Sally Halper, Social Sciences Content Development Manager at the British Library, writes:
On 20 October, Members of the European Parliament voted to extend the minimum maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks on full pay, a proposal which is being opposed by the UK Coalition Government. This move, coming on top of Government proposals in May to reform UK maternity leave so that once the early weeks of maternity and paternity leave have ended, parents will be able to share the overall leave allowance between them, has prompted renewed debate about the impact of maternity leave: whether we take too much or too little, whether fathers should spend more time with their children, and how best to support working mothers.
But one issue that’s often glossed over is the unvoiced assumption that time spent caring for a child adds nothing to the skills or ability of parents in their working life.
It’s almost as though the work and family spheres are totally separate.
This post tries to challenge that view, using my experience of six months’ maternity leave following the birth of my son in March 2011. I don’t have an axe to grind - my colleagues here at the British Library have been wholly supportive - but I think it might help others better understand the issues. It also flags up some useful articles, reports and discussions about maternity leave available online and from the British Library, and the things that help women on their return to work.
Time well spent
So, what skills and abilities have I developed over the last six months? Here are my top five:
Time management: Having only three hours between feeds, and an incredibly wriggly little person to get ready before you can go out anywhere, forces you to do a lot, fast. Non-priority tasks (such as flossing, and sleep) get dropped. The word ‘No’ got used a lot more. And I’ve learned not to feel guilty about it. I can see a difference in my approach at work already.
Multi-tasking: I thought I was quite good at this one before I had my son. But I can now respond to calls or answer emails, play with him, plan dinner and think about work simultaneously. My baby son’s idea of multi-tasking is drinking and farting at the same time, but we all have to start somewhere.
Diplomacy: I’ve definitely improved my ability to smile sweetly and say the right thing in the face of criticism or unsolicited (and often contradictory) advice, and then do what I think best. An essential skill.
Resilience: I’ve learned to manage on 5 hours’ sleep a night. To see the funny side of life more often. And to trust my own judgement.
Creativity: Entertaining a small child using nothing but yourself and assorted everyday objects gets you used to making the most of limited resources and makes you look at things differently – both useful skills in these times of cuts.
You may feel there are others, based on your own experience. I haven’t come across any studies looking at the question of whether parents have improved skills compared with their childless colleagues or their former, childless selves – do you know of any?
The further reading section below provides details of some useful resources about maternity leave and measures that seem to help women returning to work. I’ve annotated the entries to explain why they’ve been included.
Euro MPs back 20-week maternity leave plan. BBC News website, 20 October 2011. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11582112
Home Office Modern Workplaces Consultation. Home Office website, 16 May 2011, see http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/parental-leave and on the MBS Portal here.
Leighton, D. and Gregory, T. Reinventing the workplace. London, Demos, 2011
Research looking at the benefits of flexible working for employers and staff, including maternity policies, with case studies of current practice in UK firms including BT and John Lewis.
Maternity = leave? (Blog post dated August 2011)
Blog post by leading organisational psychologist Cary Cooper.
How to manage your maternity in the workplace: taking control of your career before and after maternity leave. May 2010. Practical article by Chris Clarke, a coach from Talking Talent, who specialise in coaching working mothers. http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2010/05/25/how-to-manage-your-maternity-in-the-workplace-taking-control-of-your-career-before-and-after-maternity-leave/
Kennett, M. There is life after maternity leave. Management Today, July 2009 p.70
The First Class Coach offers advice to one woman whose job scope has been reduced.
Stat of the month: maternal instincts. Management Today, October 2009 p.22
Reports that survey by the Department for Children, Schools & Families in 2009 found 33% of working mums would like to quit their job and stay at home to raise their children
Pearson, A. I don’t know how she does it. London, Vintage, 2011
This fictional account of one female London City trader combining work and motherhood provides useful insights into practical and psychological coping strategies that many working parents will recognise.
Read, E. People management: women in transition - returning to work after maternity leave. New Zealand Management, September 2008 pp.48-49
Reports the findings of a survey of New Zealand women in New Zealand about the measures that helped them in their return to work. It showed that a structured transition plan to assist in return to the workforce was important, as was the handover from the replacement who had been carrying out the role. Access to an independent confidante (eg, internal or external coach) and a 'buddy' (a woman who has recently returned to the organisation after having a child) were also identified as helpful.
The Centre for Longitudinal Studies website
This ESRC Resource Centre based at the Institution of Education in London houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study, which provide a huge range of data on effective parenting and work. They also run seminars to help you use the datasets.