Friday, 8 November 2013

Working Mums (and a Dad)

Although I read with interest Gillian Tett’s review of three books offering successful women’s tips on being more successful, I probably will not order the books. I’m less interested in how to be more successful in the workplace and more interested in how to get into work in the first place and I feel that these women may not have much to say about that.

Pic from Naomi Wolf''s 
savage review.
I did think about reading Melissa Benn’s new book. I saw her interviewed on Meet the Author. I was watching with my lip curled, prepared to be scornful at yet another successful woman telling women who haven’t got her advantages how to succeed. Nick Higham asked for her top tip for women who want to succeed, and she said something which made me stop and think. She said, Don’t ask what you can do for people, ask what they can do for you.

There probably are a number of factors which mean that to the puzzlement of my friends, I can have a PhD; extensive, broad and highly praised teaching and research experience; publications and still not be able to get into a post. One major factor was graduating into the Thatcher era. Like those graduating now, I faced a lifetime of catch-up in the job market. Inevitably some of us never managed to catch up.

Some of my (younger) friends are getting back into the job market. I find it much easier to see where they are hitting barriers than to work things out from my own ‘frog’s perspective’ (as Nietzsche calls it). I have a less panic-stricken reaction to how they are doing, and can see where I too might be able to change things to make myself more employable.

One friend from a working class background is a single mum who recently had to start signing on. It was a bit disconcerting to see the rigorous procedures she had to go through just to apply for jobs in supermarkets but I was confident she would soon get work, since she’s bright, capable and a good laugh. I was starting to puzzle about the failure of supermarket managers to spot her potential when a jobs advisor let slip the problem. She is restricted as to the hours she can work because she wants to be able to pick up her daughter from school each evening. 

Coloured overlays from The Dyslexia Shop
OK, so that’s easy! she can ask me or one of her other friends to pitch in. I’m happy to take her daughter home and give her a bit of extra help, since I can see that would give a bright child (NB my friend and her daughter both have dyslexia) a boost. But no, my friend is reluctant to ask for help from one of the many friends who’ve offered to take her daughter. (Actually I have simplified her situation for the purposes of my argument, it's not quite that easy when you are a single mum on benefits :rolleyes:.)

I know that I am the same. I have several children round after school and during the holidays but I’m really slow about asking other mums to take Piglet in return.

OK, OK, LOL, Melissa Benn wins. We should ask more of each other, us busy mums. We could easily swap our piglets. I ought to look for full time jobs as secure in the knowledge that my friend would step in to take Piglet an evening or two a week, as I am that I would take her child if she got into work. (And I actually do have an excellent childminder in the wings whom Piglet used to go to and whom she could go back to if I manage to get a full-time post.)

Another friend who has a professional qualification has gone back part time. She was working in a friendly private practice and in order to advance in her career, she needed to get back into the public services. She took on a low grade position with the promise of getting into a proper post as soon as one became available but she’s still bumping along at her low grade. She suspects she may be disregarded because she’s working part-time – there are no other part-timers in her team. I think she is sensible in deciding to have a word with her manager (I too recently had a chat with my manager to make clear how serious I am about picking up more work), although I also think she should bear in mind that it won’t be long before she can up her hours and overcome any slow-down in her career development which might be due to the part-time mum syndrome. She has two children, one a little younger than Piglet, it will be a couple of years then they’ll be in secondary education when they can be trusted to go to after school activities, get themselves home, pick a snack out of the cupboard themselves and start their homework. (Or am I being overly optimistic here, LOL.) 
My third friend has gone back full time. She is a high grade professional and the costs of getting back into her full time post nearly outweigh her earnings while she gets herself re-established. She finds she is struggling with what is new and cool in her field and sometimes has terrible confidence crises when she knows she hasn’t achieved to the astronomical standards she expects of herself. She has put into place an excellent system of after school activities and although she mainly gives her husband a quick boot up the bum to pick up their children if she is not available to do so, she also calls on two mothers-in-law and me if he really isn't able to do it. (My help mainly consists of dropping her an occasional text to say: Packed lunch needed tomorrow, because I know what it feels like to remember these things at 8.30 am when there is nothing but a piece of cheese in the fridge which is only there because the kids wouldn’t eat it in the first place.)

As a counter-balance I also have a Dad friend who wants to get back into work. He applied for training in one of the professions but has struggled to get onto the course. The first refusal was a shock; he seems ideally suited for the work he wants to go into. I can see, though, how he doesn’t fit neatly in the box. When there are a score of bright upcoming younger people clammering for places, the risk factors of an older parent (not even the traditionally female parent who has not been in work for a few years), probably just don’t seem worth it.

I wonder too whether he does what I suspect I do. I know I am overqualified and I can sometimes be casual to the point of appearing arrogant about jobs I’m trying to get into. I get so horribly excited about the chance to talk about my work, LOL. An interview is like a trip to the funfair for my brain. If I'm not careful, I end up being flippant because I'm cracking jokes in an anxious attempt to obscure my excessive experience.

As an example, I went to one job interview where they asked about my approach to equal opportunities. They probably only wanted me to say I had taught many women, people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities and understood the barriers they face. Unfortunately I am not only a woman from an ethnic minority background and of a minority sexuality, I am a postmodern feminist who has an advanced theoretical understanding of my subject position. I have done extensive research and teaching on equalities and diversity, including in education. I'm afraid I sketched out a grand plan for the development of an institutional equalities policy along the lines of gender mainstreaming, when all they wanted was for me to assure them I would not be mean to anyone. 
Making a decision to go back to work full time with kids in the house is a tough one. On the one hand, I really need the extra income not just for myself but to keep Piglet in winter boots and school trips. On the other hand, she isn’t quite old enough to come home alone and won’t be for a couple of years. I do want to be on hand to make sure she keeps up with her homework. And in fact I really like the baking and making that we do together - when there isn’t football and karate and science club. I like spending time with kids this age so much that I sometimes have my friends’ kids round without Piglet even being there so we can do fun stuff together. Probably I ought to set up some sort of older-child-care business but I am rubbish at business and it would take all the spontaneous fun out of the thing.

While waiting for the Revolution (when the contributions of women to family and therefore social happiness will finally be recognised and the economy geared to part-time work so we can continue to do this effectively), I keep trying to steer a middle path between going back to work and spending time with Piggles. I have had a set of small contracts over the years, on which I’ve delivered well, and my argument is that if I could get three or four of these at once instead of just one, I would have flexible well-paid work not too far below my qualifications and experience. I could do work I enjoy and also enjoy activities with Piglet in a style to which I would like us to become accustomed.
From Midland Ladders

Working part-time often means struggling to get the right amount of work to make it worthwhile and can mean being treated as someone content to sit on a lowly rung on the career ladder. Going back to working full-time can mean a period of anxiety while new patterns of sharing domestic tasks are established, and while you get the firm grip you imagine you used to have on your profession.

I suppose these are the tips I would pick out from considering how my friends and I are doing:
  • Don’t hesitate to ask people to do something to help out which will enable you to get back into work (they can always say no and they might like doing it). Weigh up in your mind how many afternoons a week you need to sacrifice with the little piglets and make a plan accordingly.
  • You may be an overqualified and/or unconventional candidate and this might obscure the positives you bring to an interview. Think about how to present so that you best match the expectations of interviewers and get selected over younger upcoming candidates. If you can, pick a line of work that not only suits you, also in which there are some people like you being employed rather than suited men or young graduates (this might be as a stepping stone to the position you actually want).
  • Part-time work can keep your CV alive and studies show it’s much easier for people in work to get jobs, than for people who have been out of the job market for a while – even if they have more relevant qualifications and previous experience.
  • Tactfully remind your managers that you are in the business as a professional anticipating career development, not as a hobby to get light relief from your dusting and childcare responsibilities.
  • Look to the medium/long term, remember that it will not be long before the apparently insurmountable issue of childcare cover solves itself. Your piglet will not want to spend time with you making Halloween decorations and you may not want to see that much of its spotty little face either. 
  • Remember that there are costs to being in work as well as payment (appropriate clothing, equipment, office space, transport), especially in the first month(s). Again, look to the medium/long term. Don't hesitate to borrow to tide you through to better times. 
  • Make the main wage-earner in the household pay for a cleaner. (Good luck with that one! LOL.)
Ahhhh, time to catch up on 
my sleep .... I mean 
job applications!
What I would like to read, rather than the individual reflections of individual successful women, would be the result of a longitudinal qualitative and quantitative social science study, looking at how parents get back into work and what best helps them find balance in caring for families and managing gainful employment. I can see from my own experience that when Piglet was a tiny little piglet, I ought to have gone right down the gears in expecting to carry on careering around the workplace. This year she suddenly started going to many more after school activities, giving me a lot more time in which to work on job applications. Rather than being lectured by high-flying women in the business world, it would be helpful to see if my experience is shared by other women at this stage of parenting and what is likely to come next in terms of caring demands and free time opportunities.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Not quite sure what that comment had to do with parents getting back into work, so I took it down. :)

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