Working parents - "Perceptions need to change"

working mother and baby

Amie Caitlin shares her experience of being out of work and a mother.

"After being made redundant just days before my maternity leave began, it took me two years to find my way back into the world of work. 

During that time, I eventually stopped calling myself a stay-at-home mum. I had, until then, shied away from the word 'unemployed', ashamed of its connotations. But in reality, that's exactly what I was. 

Sadly, I am not alone in my experiences. In 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission estimated that 30,000 women lost their jobs each year as a result of being pregnant. In 2015, that figure had risen to 54,000. The Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination suggests the recession gave companies a smoke screen to hide behind to 'trim the fat' - that fat being pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.

It took me six months to realise the life of a stay-at-home mum wasn't for me. An experienced brand manager, I started advising for a start-up on their marketing strategy. I fitted the work into nap times and evenings, dabbling on my phone while my daughter gurgled on a blanket. The work kept me sane while listening to 'Sleeping Bunnies' on loop and I felt useful beyond motherhood. But I was paid in equity, which doesn't pay the bills. 

By my daughter's first birthday I was itching to return to the workplace. 

I threw myself into the job hunt. I trawled job listings and reached out to industry contacts while my daughter napped. After bedtime, I completed applications, wrote covering letters and prepped for interviews by preparing presentations, reading up on competitors and the wider industry. Looking for a job took up every spare childless moment I had. Housework ceased, I never cooked dinner and I felt I was failing as a mother - plonking my daughter in front of Cbeebies while I took a call from a recruiter or tried to get an application out on time.

Getting interviews wasn't a problem, but getting a job offer seemed impossible. I was told I had too little industry experience, or that someone else had more experience, or that I had too much experience. I was told I 'wouldn't be satisfied by the role,' or that the company had 'gone with the safer candidate'.

Eighteen months into what I was still - at that point - calling my 'extended maternity leave', I realised it wasn't just my experience or 'taking time out to look after my daughter' holding me back. It was potential employers' perceptions of me as a mother. 

They didn't see me as the bright professional I once was. I was 'just a mum'. They saw a woman with other priorities, other commitments and other drains on her resources. This became clear when one interviewer asked me outright if I had plans for more children, and another asked if my priorities had changed since having a baby. Friends said I should confront interviewers on these illegal questions, but I worried that would look like I was dodging questions. 

The pressures my partner felt as the sole breadwinner increased as the second year pushed on. Our relationship felt increasingly strained. We were exhausted, stressed, short-tempered, worried about money and sleep deprived. Meanwhile my self-esteem was waning with each round of rejection.

Eventually, we put our daughter, now 18 months old, in nursery a few days a week (my grandmother kindly helped us with the fees), meaning I had more than 40 minute intervals to work in. This also made attending interviews easier and took away the panic of finding ad hoc childcare, often at short notice.

It was around this time that I took ownership of the word 'unemployed'. It signaled intent and a desire for a sense of self beyond being 'Mummy'. For me, calling myself unemployed was the first step towards becoming a working mum.

This January, I was offered not one but two jobs. The relief was so utterly overwhelming I cried when the recruiter told me. 

I'm saddened and appalled by how many women have similar stories of their own. Many employers still need to recognise that parents are not second-class working citizens. Yes, our children are in the back of our minds and there will be times we need to stay home caring for them when they are unwell. But our children also make us driven and make us want to be the best we can be. I, for example, wanted to work to provide financially and be a role model for my daughter. 

Flexible working policies are improving nationwide and shared parental leave is a step in the right direction. However, reports in October 2015 suggested only 2% of British businesses had had requests for shared leave. Free courses to help parents get back up to scratch in their industry could help, or 'returnships' - short paid placements like those currently offered by the banking sector. But this isn't enough. Until perceptions change and every workplace considers parents equal employees, parents - and mothers in particular - risk hitting a glass ceiling."

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