Mind the Gap
Returning To Work After Kids
It’s not returning because everything’s changed and you can’t go back to something new. Admittedly I had a fair sized break from office work (five years and three children) and I went on to a different company in a new location but it was still a shock that everything about office life had changed. Advancements in processes are obvious and of course, I was expecting technological progress — as one does with each new day; but I wasn’t prepared for how I’d react to these changes and how others would react to me. Five years down the line and two workplaces later I realise that I have changed significantly too.
So much of parenting is uncharted territory which at times I found disorientating to the extent that I found myself shunning unknown experiences. Anything that could test my ability to retain information felt frightening and increasingly so with each new child. This was particularly applicable in my case to technology. Stereotype alert: like dads and dancing when it came to IT, as soon as I became a mum I transformed into my own mother trying to fathom how to tune-in her telly: I was an embarrassment. When I joined my current workplace, my well established Microsoft Office roots were pulled up and reseeded with “platforms” in “the cloud” — it was utterly disorientating. Slack, Airtable and Visme sounded as unfamiliar as the current top 10 single downloads i.e. not for parents. Since having children I’d crossed the threshold to “old”. I was ticking the next age bracket box — depressing in itself — add to that being the new question-asking colleague and the guilt which comes with using childcare: I felt vulnerable. I also now work for a particularly tech-savvy company with a high volume of the latest apps and kit to for me to get to grips with which pushed me way out of my comfort zone (hello parenthood!). I soon realised that their interest in technology and constant process of iteration made them brilliant employers. They welcomed my lack of affiliation to technology it was actually helpful to their user testing. And of course I got up to speed soon enough, parenthood is a great training ground for honing the ability to just crack on. I could’ve bought a book, but it turns out I just need the Blinkist app and 15 mins to myself, mind you, parenthood’s not so conducive to alone-time.
There aren’t many part-time senior roles out there so my first paid job after childbirth was less senior than the role I’d had previously. Combined with advancements in technology and business processes and trends this meant I had to adjust quickly from being the person with the knowledge to the question asker. It was hard. I’d worked up to a certain level and was used to not only being called upon for my opinion and input but I was also used to my contribution being valued and my advice being actioned. Suddenly it seemed there were areas of my industry (marketing) that I knew nothing about and plenty people half my age that did. Parenthood is a reflection of that situation but I still had to teach myself to brave it. I was open and upfront and asked questions — it was awkward sometimes but it worked. Once I’d stopped underestimating the value of my extensive experience, I realised it gave me an advantage rather than made me irrelevant. Conversations then became an exchange of knowledge rather than simply training sessions. Things generally change for the better and so I saw the changes I encountered as improvements presenting me with opportunities to progress my career rather than obstacles which could hinder it.
Make Work Work
The time I spent out of an office helped me to clarify my priorities and how I want to spend my time at work and beyond. There is essentially less time for me to dedicate to a career but I still want/need one. I now know I perform best when I’m engaged in work I’m interested in and inspired by but I understand why some people (as I did when I initially started looking for a paid role) may welcome more monotonous work for the simple pleasure of less onus of responsibility and to make fewer decisions. I wanted to be an employee, not a freelancer (no time for seeking work and I relied on a steady wage). I discovered my (now current) employers (architects Millar + Howard Workshop) wanted someone with experience and knowledge but had limited funds. Each additional employee for a small business has a big impact on the team dynamic and finances so they have much to risk. Millar + Howard Workshop approached my position fulfillment differently by flipping it on its head and deciding to prioritise the outcomes of the work they wanted done rather than how, where and when it should be carried out. Their agile approach meant they were prepared to compromise on the hours in the office in return for expertise. Together we’ve made it work for all of us. My employer gets a committed, knowledgeable member of the team while I have the opportunity to contribute to interesting work yet still have the satisfaction of participating in the lives of my family. There is obviously juggling but I’ve realised what makes this different to any other role I’ve had is the high levels of trust and effective communications between us all. I get the work done. It may be at home at midnight but that is genuinely seen as irrelevant by my employers. In return for the trust and flexible approach, they have a dedicated, productive, streamlined employer. It’s a grown-up arrangement but it works and makes ticking that next age bracket box totally worth it.
Enjoy The Ride
I found it daunting re-entering the world of paid work but so much of my anxiety was based around misconceptions of my own ability. Questioning whether I still had what it took tilted with convincing others I still did was scary. Seeing the value in the lessons learned from parenting seemed ridiculous at the time but really it’s what it’s all about — being self-confident in the achievements of parenthood and not apologetic was my biggest hurdle. I’m over it now.
I’ve gained many skills since becoming a parent: tolerance, focus and the ability to constantly prioritise and re-prioritise being just three. It’s only recently occurred to me that these skills should feature on my CV. Instead of “career gap” I now have a list all the attributes I gained during that time because they’re relevant and valuable to any future employer. They could also set me apart from other candidates who’ve not had the opportunity to gain those skills yet…
Parents who’ve taken “time off” (ha, ha) shouldn’t be minding the gap — we should be sign-posting it. We’re are part of a new workforce and we have a responsibility to others to demonstrate how it can really truly work and work well for everyone after you have children. All those now back at work are trailblazers for a generation unaware of the realities of having a life after children. It’s not so much about having it all but finding a way, together, of working and living in tandem.