THE LONG WAY BACK
Tips for mothers returning to work after extended leave
What mother hasn’t faced her first day back at work questioning herself? As well as wondering about how things are at home, you wonder if things have moved on or changed in work since you’ve been gone. And if you’ve been out of the workplace for a few years, the prospect of returning can trigger a crisis of confidence that can be overwhelming.
After Elaine Russell swapped the boardroom for the school gates in 2016, she saw at first hand that women who wanted to return to work often felt like they were staring over the edge of a cliff in confidence terms. After leaving her high-powered job as chief executive of Tesco Mobile, Elaine began to see that the gap between wanting to get back to work and actually taking the leap of faith to get back into the workplace is often a huge chasm for many women, with confidence at the heart of it.
“Women who’ve been out of work for an extended period can lose that professional confidence. You can be confident in other areas of your life and be doing lots of things but it can be daunting to think about going back to work,” says Elaine, who is mum to Laura (eight) and Grace (one).
Elaine’s departure from her job coincided with her finding she was expecting her second child and also with her desire to do something different. Having done some coaching work, Elaine came across a UK-based organisation called Women Returners and with her business background and coaching skills, she persuaded them to extend the model to this country.
In Britain, Women Returners works on the basis of partnering with businesses to offer paid ‘returnships’ to women in the professional sector. Global investment company Fidelity International was the first to sign up to Women Returners in Ireland and Elaine is working hard to bring other companies to the table.
As well as providing tips and advice for women who want to return to work, Women Returners also offers coaching to women who want to prepare themselves for the workplace after a period of absence.
Some of the things that women often need most help with are what Elaine calls universal things like being able to articulate your strengths and explaining them to a potential employer.
She suggests that an exercise women can do is simply to ask friends and family to provide a list of the things they are best at, or how they make a good contribution to the lives of their friends and family.
“It’s often easier to ask in an email than in person. We all improve with positive reinforcement and we are all really bad at calling out our strengths. This is such a useful exercise to start with,” she says.
When Grace Ann McGarvey from Kilmacrennan in Co Donegal went through a marriage separation, she spent a year at home out of work. Previously she’d worked in a communications business but says that during her year out she had just lost confidence in herself.
Financial necessity meant that not working wasn’t an option but, as a single parent, she knew that flexibility would also be key to any new working life. She had earlier completed a mentoring, leadership, management and business coaching course at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, which pointed her in the direction of helping other people in business.
Grace Ann heard about a back-to-work scheme run by the Donegal Local Development Company that helped people set up their own small business. She says this allowed her to build her profile while being able to pay the bills and keep her head above water.
Six years down the line, her business, Grace Ann Consultancy, is thriving. She says having a good network around her allowed her to build her PR and online marketing business to make sure she could provide for her children, Maurice (19), Hannah (17) and Luke (14).
“At the time it was very easy for something to knock my confidence. At the same time, my confidence did build up. Only for my family and friends and business support networks, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them — and I owe every single one of them an awful lot,” says Grace Ann.
Now Grace Ann has come full circle and has been brought in by enterprise agencies to act as a mentor to other start-ups. “It gives me confidence to see others succeeding. My advice to people getting back to work would be to get a mentor. That gives you the confidence to build a business. The people I mentor can relate to me because I’ve been through it myself and have been where they have been,” she says. “I’m not making a fortune but I’m looking after my kids and paying the bills.
“It’s not all about the money. I get a lot of personal satisfaction in seeing other people succeed too.”
Swedish-born Elin Lawless, an archaeologist by profession, works with her husband, Brian, in the family’s plaster mouldings company in Co Carlow. When their baby daughter, Alex, was born, Elin and Brian were living in Sweden but decided to make the move to Ireland.
After taking 15 months out of work when Alex was born, Elin joined the family business, learning on the job and doing everything from answering phones to the accounts — and she says she is really enjoying it.
In terms of confidence, she believes that having a baby and returning to work proves you have a greater capacity than ever before, as you have learned to take care of a human being. However, she says making things work takes discussion and flexibility. “If you are living with a partner, there are two of you. You are not the project manager in the family. It’s not up to you to make sure all the socks are matching, that the vaccinations are done. You are not doing it alone,” she says.
Lucy O’Reilly (46) from Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, has been looking for work since July. Despite not yet finding any, Lucy says she wouldn’t do anything differently and doesn’t regret taking time out of work to be at home with her children, Zac (15), Adam (11) and Sammy (nine).
A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Lucy worked in Paris organising events all over the world before her children came along. After moving back to Ireland in 2004, she kept busy doing volunteer work and did not, as she puts it, “retreat into the kitchen”.
In 2013 she went back to college to do creative multimedia with modules in web design and afterwards began doing freelance work. However, the breakdown of her marriage meant that a ‘proper job’ would have to be found and since July she says she’s been actively looking for full-time work. While Lucy says she’s still hopeful, her confidence has been somewhat dented by the fact that in interviews she’s been asked about her family circumstances, including her children’s ages.
“I’ve been asked things in interviews like how old are my children and what I would do if I was needed at 7 pm on a Thursday evening. I do get asked these questions. It’s a minefield,” says Lucy. “I won’t apologies for being a mother or for having children. I’m entitled to a career as much as anyone. It’s hard to generalise but if I’m going for a job of course I know I’ll have to get childcare. It’s a case of trust me to organise my life”. “I’m actively looking for work but it can be a bit soul destroying. In so many places you don’t even get an interview. I’m still confident about things. I feel like people need to take a chance on me – and yet I don’t feel like a risk. I’ve done so many things. I’ve organised events all over the world. I’ve done so much. I’m 46 and I still have another 20 years and more to work. There a a lot of jobs out there that I could do brilliantly.”
I’VE BEEN ASKED WHAT I WOULD DO IF I WAS NEEDED AT 7PM ON A THURSDAY EVENING. IT’S A MINEFIELD
Elaine Russell and her children, Laura and Grace
Grace Ann McGarvey