‘Concentrate on Being a Mum’

by Jo Pellereau @PhysicsJo

I am blessed to have two wonderful children, both the result of gruelling IVF procedures and following pregnancies dotted with the stress of hyperemesis, blood loss and a bout of post natal depression following the birth of my second child. The impact on my wellbeing and the toll it took at work is my primary motivation for undertaking a PhD in Education looking at fertility issues and how schools handle them.

Despite these challenges, at no point in the past almost 4 years have I considered my career to be over or even paused. It has taken a different direction than I thought, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have importance to me or to my sense of identity. In fact in many ways my commitment to education has been increased by my new identity as a mother.

Why then, multiple times in the last years, have I heard the words:

‘Concentrate on being a mum, don’t worry about work’?

Whilst every time this phrase has been uttered it has been by well meaning individuals, I want to argue these statements are, in fact, hurtful, and unintentionally can cause harm to someone’s sense of worth and have them question their ability. There is a vast ‘culture shock’ that happens when you have a child. It’s like a resetting of your brain, your priorities and your body which is physically punished. Likewise, for adoption there is a fundamental life change but this time without the 9 months physical preparation. Bringing a child home is hard, whatever the circumstances.

Retaining a sense of self in the midst of learning to parent, especially in the first years, is a challenge. Your whole life has been flipped, and no longer is there just you and perhaps a partner to worry about. Until you become a parent a lot of your self-identity is found in your work. It certainly was for me. I was incredibly committed to the extracurricular life of the school, I worked long and hard and I never gave anything less than 110%. I was a HoD within 2 years and planned for continued trajectory along the traditional lines. Then I had a child. Immediately, along with the usual congratulations, were the statements from all around ‘don’t worry about your department’, ‘it’s not your problem just enjoy being a mum’, ‘we’ll manage this you focus on baby and Netflix’.

After 4 years of utter commitment to the school I was cast adrift. No inclusion, no support and no empathy towards the adrift feeling you can have when you bring home your baby. Not because people were unkind, the very opposite. They wanted to protect me, but in actual fact it had the opposite effect. It added to my sense of insufficiency and loss of self-identity.

This underlying assumption that women want to ‘focus on their babies’ is damaging. Damaging to them and damaging to the profession. It goes hand in hand with a lack of availability of flexible leadership responsibilities. At the #WomenEd global unconference recently,there has been discussion around why so few headteachers are female when they make up a larger proportion of the school workforce. I don’t think we need to look far to see why. Women are expected to take a step back, they are expected to ‘just be a mum’ and leave school aside. This lack of support and involvement means return after maternity can be incredibly hard and leave mothers feeling out of their depth. We should be encouraging women to continue to engage with appropriate CPD and to at least be informed of in-school policies and department issues through their maternity IF it is something they wish to do. At no point would I advocate for forcing someone to do this, in fact, it’s illegal, but we MUST get better at allowing it if it is something they wish to do.

My daughter is now 11 months old and I returned from my second maternity leave into school in September, going part time. Going part time has meant I had to relinquish my role as HoD and STEM Coordinator as these are not able to be done on 0.6 at my school. I haven’t argued that decision – every school has its own make up and situation, and my headteacher took the time to consider my request thoughtfully. I understand why it had to be this way at this time.

But my wish is that flexible leadership should be the norm; it has such benefits. You retain the skills and experience of the member of staff; if you have a job share even better – you get two people working together to fulfill a role. 

I guarantee you’ll get more out of that than one full time leader; you show your support for women who want to work but also have time for their families; you encourage respect from students and them to realise that it is ok to have balance. There are few downsides and a whole lot to gain.

So what can we do practically?

School Leaders

  1. Try and enable flexible working and especially flexible leadership where possible. Consider job-shares and co-leadership roles from TLR all the way to headship. Two brains are better than one – you will get more out of them. Additionally, just because someone wants to lead on 0.8 or 0.6 doesn’t mean you will get a worse standard from them, in fact you will almost certainly get more out of them by giving them the opportunity for a better work-life balance. The starting point should be ‘yes’ and try to make it work. Actively advertise with flexibility, part time and job-share welcomed.

  2. Let your staff on maternity, adoption and shared parental leave have the opportunity to be involved. Keep them informed by emails. If there are any decisions related to their responsibilities ask them if they want to be involved using a KIT day. Invite them in for INSET. Check in on them and make sure they are kept in the loop. You can agree how much or how little to do this with that staff member. If they want to be involved – let them be and PLEASE don’t tell them they need to stay at home and look after the baby.

  3. Support CPD that is challenging and individualised. This is especially important through a maternity leave period. Sign up your school for MTPT Project membership. Invest in your staff on leave and let them lead the direction. Pay for their CPD the way you would a member of staff in school.

Everyone else

  1. Don’t criticise or judge another person’s decision. Parenting and work-life balance is such a personal thing. Never ever add to ‘mum guilt’ or the guilt we might feel for not being able to stay late/attend that evening event etc. Be kind. Never ever tell a woman ‘focus on your kids and forget your career for now’. Perhaps they are getting the balance wrong in your eyes. But it’s none of your business and they and their family need to make those decisions. The one exception to this is if you are ASKED to provide a viewpoint or you have a coaching relationship with this person.

  2. Consider whether you want to job-share with someone too. Finding the right person to do this with is important. Perhaps that person is you. You can always suggest this to your colleague if you know they are looking at part-time. This is true for early career teachers. What an opportunity for mentoring to have a less experienced member of department take on 0.2 or 0.4 of a TLR and be supported by the more experienced member of staff – both could gain so much from this!

  3. Keep in touch with your colleagues on parental leave! They are isolated right now. You can fill them in ‘informally’. Ask if they fancy a cuppa. Text them with the staff room gossip. Help them feel connected!

For me, I am now not on the traditional leadership track. I have undertaken coaching through the MTPTProject which has led to my refocusing my career in another direction. In some ways I found this hard to accept, and it would be a lie if I said there weren’t times I find it hard at work no longer having any oversight or control. But I am excited for my new opportunities and look forward to seeing where it can lead. I am working to put aside ‘mum guilt’ and I am learning to listen to my own mind and conscience.

One thing I am certain of? I will be continuing with my professional development AND being a great mum!

 

#WomenEd and partners are curating case studies outlining the benefits of flexible working practices. Have a look and contact the authors to pick their brains and learn what worked for them: https://chartered.college/flexible-working/

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