I am a stay-at-home-mum — and I believe in what I am doing — but I am well aware that I have committed career-suicide to do it. I have no delusions that I will be able to find a job at the same level — or even of a similar nature — to the one left. When I go back to work in a few years’ time, that gap on my resume will look like a gaping black hole that has swallowed all my skills and years of experience, and left me fit for little more than admin-support roles. Even knowing that frightening and painful truth, it is worth it to me to stay home with my babies — I firmly believe that my parenting choice has immeasurable benefits for my daughters’ healthy development which are worth the price I am paying.
I didn’t used to feel this way. Before my first daughter was born — even right to the end of my pregnancy — I planned to go straight back to work, probably full time. I thought good childcare arrangements would work as a perfectly satisfactory substitute for both me and her. But as I read and learned more about early childhood development — particularly in
Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt and
The New First Three Years of Life by Burton L. White — and then as I witnessed this incredible time for myself after my daughter was born, I began to reconsider my plans. The gravity of my role as her mother came clear to me: I had brought this child into the world; I decided to focus all my energies on giving her the best start in life that I could, whatever the cost.
The timing, in my case, was very lucky: the project I had been assigned to had been completed while I was on maternity leave, and so my role had disappeared with it. When it came time for me to go back to work, the company offered me a new role two grades lower than my previous position (with the off-the-record comment that “most returning mothers want easier roles anyway”). I rejected their offer and requested redundancy instead, to which I was legally entitled. They argued and tried instead to dress up the role. I hired a solicitor, called their bluff, and got the redundancy and a decent severance package. We can’t get by on M’s salary alone, so that payout has bought me time at home with my daughters. We keep ourselves to an extremely tight budget in order to stretch it out but, when it runs out next year, we will have had to figure a way to make up the difference. That deadline is coming up fast.
So the issues surrounding returning to work have been weighing heavily on my mind lately and, the more I think about them, the more glaring the wrongs become . It seems to me that women are required to pay an enormous penalty — a disproportionate penalty — for taking time away from work when they have children. While I do realise that work-skills will grow rusty and there will need to be a period of time allowed for a returning mother to come back up to speed, I do not believe that her abilities will have degraded so much in a few years’ time as to warrant the severity of demotion she is likely to face. To be expected to drop back down nearly to the bottom of a career ladder she has already climbed is simply disproportionate. She has taken a few years out, not had her mind erased. To keep it in perspective, even if a mother takes a full five years out, that is only 12.5% of the typical 40 year work life. Put another way, she will still be in work nearly 90% as long as her male colleagues. Her time away creates a gap in her career, to be sure, but it should be seen in proportion to her full contribution.
Looking at it from a basic economic standpoint, it doesn’t make good sense to penalise mothers so severely — neither for individual businesses nor for society as a whole. As a society, we pay to educate women to at least high school level and often contribute considerably to her college education as well. Employers then step in and spend significant amounts of money to train and develop their staff, both male and female. Those women are likely to have their children only 5-15 years into their working life. It doesn’t make any economic sense for those women — with their expensive education and training — to be dismissed as serious candidates when they return to work. To do that is to waste an awful lot of money. It makes better economic sense to keep a sense of perspective about the time they’ve been away and realise the real value of the contribution they still have to offer.
There is hope. I recently read an article about the welcome mats that companies are now beginning to roll out for their returning mothers: they are putting programmes in place to allow women to continue networking (and, in some cases, training) during their maternity leave, and providing flexible schedules and “phase back” periods when they do return. This is wonderful stuff — a very good start. But, for the most part, these programmes are for women who returning to their same employers after their 12 week (US) maternity leave, not for women returning from longer periods away from work. The fact that such extensive measures are being put in place to accommodate such a short time away — and, more to the point, that they are seen as something breakthrough — reveals the truth about how difficult the situation is for the majority of women taking even minimal time away. Yes, this represents real strides forward, but employers are still missing a trick by not capitalising the value that all returning mothers have to offer.
If I had my way, I would return to work about 3 years from now, when E2 enters preschool, meaning I will have been out of the workplace for 5 years. Our financial situation dictates drastic action earlier than that: either we move to the US, or I find a way to make the money we need to get by each month. I fully realise the disadvantage that the last two years away from work gives me. Combine that with the cost of childcare, and going back to the same sort of work I left is looking less and less like a likely solution. I am going to have to think outside the box and come up with some alternative ways to bring in that money — probably a complete departure from anything I have done before. In some respects, I am really looking forward to doing something new — whatever it might be — but, at the same time, I resent that I am put in this position because other people will look at my resume and assume I have reverted to right back to square one, simply because I have been doing something different for the past couple of years.