Mothering by Numbers
Journalists often call me asking for my views on working motherhood (there’s a whole treasure trove of it here) and lately the stand-out conversations have been around motherhood and numbers: what’s the best age to have a baby and what’s the ideal length of maternity leave? A stateside friend of mine has also been canvassing my views on the impact of upping her working week from three days to four. Unlike TV producers the journalists accommodate my ‘shades of grey’ approach to answering such questions because as you know, you bright-minded thing, this parenting lark ain’t one we can pin to exact numbers. If my thoughts on these three are of interest you’ll read on; if not, please do forward it to a couple of women you think it will resonate with before tapping delete.
Best age to have a baby
Now here’s a question only a provocative journalist (is there any other kind?) or a desperate pre-child control freak intent on maximising her life choices, would ask. A more useful question is how to make the best of your age when baby comes along. In a Yorkshire Post piece on older motherhood in March I reflected that there’s probably a significant upside career-wise: “The chances are you have established yourself in your chosen field and there is a feeling that you will be able to return to what you were doing without much complication because you are seen as an asset to your organisation.” The average age of first time motherhood is nearly 28 (ONS date from all births in the UK in 2010) and rising – perhaps because of our increasing desire to keep pushing on up at work – but I’m not interested in averages because I’ve never coached an average woman. What I’ve found really matters when having children is that parents have shored up sufficient practical, emotional and financial support to allow the mother to have the easiest and most enjoyable time possible on maternity leave (as a starter for ten). Women – the key to all of these things is to ask for what you want in plenty of time, before baby arrives. Planning is a wonderful thing.
Ideal length of maternity leave
We have the right to a year’s maternity leave yet if what the papers are saying is true, women are heading back earlier as they need to put bread on the table. There’s an obvious joke in there somewhere about staying home to make it but women and bread-winning is no laughing matter. Returning to my shades of grey quip earlier, I firmly believe the ‘ideal length’ is so ridiculously personal and wrapped up with many other factors that it’s an impossible question to answer generically. There will undoubtedly be a right length for YOU but not one that fits everyone. For me and the clients I’m working with, factoring in our feelings and what’s going on in the world around us has been enormously helpful in coming to a decision. Positive reasons for going back earlier than planned:
- You’ve had enough of being at home
- There’s a professional opening you’re keen to take advantage of
- Your ideal childcare arrangements have materialised earlier than planned
- Your return would on balance alleviate (financial) strains on the family
- Your team is clamouring for you to come back and you’re missing them too
- You feel pleased at the thought of returning and, crucially, you’re getting enough sleep
There may be good reasons for staying off longer than planned and usually that’s a more sensitive issue than going back earlier. For that reason I’m not going to address that in a mass e-mail. The key thing is to keep your employer in the picture and if any desire to stay at home stems from feeling you can’t do it, I can help find you the massive ego trip – amongst other things –that would be useful to you at this point.
Impact of increasing ‘working’ hours
Like the frog in a pan of water that gradually gets heated to the point that he boils alive (yes bizarrely, frogs will not jump if the temperature changes slowly) over the last year the number of hours I work has increased yet I’ve carried on trying to do everything I did when my professional life was less. Oh silly me and yes I’ve got a grip on it now or rather I’ve loosened my grip on domesticity). If you’re making a considered choice to up your working week you’ve got an advantage over me and the frog: you know you’re doing it and can change the way you run the rest of your life to take account of it. Five things my clients have found it useful to do before making the leap up at work are:
- Recognise what bits of personal/domestic fluff they haven’t got time to do anymore (you know what these more or less pointless but very personally satisfying things are that you do) and let them float off into the ether in the way all good fluff eventually does.
- Remind themselves that there are still plenty of opportunities to have lovely, cost-free moments with each of their children every week. I say ‘moments’ because it’s the little slices of time that say ‘I’m completely, utterly focussed on you at this moment in time’ that matter more than anything else.
- Work out how they’ll continue to exercise, eat quality food and do other things that keep them thriving because without our physical and mental health we’re nothing – and we get into that awful, awful place where holidays are what we live for rather than the everyday.
- How they can re-shape the domestic landscape. It may mean doing less; paying someone else to do more; letting standards slip but always, always, always having a discussion with other adults in the house about the need to re-evaluate who does what and how often. Good conversations start with “As I’m going to be working more, how do you think we can keep our life ticking over as well as it has been….PAUSE, PAUSE, PAUSE.”
- Have a future-focussed conversation with their line manager sharing how they see the increased hours panning out. We’re talking broader responsibilities, how this fits with her future career aspirations and any other important factors such as home working.
COACHING FOR YOU
As ever I’d be delighted to hear from you – whether that’s to say a quick hello or to start a conversation about your return to work. About half of my clients pay their own coaching fees and the other 50% secure funding from their organisation or other sponsor. I’m always happy to approach clients’ employers with a coaching proposal that explains the benefits. You may be interested to read our “Compelling Case for Maternity Coaching” paper too.