Tips for moth­ers re­turn­ing to work after ex­tended leave

Irish Independent - - Contents -

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.”


Elaine Rus­sell and her chil­dren, Laura and Grace

Grace Ann McGar­vey

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