Is a career after children possible? Working women share their stories

4 Minute Read | Author: Amanda Phelan

Did you know employees with good work-life balance work 21 per cent harder than those who don’t? 

This finding − from a report by Executive Board representing 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies − will not be a surprise to the legions of working women forging successful careers after having children.

Key to achieving this balance is workplace flexibility, a benefit for both workers and employers.

Mother of four and editor-in-chief of UK Elle Lorraine Candy says employers who make the improvements will find they are "invaluable to your business”.

“Daily happiness is success for me, and the balance of family and career life − my family is the most successful thing I have ever achieved,” Ms Candy, below, recently told a working women forum.

 

Sydney-based Emma Walsh, founder of Parents@Work, agrees. “Smart companies are seeking to create a more agile work environment, allowing people to work on and off site.”

Ms Walsh, pictured top with her three children, set up her organisation 12 years ago to help the growing number of companies seeking to evolve and improve. As well as working with corporate clients, she helps mentor women back into employment.

“The boom in flexible, work-smart employment benefits everyone," Ms Walsh, 46, says. "We all come from families in one form or another.”

Women often step up for the role of carer in many forms, and employers need to understand this, says Ms Walsh, who has helped her mother through two bouts of cancer.

For HSBC marketing manager Helen Barrow, below, working for a company willing to listen and help achieve the best working environment is a blessing.

“I work a nine-day fortnight and having that flexibility is fantastic, it makes you want to work harder,” says Ms Barrow, 36, from Bronte in Sydney's eastern suburbs, who has two children under the age of five.

“And it’s a two-way street. If I’m needed on weekends or after hours for a big project I give it 100 per cent.”

                                                                                     

Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) reveals that planning during pregnancy for a return to work can be the difference between those who return to work and those who do not.

Ms Barrow agrees: "HSBC helped me negotiate my return to work during my second pregnancy and that was very important. It was very different from the previous company, where I worked with a smaller team so you dreaded telling them you were pregnant.”

Now, having an income, and a fulfilling job, helps her to be a better employee – and parent. “You need two incomes to live in Sydney these days,” she says. “And sometimes going to the office is the easier part of the day.”

Singer Lily Allen, who recently returned to the stage after four years off, would agree: ”I've had two kids, and as much as I love that, I'm never going to be the sort of person who sits at home all day playing with plastic toys," she says.

Other well-known mums, including Reese Witherspoon, have said their careers improved after having children.

The now 40-year-old actress had her first child, Ava, when she was 23, and full movie-stardom struck after she became a mother, with the film Legally Blonde in 2001. She credits her experience as a parent to bringing more depth to her roles.

However, while a growing number of working mothers are enjoying career success, there’s still plenty to be done in Australia, with research showing many employers have inadequate family friendly policies. Just 13.2 per cent of employers have a strategy for supporting carer responsibilities, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

But this is changing.

“When someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey I got that promotion and I’m able to do a good job flexibly’, that is a good moment,” says Parents@Work's Emma Walsh.

 

HOW TO THRIVE AS A WORKING PARENT

Tips to help smooth the way back to work after having a family.

Keep your skills up-to-date

During parental leave, many experience a lack of career self-confidence. Stay active in your field, even if you are not working. And keep up with developments and technical knowledge so you don’t get caught out. 

Ask for flexibility

Don't be worried about asking for flexible work, it's a perfectly acceptable and increasingly common practice: recent research indicates two-thirds of men consider flexible work an important factor when looking for a new job. And growing numbers of innovative employers are changing their approach to finding new talent, focusing more on output than time.

Sweeten the gap

There's a career gap in your CV? Why not ignore it and, instead of writing a chronological CV, create a skills-based one, emphasising your experience and qualities?

Get familiar with your new routine

It's bound to take a while to learn to balance your roles. The best way to make sure your new schedule will work is to do a couple of practice runs the week before you are due back at the office. And, if possible, arrange for childcare to start a week or so early so that you can try out the routine − and get used to parting with the children.

Ignore the cleaning 

One of the biggest complaints of working parents is exhaustion. And when you're overtired it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Your sleep needs should take priority over doing another load of laundry or cleaning up the kitchen.

Don't feel guilty

Know that there’s no scientific evidence that suggests that children are harmed when their parents work outside the home. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that a child who is emotionally well adjusted, well loved and cared for will thrive regardless of whether their mother (or father) works outside the home.