time with their children, or wanting to have shortened hours in the office (with working from home) to support school runs,” she said.
“If the majority of work can be done at home, why not make making flexible working a standard part of employment contracts? Embed flexible working practices in all businesses and organisations, where it is possible. Women would not have to worry about cutting hours (which may hurt the family finances), shift careers, pay extortionate cost for childcare, or be restricted in moving geographically if they want a better environment for their family.
“On a personal level, there needs to be a wider understanding and awareness of children with ASN and what carers with ASN children face each day. Without more flexibility in the workplace, parents with ASN children may consider leaving employment (I know I have thought about it many times) or simply muddle through hoping it might get better. No one should be made to feel guilty for asking for more flexibility to support their family. Women who want to work and care for their family should feel empowered to do so!”
Do you have a story about struggling to find flexible working – or a story about how you made flexible working work for you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.