I’ve been working since I was sixteen. I’ve also been a mother since I was sixteen, and there’s some correlation between the two. When I gave birth to my daughter I was faced with a stark choice: live on benefits or go out to work. This was in the days before child tax credits, and all childcare had to be paid for out of my basic pay as a trainee auditor. I still chose to work full time, even though some weeks I would have been better off on benefits.
I made a choice that has served me well over the years, to go out to work and leave my children in childcare. There’s still a certain amount of stigma about saying this out loud, and sometimes when I talk about it I hear a sharp intake of breath. It isn’t for everyone, and I fully respect mothers who choose to stay at home. I faced criticism through the years for my lifestyle choices, initially being accused of ‘farming out’ my children and my own mother told me, when I chose to live as a single-parent working mum, that ‘I’d better grow a pair’. I had no idea what she meant until I began to climb the career ladder and realised that all the political correctness around gender equality is left behind when you enter the workplace.
You can’t choose who you work with, and I have encountered some pretty nasty characters over the years. The male manager who asked me to stay behind and take a letter implying that I would be sacked if I left (whilst my daughter was the last one to be collected from day care) and then stood behind me and looked down my top. Or the female director who told me to close the door, then informed me that the reason I hadn’t got a promotion was because she ‘wasn’t sure that I wasn’t going to get knocked up again next week’. I’ve left more jobs than I can count through episodes such as these, but, as my subsequent marriage failed, I now had to provide for myself with, this time, three children.
Over the years, I’ve certainly toughened up and learned how to face these people head on. It was so difficult when you know that, at any moment, your child may need you and you have to leave the office whilst colleagues nodded and smirked. Instead of crumbling into the gooey mess of tears I often felt like when conflicted in this way, I face the challenge head on and made a decision. I made a ten point position statement for myself on what was acceptable to me. The first was that my children always came first and when they needed me and that I would leave the workplace guilt free, no matter what anyone threatened me with.
I found a group that worked for equality in the workplace and voluntarily contributed developing policy. Through this I helped companies develop complaint procedures and employment policy that was fair. Wearing this badge in the workplace is a warning to those who use gender to discriminate. I also took classes on assertiveness. This helped me to state my case clearly and not leave an evaluation wishing I had said something better.
There have been times when I have wondered if I was doing the right thing, chasing what other people considered a career, but what I considered a passion and a vocation. But I’ve enjoyed it and it’s made me the person I am today, happy and confident. Juggling my work-life balance was tricky at times, but now I’m out the other end and my children are grown up, all three of them have an excellent work ethic and I hope that my example went some way to make them the excellent professionals and competent parents they are to their own children.
My balls are still in the air today as I juggle my day job with consultancy and writing, as well as my ever growing family, but I’ve learned to manage it and part of the secret of success in business is ‘work hard, play hard’; manage your work-life balance with clarity and assertiveness and re-evaluate your options often. I always left an option open in my ten point plan to leave work if my children suffered in any way. I still use my ten point plan today and, more importantly, I respect the rights of my own employees to put their families first.