Working mum of three

Figuring it out as we go along. Blogging is cheaper than therapy.

Maternity leave and other basic human rights

20130614-100003.jpgIt’s hard to admit that you can be replaced. It’s tough to work full throttle on something and not be able to see it to fruition. There is never a good time to have a baby.

The pendulum is about to take a major swing in the family direction. The nesting phase has already started; the garage has been rearranged, the toilets have been scrubbed and the chocolate drawer is well stocked. Sleep patterns, feeding patterns and poop patterns will dominate our world. Familial harmony will be the key objective. Work will be a distant and irrelevant memory. Once the baby arrives, Monday mornings will no longer be feared, because every day will be the beginning of a full working week. Frustration, tedium and exhaustion will take on a whole new meaning. Work meetings, corporate responsibility, banal and bizarre parts of my job will all fade into insignificance. My own tiny imprint on the UN Human Rights infrastructure is about to go on hold. Switching from the international stage, to the domestic minutiae.

It is hard to describe the paradox. If family and work are the two major components of my existence, then opting for one implies a disloyalty, a lack of dedication to the other. Even if it is temporary. Some think that having children is a selfish and conformist act that sucks you into traditional roles and restricts your ability and desire to make a difference in the world (I know this because someone said it to me). In fact, having three doesn’t make me want to achieve less, rather the burden of responsibility to improve our life, society, global circumstances, weighs even more heavily. So the pull in both directions is mutually reinforcing. What an impossible conundrum.

The sadness of leaving a job might seem a bit foolish, it is the UN after all, and the civil service, so the amount of change while I’m away will be invisible to the naked eye. But there is a lot wrapped up it. Work represents my independence. My skills and achievements are my own (not someone’s mummy). But more specifically, I have worked hard and I’ll be missing out on the tea and medals. It’s really hard to hand things over and let things go. Perhaps hardest to swallow, it feels like my professional achievements are overshadowed by my role as a mother.

A decent maternity leave is such a privilege. Hats off to my American mum friends who survive with no legal entitlement. And even here in the private sector, women are only entitled to 6 weeks at 90% pay. The dedicated time off with our newborn is precious and vital. So while the discussion about enabling both parents to share the parental leave must be a step in the right direction, asking mums to sacrifice that time, even if it is for their partners, seems a bit unrealistic. There are physical and emotional considerations to take into account (most notable is breastfeeding).

Which leads us on to the broader gender disparity. Like many dads to be, Rich recently commented that it is hard to ‘bond’ with the baby until the bump is really big. So while I have been mulling it over (panicking) for 9 months, going to appointments, perfecting my pregnancy small talk, it has so far had little impact on Rich’s day to day, and even less so on his work. This is just the beginning of the different impact parenting takes on each gender in the work place. Remote working has given me a bit of an insight into what it is like for a bloke; my colleagues have been largely unaffected by the pregnancy, in fact, many have been shocked when I’ve told them.

While my team has been hugely supportive (in fact my line manager told me I was an inspiration – hohoho!), they have had to run a recruitment and figure out the logistics of it all. Rich isn’t even entitled to a statutory paternity leave since he has only recently joined the company – so they won’t bat an eyelid.

On my return to work in 8 months, it won’t be reasonable to expect to walk into a promotion. Without the absence, my recent opportunities would have given me the confidence to push for it. Now, when I go back, it will be back to square one: questioning own abilities, balancing home and work commitments, rebuilding skills and confidence. Ok – I recognise that some of this is self inflicted, but in my experience, this is a common mindset amongst returning mothers. Meanwhile I have watched a male peer dance up the promotion ladder in the same period as having two children. Choosing to have three kids will undoubtedly have an impact on what I seek to achieve professionally. No matter how good my references are, there will be gaps in my appraisals and assumptions made about my commitment to work (thanks Alan Sugar). On the radio today, a woman was introduced as ‘impressionist, mother of two’ while none of the male contestants had their family circumstances referenced. There will be none of this discrimination against Rich.

By my reckoning, that’s gender, personal fears, cultural biases and practical considerations holding women back. But I wouldn’t give up my maternity leave, nor my right to ‘found a family’ any more than I would give up my right to work. So something needs to be done to redress the inequality of it and to support mothers in their return to work: answers on a postcard please. Luckily, I’m about to have some time to ponder these bigger questions.

In the meantime, there will be a few tears shed as I clock off work for a while, but even more when my tiny, completely dependent, miniature person arrives.

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Rough and tumble

Mid morning phone calls from the nursery always strike fear into a parent’s heart. 4yo had been involved in an ‘incident’ involving a toy car and another kid. The other boy has a reputation for being ‘trouble’, several parents have complained about him and we often get stories about his behaviour from our boys. This was the second ‘incident form’ to be signed in a week: 2yo had earlier been victim of a frequent and zealous biter. A clear bite mark is still there a week later.

I’m a bit sceptical about reports from the teacher that both our boys had reacted without confrontation: tears of course, cuddles, explanations of what had happened, calming down, no retaliation, then quick friends with the ‘perp’. But hang on, I’ve seen these boys completely out of control with rage. So it feels like the other two kids have been a bit scapegoated. They are known as ‘naughty’ kids. We arrived at the same time as one of them recently. They were all rushing into school in a jumble of ripping off coats and racing to get to toys, giggling all the way. In fact it was quite lovely. But the dad called back his son to give him a pep talk about being good and asking for a report from teachers later. Seemed like a pretty sensible approach.

Handling negative feedback about our kids is tricky. It’s taken me years in my professional life to be comfortable in responding when challenged on something. It’s easier to avoid conflict. Apologise, fix the problem, then moan about the injustice in private. I’m the person who apologises if someone bumps into me on the street. We try to teach our guys to talk their problems through, speak to teachers/adults, walk away from rough kids. Are we setting them up for a lifetime of bullying? In the workplace, so much of the messaging is around being assertive, confident, taking responsibility. Running to your boss for a cuddle is not encouraged. But it’s a fine line between pushover and wimp, assertiveness and bullying, ‘referring upwards’ and tell-tale.

The reality when they are playing with each other at home is that they damn well fight back. 4yo is patient with his little bro, he’s a thoughtful sensitive soul, but even he can get to the point of sheer frustration and lash out. In fact, he’s been experimenting with violence: totally unprovoked, he smacked his little bro in the face; on a long car journey, he lost his cool and threw a ball into Rich’s face. These incidents happen when he’s exhausted, and he immediately runs to hide, crying with embarrassment. He knows it’s not acceptable, but it’s happened before he could stop himself. Soon after our second was born, I hosted a massive play date (yup, don’t know what I was thinking either). Towards the end, the elder threw a train and whacked another boy on the forehead leaving a mark. Shocked and exhausted, I burst into tears, it was so out of character for him and it still is – at least, so I hope and still tell myself.

2yo picks up on the rough and tumble he sees with the older kids, he’s always been more physical and less afraid of getting into trouble. He pushes out his tongue when he is doing something he knows to be naughty. With a ‘tell’ that obvious, he’d be a terrible poker player. His big bro sometimes comes running into the room in terror saying ‘he’s doing the tongue’.

People often react sympathetically to the possibility of us having three boys. All the usual ‘football team’ stereotypes come out. Having a girl would be a fascinating study of how differently society reacts (not to mention a check of our own instincts and responses to cultural pressure). But I don’t accept that their behaviour has anything to do with gender – other than the social expectations they contend with (nice blog here on this). For example, they couldn’t have taken a more different approach to the pregnancy bump. 4yo often comes over to give baby a kiss and follows up with: ‘did the baby like it?’.

20130604-164425.jpg 2yo on the other hand prefers to drum my rounded belly. The other day, he brought over a crying doll with sincere concern. When it stopped crying, without a pause, he smacked it hard on the ground, then looked up with the same worried expression: ‘baby crying again’.

They’ve recently moved into the same room with bunk beds and have suddenly become best friends. Pottering off to play together, sharing, inventing games. But night times have been horrific. We used to believe in the one week rule: whenever there was a major change, it takes a week to adjust. But we are now facing our third week of no sleep before 9. 4yo has been great at reining 2yo in, but sometimes even he gets caught up in the sheer joy of being naughty. We sat in the kitchen discussing the knife attack in Woolwich when I heard faint sniggers in the hall and had to chase them back into their beds.

On the third night of bunk heaven, we thought we had cracked it when we heard 4yo saying ‘well I’m going to sleep and if you want yoghurt tomorrow, you need to go to sleep’. This was followed by 20 minutes of silence before a little voice started calling. With my sternest face, I marched upstairs to find 2yo with a whole tub of sudocreme in his hair, bedding, sofa, bunk slats, teddies. He held out a sudocreme covered tissue and said ‘this tissue is a bit dirty’. Laughing at the outrageous naughtiness of it was not my finest mothering moment, but the scene of devastation was so shocking, I couldn’t help myself. I’ll take this kind of shenanigans any day over the ‘boys will be boys’ culture.


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