It’s that time of year again, where we celebrate the achievements and contributions of women across all aspects of society – and shine a spotlight on where there’s still progress to make. Last year, Connor shared the advice that women around the organisation would give to their 18-year-old selves. It was a lot of fun and thought-provoking, but this year we’re focusing in on a very specific set of women – working mums.
ONS statistics show that 75 per cent of mothers with dependent children were in work in 2019, more than ever before. This is a group that historically has struggled in workplaces that are not designed to support new families, and new mothers especially. But it’s also a group that has an incredible amount to offer employers everywhere. We sat down with four working mums in our network to explore their stories and celebrate the successes that have brought them to where they are today.
Claire Maynard is a Senior HR Consultant and Project Manager for Connor, specialising in helping our clients get maximum value for money out of their work with us. Caroline Forman is an associate coach, specialising in leadership and change coaching. Christelle Macri is MD at ClickJump, a digital marketing agency. And Tracy van Dort is an HR leader at the Metropolitan Police. Let’s see what they had to say.
What challenges did you face as a working mum?
Christelle: When Luca was born I was working for a big digital advertising network in London – and I knew from the start that there was no way I could go back. Part time and flexible working just didn’t exist in the agency world in those days, crazy as that sounds now! That was why I started ClickJump when Luca was two years old. I’d always been keen on the idea of being my own boss, and since none of the agencies out there could offer me the balance of work and family that I wanted, I figured I’d do it myself.
I think the challenges that come with starting your own business are magnified as a working mum. Children have their own routines – bedtimes, feeding, and so on. So alongside trying not to work all hours (which is incredibly easy to do when you’re just starting out in business), you’re also trying to adapt what you’re doing to fit their routine. If you get it wrong, and your business leaves no time for you or your children, you can start to resent the business (which, ironically, you started because you wanted a better balance of family and work life!)
Caroline: That challenge of balancing family and work is one that really resonates with me. I knew that I didn’t want to put my career on hold to have children, so it was always about balancing those two priorities.
Like Christelle, it’s one of the main reasons I started working for myself – I am now totally in control of how I balance my personal life and my career. As a result, I feel like I’m getting the most out of both.
Another challenge I would flag is that of line managers. If your line manager doesn’t have any empathy for your situation – and a surprising amount of them just do not understand the realities of balancing children and work – they can make things very awkward. I’ve had managers blow up at me for not responding to requests on my days off, and been picked on for leaving work on time, because my line manager didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay another ten minutes. Organisations should be making sure that all line managers are sensitive to the needs and priorities of working parents – it makes such a huge difference to how the employee feels.
Tracy: I totally agree that balance is the biggest challenge. I’m an older mum, and one who’s worked bloody hard to get to where she’s got to! So, I wasn’t keen to take a step down in my career, because I knew it would make it difficult or impossible to step back up later in life – I’d be too old in the eyes of my employer.
It’s meant that being available for the important things – sports days, school plays, and so on – has been challenging at times, especially being a single mum. In the past, I’ve had to explain to my daughter when she’s asked me why I can’t drop her for school (not breakfast club) and pick her up from school every day like the other mummies – and the benefits of our lifestyle.
Claire: My journey with William, my first, was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Unfortunately, we found out when I was pregnant that William had a rare genetic condition, which made for a very turbulent pregnancy with scans almost every week. At the time I was in a national people project manager role with my employer, which involved lots of travel around the country – and my head office was 200 miles from my house. After the birth William was very poorly still, and for a long time I didn’t think I would be able to return to work.
However, I did go back – but then I went in the opposite direction and felt I had to keep on climbing the career ladder to prove to people (mainly myself) that I could do it. It took me to the most senior roles of my career – but also put a lot of pressure on the balance between family and work.
My employer did their best to be supportive, and there were some truly outstanding people who helped me through the challenging times. But at the same time, I didn’t know anyone who was going through the same experience as me. Most of my maternity leave was spent managing illness and having operations, and in and out of hospital with William – it was very intense.
How did becoming a parent enhance your skills at work?
Caroline: I’m so glad you asked this question! Helping mums back into work isn’t just about box-ticking – motherhood develops loads of skills that add value in the workplace.
Motherhood has made me much more efficient. When you become a mum your cognitive load increases – you have more to think about and plan for. Your free time also decreases as you now have a child who depends on you completely. These traits made me, and I think make all mums, into masters at prioritisation and time management.
I’m also much calmer at work now. With a baby (and especially with two children!) a crisis is never more than five minutes away – so you learn to handle them without getting burnt out. Crises at work have nothing on dealing with a child who’s lost their favourite toy!
Claire: That’s such a good point about time management. Most nurseries charge insane fees for picking up your child late – so you learn quickly to get all your work done so you can leave on time. There’s no way you can stay late to catch up on stuff! I am so much more efficient as a mum now.
The other benefit for me is about empathy, and ‘managing in the grey.’ Before I had kids, I was a stickler for doing things by the book – which didn’t always get the best out of colleagues with children, or other circumstances such as caring for an elderly relative. Now that I’ve had my own children, I appreciate that more flexibility – even a bit more kindness – when managing people can motivate them much better and enable me to get far more out of my people.
Tracy: I totally agree. You get much more out of people if you take the time to appreciate that they have pressures outside of work, and by helping them to balance their conflicting priorities you create a give and take working relationship that’s much more productive. I’ve always been career-oriented, so it wasn’t until I had Hayley that I really started to appreciate how difficult some days can be – for example, when you have a meeting to attend, and a poorly child who isn’t able to go to nursery or school.
Christelle: For me, it’s all about organisational skills and being on the ball. Children force you to be organised, whether you like it or not! And what Caroline said about dealing with crises made me smile. I remember there was a lot of that with Luca – mainly because he ran everywhere! I think having children makes you wiser when dealing with people – like Claire said, your empathy increases and you realise that different people need different approaches to get the best out of them.
What is your proudest achievement in your career as a working mum?
Claire: My proudest achievement, I have to say, is knowing in my heart that I’ve got a good balance between work and family. There are always challenges and conflicts to manage, but I am at the point now where I have the confidence to say what’s important to be at for work and as a mum. For instance, I know I will always make a sports day, come hell or high water. It’s sometimes a juggling act, but one I am proud of!
Christelle: I’m still trying achieve that balance! The thing that makes me most proud is thinking back to when Luca was younger and he was diagnosed with ADHD. It was a really tricky time, and he needed a lot of attention and support to get through it. I spent hours working to get him on the right programmes at school, for instance, so that he would be able to focus and get the most out of his education. All while running my own business. It was a real juggle but I did it – and now he’s just like every other 16-year old.
Caroline: I think I’m proudest of having set up in business. Once my second baby was old enough for me to go back to work, I went into recruitment in the banking sector – which unfortunately ended up with another voluntary redundancy. I used the money from that to retrain as a coach with the ILM and started working for myself. It was no mean feat with two children, not to mention nerve-wracking while things were getting started! But it was without a doubt the best thing for me and my children – I get to see as much of them as I want, and I get paid to do something I love.
Tracy: I’ve been in HR for over 30 years, 15 of those with the Met. The Met Baby programme that I’m responsible for is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career. The programme aims to support parents – both women and men – as they start their parental journey, during parental leave, and on return to the workplace. It’s all about helping individuals to navigate the transition with minimum stress – especially the return to work, which we all know can be stressful. It’s something that’s very personal to me as I can relate to what a juggling act that can be some days. I love the value I can add to making parenting and working life that little bit easier. Like Caroline says, it’s great to get paid to do something you’re passionate about!
What advice would you give to your younger self, now you know what you do?
Tracy: The advice I would give to myself is: plan slightly better, and appreciate that you can’t be wonder woman every day of the week. Some days you’ll be winging it, never knowing how you did it, while other days will be a breeze. Take each day as it comes and plan your time so that things don’t become overwhelming. For example, if you know you have a busy work week coming up, make sure the weekend is about quality time with your family. Call on help where you can – there’s no shame in it!
Claire: I have advice for my younger self, and also for organisations. I would encourage myself to find an external, impartial person who can support me through the transition. From about six months into maternity leave, I started to feel lost. My organisation offered some internal support, but I didn’t want to take it as it would have felt like I was admitting failure to my colleagues. Someone impartial who I could have spoken to in confidence would have been brilliant – it’s one reason I’m such a massive advocate of our parental returner programmes at Connor.
And my advice for organisations is: don’t be too quick to sign off mums who are struggling. During my pregnancy, and once I was came back, work was a sanctuary for me. It was the only bit of normality in my life among the hospital appointments, the operations, and the changes that having children bring into your life anyway. I know lots of working mums who get so much out of their work – so if they are struggling, look for other ways to support them instead of time off – reduced hours, perhaps, or flexible working.
Caroline: My advice to myself, and others, would be to recognise that as a working mother you are working two jobs. You have your work role, which is something that lots of working mums are passionate about, like Claire says. But you also have a second job – being a mum. It can be unpredictable, intense, and you’re always on call in case of emergencies. So, remember – you aren’t superwoman. It can’t all go perfectly, all of the time.
Think about how you would handle a dual role at work. If someone asked you to take on a whole other role on top of your existing one, how would you manage that? What does good look like in each of these roles, and what needs to flex so that you don’t put undue pressure on yourself? It takes reflection and planning – and the strength to ask for help when you need it.
Christelle: Don’t try to do everything, all the time! Just try to enjoy the moments you have with your children. It’s such a cliché, but they don’t stay young for very long and it goes faster than you can possibly imagine. So carve out time that’s for you and them – no laptops, no calls, just you and them. After all, what’s the point of having children if you forget to enjoy your time with them?
Connor’s parental returner programmes are aimed at helping every woman, and man, to have a great experience of starting or growing a family with their employer. For organisations, this can improve employee engagement and retention, as well as helping you access the incredible talent pool represented by mums who want to return to work. For more information, call +44 (0) 1491 414 010 or learn more on our website.