** First published on www.theguardian.com on Thursday 29th May 2014 **
I’m fed up with the mothers and guilt rhetoric. This week, Emma Bridgewater, the pottery designer, admitted at the Hay Literary Festival that she struggled with guilt while building up her business and raising her family. She said she felt guilty about her family when she was at work, and guilty about work when she was with her family.
I’m no stranger to mothers and guilt, in fact I wrote a book on it but what continues to surprise me is how afraid we are to talk about it. However, by not raising the topic either before or after a woman returns from maternity leave, we’re letting working mothers struggle on alone. More worryingly, this lack of support means women faced with feeling like they’re not enough at either home or work are dropping out.
Two months ago I hosted the first in a series of open, free workshops for maternity returners and one woman flew over 500 miles, from Fife to St Albans, to take part. She’s confident and savvy – she told me she was making it one of her 10 keep in touch days and would be invoicing her employers for the travel expense – yet had burning questions and concerns she hadn’t felt able to talk out elsewhere, and needed to. Maternity leave can be a lonely time, especially if your employer assumes you want to be left alone and the new mummy friends you make prefer to keep to baby-oriented conversation.
These meetings aren’t there for us to sob into our tea and moan and wallow about how difficult it is or how guilty we feel. Instead we’re talking about who we need to influence when we get back to work, what role we can play in shaping output cultures in our workplaces (presenteeism is so 80s – why didn’t it leave with T’Pau?) and the best ways to signal organisational commitment to doubting colleagues. On top of that there are the bigger questions such as individual definitions of success and how to handle a more senior role on less than five days a week. These are women who know they can deliver great things at work and raise happy, normal kids if only their and their partners’ employers would trust them enough to crack on in flexible fashion.
It’s this lack of trust that’s the root of guilt for the most part: if we feel that our kids don’t have enough access to us at the times that matter to them most (the usual suspects being school pick-up, tea and bed), we panic that we’re not good enough parents. And if this panic comes into the workplace we begin to worry that it’s distracting us from our jobs. If we were given the opportunity, and trust, to manage our own time think how much more productive and happy we’d all be.
What we really need now is for employers to make agile working mainstream and switch on to the importance of support for colleagues who are returning after a break. It doesn’t make sense to spend huge sums on outplacement services and not pour the same, if not more, funds into shrinking the time it takes returners to feel credible, capable and confident. As one senior chap returning from additional paternity leave said to me recently: “my return felt like an after thought, I had to drive it. There was an expectation that I’d slip back in but career momentum gets broken by having three months out. It’s made me 100 times more empathetic to maternity leavers.”