Returning to work post Hugh – the challenges of being a part-timer

In early July, I returned to work after 12 months maternity leave. I was lucky that my workplace created a part-time role for me because working full-time, studying and raising two kids under 2.5 would have most certainly sent me towards a Britney-style breakdown.

As this was my second return to work rodeo, I decided not to waste my time wallowing in mummy guilt. With house renovations nearly complete and a massive mortgage, I need to contribute to the family budget. I also love my job. My career ambitions coexist with my desire to cram as many toddler cuddles as possible into 24 hours and I’ve (almost) made peace with that.

I knew I’d cry the whole drive to work on my first day back. I knew I would call my mother-in-law 14 times to hear my children’s voices and make sure they’d eaten breakfast/done a poo/had a nap. What I didn’t realise is how much my identity and approach to work would change.

While part-time work is great in aiding work-life balance, it also poses a lot of challenges for new mums. It can be hard to stay relevant as people often view you as the “mummy part-timer” rather than a hard-working, ambitious, kick-arse professional who also happens to be a mum.

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At home I love being covered in Playdoh and snot handprints, watching the same Paw Patrol episode 45 times and doing energetic performances of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. But at work, I want to be the “career me”, the one who knows her stuff and is a valuable asset to the organisation. I don’t want to spend my part-time years caught in corridor conversations that never extend beyond how I’m going to lose all my baby weight and whether I’m going to try for a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I love that everyone asks about the boys. But I also want my colleagues to ask about the projects I’m working on or ask my opinion on things like they used to.

Yes, I know I have gone from managing a team of five and a large budget to managing no-one and having to put in a request for a pack of post-its but I’m still the same person, with the same knowledge and experience.Yes, I may be sleep-deprived and craving a cuddle, but I know my shit.

I know what you’re thinking, quit bitching and do something about it. You’re right. So I’ve started inviting myself to some senior management meetings and I’ve made sure I start up work conversations armed with a heap of research and knowledge. Yes, I may be sleep-deprived and craving a cuddle, but I know my shit.

Another challenge I’ve faced is going from someone willing to work at all hours of the day and night to someone who places strict boundaries on work-time and mum-time. On the two days that I’m home with my kids, I don’t respond to work emails and I stay away from my laptop. I want to be present when my two-and-a-half-year-old creates another fridge-magnet-worthy artwork or covers his brother in stickers, instead of responding to meeting invites and mentally adding to my to-do list.

Part-time work is great but it also comes at a price. Watching less experienced people on the career trajectory you once envisioned can feel like a punch in the gut. Would I exchange the days at home with my kids for a less stagnant career? Absolutely not. So for the next few years I plan to take it as it comes, work my breastfeeding bosoms off and become the best version of my working mum self. I’m a kick-arse part-timer. I’m also a mum.

Hear me roar.

Returning to work – finding balance amidst the mummy guilt

From the day Moo was born I’ve second-guessed every decision I’ve made with regards to his wellbeing. While my confidence as a mother has definitely grown over the last 10 months, I am currently facing my biggest challenge yet – trying to balance the ‘mummy me’ with the ‘career-focused me’.

When I headed off on maternity leave last December, I was 80% sure that I wouldn’t be returning to my job. I said my goodbyes with a feeling of finality, wrote a letter to my boss thanking her for her support and was ready to start a new chapter in my life. A year later I am preparing to go back to work three days per week and am wracked with guilt about leaving my precious Moo in childcare, while at the same time feeling increasingly frustrated by my limited career options.

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Moo learning to crawl

Most of my reasons for returning to work are practical ones. Alarmingly the money tree we planted in the backyard has failed to fruit and my savings have dwindled down to nearly nothing. Living in Melbourne means we have a mortgage the size of a Rudd’s ego for a house that seems to shrink as the toy box grows. If we are lucky enough to give Max a sibling, Lach and I would have to take up residence in a teepee in the backyard as our second bedroom is the size of a linen closet. And then there’s Moo’s education that we need to start saving for because he’ll be ready for high school before we can blink and dem fees ain’t cheap.

My other reason for returning to work part-time is selfish. I love my job. I love being good at my job. While I’ve adored spending 24/7 watching Moo grow into an inquisitive and entertaining toddler, I do miss the mental stimulation and social interaction of work. My ambition didn’t disappear along with my pert bosoms and flat stomach. I feel incredibly privileged that I get to spend my days singing “Toot toot chugga chugga big red car” and smothering my Moo with smooches, but a part of me is also looking forward to putting on some mascara and immersing myself in something other than trying to wake up narcoleptic Jeff.

My unwillingness to give up on my career aspirations makes me feel guilty, but then I think – why should I feel bad about not wanting to throw away years of study and hard slog to become a professional ironer? I believe that enjoying a stimulating and fulfilling career is essential to my overall happiness and that will make me a better Mum.

But who knows what the right decision is, I certainly don’t. On my first day back at work, I’m sure I’ll be bawling my eyes out in the office bathroom and feeling like the worst mother in the world. But if I stay at home, I think the isolation, cabin fever and monotony will probably make me a less tolerant and imaginative Mum. To clarify, I’m talking about myself here. I don’t think you’re any less inspiring, intelligent and imaginative if you choose not to work. I also don’t believe that you’re a better mother if you decide to stay at home just because you think it’s what you SHOULD do. Life is too full of ‘shoulds’.  Some women are cut out for staying at home indefinitely and some aren’t. My aim is to try and find a happy medium and I’m hoping three days at work and four days at home will be it.

In a lot of ways Australian workplaces are still living in the dark ages when it comes to supporting new mums. I’m lucky enough to have a boss who seems open to me returning to a management position three days per week, but there is still a huge roadblock when it comes to even distribution of parental responsibilities.

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Moo and his adoring Dad

My husband is a very devoted and hands-on father. He would love to work four days a week so he could spend one day at home with Moo but as a senior executive for an international organisation, that isn’t an option. The overall sentiment is that Dad brings home the bacon while looking after the bub from Monday to Friday is Mum’s responsibility. So Mum has to either give up her career until the kids go to school or be consumed by guilt and often judged by relatives and friends for going back to work and engaging childcare.

I’d love to see workplaces being more open to Dads spending one day a week at home which would allow more career-flexibility and less guilt for Mum while supporting Dad-child bonding. I know we are making inroads, but we still have a long way to go in recognising women’s value in the workplace post-baby and Dad’s desires to spend more time raising their kids.

As a side note it shits me to tears when I go out on my own and am asked “Is Dad babysitting tonight?”, no one ever asks my husband “Is Mum baby-sitting tonight?” because it’s not friggin’ baby-sitting when it’s YOUR child and spending time looking after your offspring is not baby-sitting just because you’re a bloke, it’s being a parent! Ok, ok, I’ll stop burning the bra now…

I hope in time that mums like me won’t find themselves stuck between a rock and a demotion when it comes to balancing their careers with being loving and nurturing mothers. I also hope that Dads will feel more comfortable broaching the possibility of working part-time so they can share the Mon-Fri parental responsibilities. For now, I guess I’ll just keep lying awake at night trying to find an outcome that benefits the most important thing in my life – my Moo.