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Celebrating a three year old’s birthday this month? Congratulations!

By Salina Ventress     @salinaventress

This week my youngest turns three, and it feels monumental.

If, like me, you're a school leader or teacher and celebrate a 3 year old's birthday this March, congratulations; we made it.

We've all been part of a club we never asked to join, where 'lockdown baby' became everyday vocabulary, and there was no one to come round and pop the kettle on while we slept. As I slowly regain my sanity I wanted to take a moment to reflect, and to share my experience in the hope that it might resonate with others.

Entering lockdown on March 23rd 2020, I cuddled my 10 day old newborn while halving grapes for my 18 month old, and trying to pay attention to the question my 5 year old asked about why he was home on a Monday. This was not the maternity leave I had planned. The village it takes to raise a child lay silent; they had all been told to stay at home.

Fast forward a couple of months and the reality of lockdown with two under-2s, a reception age home-schooler and a husband that commuted to London from Essex throughout the pandemic, was beginning to turn into a nightmare.

Should I mention that 8 weeks later the toddler broke her arm?

For those of you who can relate, the lockdown reality for us was very different from the struggles in other households. Without a doubt, the timing, impact and consequences of having a lockdown maternity leave have reshaped us, both personally and professionally, but very little has been written about it. One unintended consequence, for example, was an overriding feeling of guilt that I wasn't in school with my peers and colleagues navigating the pandemic.

Instead I was home with Cosmic Yoga on loop and a crash course in Zoom baby groups.

Picture the scene.

My husband volunteered us to write the virtual quiz, (remember those?). I look back and laugh, but when the bonus question was how many nappies I'd changed in one day, my sense of identity as a leader was nowhere in sight. As an experienced school leader, this was not part of my carefully crafted maternity plan. Fast forward 3 years and I emerge from the toddler years a little battle scarred, but with a sense of hope for the future. If you can resonate with any of the above… I see you.

And sometimes being seen, and heard, helps a little….

I steer clear of advice for parents. However, for those of you in the depths of the newborn/toddler juggle, from someone who's been there, seen it all and got the scars to show for it, here are my thoughts on finding some balance, and also some thoughts on how we might improve the system from the inside out.

* In case you're wondering the answer to the quiz question was 17.

1. Accept your reality will change.

Forget what you thought having children would be like, and try and embrace how it feels now you have them. You might have had a really clear plan of what returning to work would look like and now feel differently about it. It's fine and normal – trust your instincts. Find someone who really gets it to talk it through.

2. Identify a person who 'gets it' who you can speak to without judgement.

I have no women in my extended family who maintained a career after having children. This definitely affected my thinking after my first child and it took longer to work out what felt right for me. Identify someone, or reach out to networks like #WomenEd or MTPT.

3. Comparison is the thief of joy.

Do not compare yourself to anyone, it never ends well.For example, you can't work the same way with multiple children as you can with one; you can't compare yourself to someone with extended family support for child care if you don't have the same to rely on; you can't compare your marking to someone who did it without having to listen to Cbeebies in the background, the list goes on… and on… and on… This is hard to do; picking your social media follows carefully helps! (Remember, Twitter is not reality 98% of the time).

4. Just say no sometimes.

Don't do things that don't make you feel good or add value to your life. The younger, less experienced parent in me wishes I'd accepted this years ago. 'No' is your new favourite word. For me, (controversially), it was KIT days. They didn't work for me, and I didn't do them.

5. Sleep deprivation is torture.

Some days the sleep deprivation might be so bad you can't function. Remember you're not alone. If this doesn't apply to you, but you have a parent of young children in your team, you can help by just showing empathy and recognition. Recognise how fortunate you are if you get 3 hours uninterrupted sleep, and go out of your way to make life easier for colleagues who have been woken up repeatedly by a toddler who has no idea what they want. Compounded and chronic sleep deprivation is a whole other story…

6. Recognise you can't work in the same way as colleagues without children.

Don't apologise for your children in a work context or feel as though you have to pretend they don't exist.Too many times I hear from women who feel like they have to work as though they aren't parents, and parent as though they don't work. Enough is enough. We need to normalise real life for working parents, warts and all. I would also argue this is even more important for male colleagues.

To any male colleagues reading this – please, if you are a school leader and have got there, in part, because your children's mother took on the lion's share of childcare in the early years, please make this common knowledge and publicly recognise it, or women aspiring to leadership will forever have completely unrealistic expectations of the role.

7. Work out what you need to succeed, and ask for it.

Everyone has a different version of what this means for them.It might be flexibility, it might be space or structures to work differently.Be solution focused, practical and realistic and work with your employer to make it happen. If they're not open to having a conversation, it's probably not the employer for you. Remember, what you do acts as an example to others. Oh, and don't let anyone tell you that senior leadership can't be flexible – flexibility does NOT mean you work less.

8. Be a role model for others.

In leadership, we reap what we sow. Creating family friendly work places creates a better future for all of us, as well as a sustainable solution to the retention crisis. If you're in a leadership position, use it to help change the system for the better and influence others. I will do this everyday for the rest of my career; I owe it to my own children.

Salina Ventress is a School Improvement Lead for Avanti Schools Trust.

She advocates for women in leadership and flexible, family friendly workplace practices.

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Monday, 27 March 2023

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