This week I went back to work. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life. I cried. I was tired. I was grumpy. I was a terrible wife and barely spoke to my husband at all (sorry Monsieur FF). But you know what: I survived. WE survived.
I was really happy to be back in the office: to see colleagues; to check emails; to read without interruption; to wear something that didn’t get covered in food and dribble (at least not until I got home), to have a hot drink, a leisurely lunch, and sit down and talk business. Not babies. Mais that’s not to say I didn’t miss my bébé like crazy. I did. I was beyond excited to get home and grab him. I actually ran (hobbled: new shoes #error) to nursery to dramatically throw down my bag, fling my shoes at some poor child and embrace him. But, honestly, it was nice to have both work time and bebe time. This is how life is going to be now. I am a working mum. And I am going to embrace it.
This post is hard to write. Whatever I say in here are my very personal thoughts, specific to me and my life, about going to work and having a baby in someone else’s care. But I’m not alone. There are so many people out there in a similar position, whether you are a mum, or a dad, trying to work out how to balance your “old” life with this new, exciting but terribly demanding one.
There are also loads of topics that could be covered by the post, predominantly focused on the impossible choices that (mainly) women face as professionals and mothers. However, I don’t yet feel capable of broaching that one, not least because I can’t see an easy solution. It’s just bloody hard. Désolée.
I’m sure somewhere along the line someone is going to be offended by what I say. I apologise. This is such a sensitive subject it is incredibly hard to discuss it without getting into the minutiae of your individual situation (your career/your current role/your family/your income/your aims in life/your marriage etc.) I’m going to be frank because I think it’s important to document my journey, but also because I’m one of the lucky ones : I work for a very flexible company and in a flexible team. More about that shortly.
When you have a baby, deciding if and when to go back to work is a massive deal. Deciding on what basis to go back is complicated, not least because it is not just your decision. Some people don’t have much choice because their child needs 24/7 care. Some people don’t have much choice because they are the main breadwinner in the family. Some employers don’t offer many real options. There are so many factors in play, it’s really quite mind-boggling. Not to mention the fact that, chances are, you are not exactly desperate to get back to work work (as opposed to all the hard but super rewarding mum work (which includes lots of cake and cute baby clothes)).
Deciding who is qualified to look after your bebe is like trying to decide who is qualified to run the country. That’s right: no-one. But there are only a finite number of nurseries, or nannies, or childminders, and there are even fewer options that will fit with a reasonable commute and your financial viability. I’ve always struggled with the concept of “paying to work” which is the bizarre situation you find yourself in when assessing whether to go back to work. Unless you are in the very privileged position of having free childcare (usually down to amazing and local grandparents or relatives) or a job that pays a freaking fortune, or you’re just a straight-up millionaire, you are essentially paying to do your job because by the time you deduct the costs of having someone else care for your child, you’re probably barely breaking even.
The whole subject has actually made me feel quite uncomfortable. I have questioned myself on an hourly basis for the past month. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? If you asked me on what basis I was going back to work, you will have seen me pull a strange face as I reply “full time” and cast my eyes down. I say “strange” because even I can’t recognise what emotion I’m experiencing… is it guilt? Is it embarrassment? Is it sadness? Most likely it is confusion tbh. I literally don’t know how I feel.
Yes, I’ve gone back to work, and I’m going to do my job full time. I work in London and like most people I have a commute of the best part of an hour. So when I finish work in the office, I then need another hour to get back to bebe FF. You are probably judging me right now. Analysing my decision. Not necessarily in a negative way, but you are wondering why and what led me to that decision, right? I would be doing exactly the same. Does she love her job that much? Can they not afford any other option? Did she not have the option to do part time? Does she not like being a mother??!
Right – just to be clear – I absolutely adore being a mum.
It is literally the best thing in the world ever.
See – bold, large and colour. Seriously. This is the shizzle. I could not feel luckier. Not a day goes past where I am not overwhelmed by the miracle that is Bebe FF, astonished by how much I love him, delighted by how happy I am in our little family unit, amused by his little bottom and tiny teef, amazed by how quickly he is growing and… scared. Scared of life happening.
Notwithstanding all the above, I also enjoy being a lawyer. I love my job. I worked hard to become a lawyer and get this job. I’m a professional woman in a global business. Oh and the business is a toy company, the LEGO Group to be precise. You may well be familiar with it. The plastic bricks that last forever? The ones that hurt when you walk on them? That’s us. I’m one of many lucky people to be employed by the Danish super brand and I should be rather proud of it. My job is exciting and it is demanding. To do it well, I believe that I need to be available most of the time. In my experience thus far, it is also incredibly flexible. Not only does the LEGO Company embrace flexible working, they positively encourage it.
We don’t have a designated desk in our office. We are taught “Activity Based Working”, to mix and mingle across departments and functional areas, and we are encouraged to work from home as often as we deem appropriate, provided we are able to perform our function, and judge when a meeting can be conducted from the office and when it can be handled remotely. I know some people* struggle with the concept of “flexible working” (*the majority of UK employers for starters, and generations before us that aren’t so au fait with modern technology and still think sending a fax is high tech…) It requires a level of trust and a recognition that a positive and enthusiastic workforce is good for productivity and, therefore, business. Naturally there are financial advantages for the employers too, not just happy and driven, productive workers, but lower costs (rent, bills, general sustenance). You need the right tools for it to work efficiently – flexible work spaces, portable laptops and remote video conf capability etc. but all of this stuff is so easily available nowadays, I find it hard to understand why it isn’t more widely adopted as a working standard.
Alas. There are plenty of people out there who aren’t as lucky as us LEGO UK employees, and who are having to fight for their employers to even consider more flexible working. Check out Mother Pukka for starters. Her Flex Appeal campaign is brilliant. It’s all rather ridiculous when you look at the stats: clearly a flexible workforce is a happy workforce, and a happy workforce is far more productive than a morose bunch of reluctant 9-5 workers. Flexible working means working in a way that best suits you as an individual. As Mother Pukka puts it:
Self-evidently, if your employer gives you the flexibility to work the hours that fit in to your situation, then you are all the more likely to feel satisfied, and put in the hours and show the commitment to your employer – that improves your work and ethos, and their staff turnover (and all the costs associated with hiring and up-skilling new staff). Also, critically for parents, it means you can work around your childcare. Most people are awake for, let’s say 14 – 16 hours per day. There’s no reason why all the fun stuff has to be crammed into the middle 8 hours is there?!
Family is a priority at LEGO, and having a REAL work life balance is considered to be a true demonstration of success. It is perfectly normal and commonplace for the office to be near empty by 5pm. Why? Everyone has gone to pick up their kids, to spend some time with them before bedtime. That doesn’t mean they have finished working for the day. But working on the report due on Friday can be done anytime between now and Friday. Why not do it after the kids’ bedtime. You are not rushing and you feel happy*.
(*Presupposes bedtime was a success and you don’t have a romantic diner a deux planned)
So, now you know that I am working full time, but it is not like most versions of full time that exist today in the UK. I told you, I’m very lucky and I know it.
Also, on another note, I have taken 8 months of maternity leave – I could take up to a year and be guaranteed my job on my return. I have friends in America who were lucky to get 3 months of maternity leave (apparently it can be as little as 6 weeks if your labour is “normal”). Likewise in France, a mere trois mois. THREE MONTHS. WTF. I’m not being over dramatic when I say I don’t think my body had even recovered after 3 months, let alone my brain being functional and ready to juggle the challenges of motherhood and a career. What kind of world do we live in?! The NHS encourages and promotes breastfeeding for the full first 6 months of a baby’s life. How do you manage that and be back at work? And I assume given the lack of flexibility on maternity leave, those American employers aren’t likely to be terribly flexible with the working hours either, or having a creche in the office…?
In any case, ladies, whenever you go back and if you go back, or decide not to, respect to you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this quandary and whatever you do, I hope you make the most of it.
Well folks thats all I’ve got for now. I’m just embarking on the journey and have a tough road ahead. Bugs, sickness, work travel, socialising, emotional breakdowns, impossible decisions at home and work, brain failure… so much still to navigate. But I leave you with this: My good friend, fellow lawyer and producer of Bebe FF’s birthday girlfriend (one hour before Bebe FF to be precise) Claire, shared with me a tip that was imparted on her as she rejoined her legal job, also full time, and a couple of months before us. She said I should do the following:
- when you are travelling in to work, think about something you are looking forward to; a meeting with a colleague, a nice lunch, a new exciting project.
- on your way home, as you dash to pick up your precious little one(s) in time, focus on something you’ve done that day that you are proud of; concluding a project, some positive feedback, a significant learning, a job well done.
This will help remind you why this challenging time isn’t just about battling through and feeling guilty, it’s about being proud of yourself and your achievements, and making the most of each day.