Maybe having kids was good for my career?

A couple of months ago I saw a tweet I can’t find now from a female business leader that said something along the lines of, “a women’s…

Maybe having kids was good for my career?

A couple of months ago I saw a tweet I can’t find now from a female business leader that said something along the lines of, “a women’s career trajectory will pause as they become mothers and that’s ok.” It wasn’t a slight on women; It was intended to give them permission to let go of the guilt of not caring as much about their jobs anymore. I think this is a really important message as Mothers have enough to feel guilty about without worrying about a job.

And yet, this didn’t match with my experience at all.

I actually felt I gained a lot of career momentum after my first child was born in 2015. I’m certainly not a high level leader or anything, but I did get a few promotions and found motivation and confidence I didn’t know I had. So I want to bring a new narrative into that conversation: Maybe having a baby will be a boost to your career. Maybe it won’t. Both are ok.

I’ve thought about this a lot and why this might be. I’ve basically settled on four main reasons for this.

But first — a disclaimer. I support the choices of all women, whether it’s working in or out of the home, choosing to have children or not. I don’t want to portray having kids, or having a job, and the most virtuous or valuable way to live your life. It’s just the life experience that I have, which I am choosing to share.

Reason 1- Childcare was so expensive that I had no choice but to hustle.

My first child was born in London UK and the cost of childcare was shocking — almost the same as our rent. Our rent in London.

After subtracting childcare and other expenses from my salary, we were only £100–£200 better off each month. It was hardly worth it, and yet my partner and I were struggling so much financially that even an extra 100 made a difference. So after my maternity leave, I had one mission in mind: To move up pay bands.

This meant a relentless focus on proving my value, taking on more responsibility, collecting evidence of impressive work that could convince leaders that I was capable of taking the next level up. And I had to do all of this before signing off at 4pm to make the nursery pickup.

It worked: I got two promotions within 12 months, and the work I did to prove my worth and build my own confidence has served me well since. This didn’t “solve” our finances, it just gave us more breathing room.

I want to add here: I feel really uncomfortable with perpetuating the idea that “hustle” is good and underpaying people makes them more productive. It shouldn’t be like this. Women shouldn’t feel forced out of the workforce. This inequity has ignited a feminist, anti capitalist fury that has fuelled a fire in me ever since.

2 — I got better at figuring out how to deliver value and impact

Because of nursery pickup times and long London commutes, I always had to leave at exactly 4pm. This meant I was in earlier than everyone else, and left earlier too.

At Government Digital Service, where I worked, many of my colleagues preferred to work 10–6, so there were many times that I felt like I had to duck out of a conversation was just getting going, or missed out on a team bonding session at the pub. So in the hours that I was there, I tried to make up for it by being extra impressive, extra on it, extra helpful.

Again, I don’t want to give the impression that anyone should have to do this. In an ideal world we would all respect and find ways to work around people’s different working hours, and it wouldn’t matter if someone was late or early or whatever. But because I had a hard stop every day, and I was in a hustle mindset, I really had to make the most of the hours I was there. I had to prioritize the things with the most impact, I had to relentlessly deliver value.

3— My perspective on work changed

After I came back from maternity leave, work stopped feeling like the hardest part of the day, and started to feel like a break from my much harder job at home.

I love my children, and I love being a mum, but the days when I don’t have childcare are the most challenging and exhausting days of the week. I don’t feel guilty saying that; for me it’s just a fact.

Work felt — and still feels — like a break: I can think and talk about interesting ideas, I can drink my coffee while it’s still warm, listen to music I wanted to listen to, go for a walk when I need fresh air without asking anyone for permission. My work and my parenting both come with a lot of responsibility, but the stakes aren’t as high at work. I started to feel grateful for the ability to go to work, and for having a job I like (on most days.)

4 — My perspective on the world changed

Maternity leave is not a break. It’s hard and lonely and filled with never ending work yet still feeling like you’re achieving nothing.

My previous life had been filled with friends and pubs and music festivals and exploring the city and the world. Most of the things I cherished doing went away after my daughter was born. I’m not sad about it but it was an adjustment.

My life after baby was busy, but bored busy. Filled with mundane details and long stretches of trying to fill space. I stopped listening to music and instead started listening to podcasts on social justice as I walked my tiny baby around the neighbourhood. I felt (and still feel) lonely, but also too overwhelmed to do anything about it.

I started to crave ideas and discussions and human stories. I started to look at the world with a different lens.

My daughter was born during the Syrian migrant crisis, when parents were risking their lives to get their children to a better life, and we were witnessing moments when the children didn’t make it. These horrors, unimaginable to anyone, felt even more visceral to me as I rocked my new baby to sleep. I started to pay more attention to the injustices of the world than I had before, and I started to become really angry.

I won’t pretend that I am solving all of the important problems of the world in my job, but I am playing a very small part moving the needle on better public services for people. And that felt much more urgent and important after having a child. It fired me up and made me care more than I ever had.

A lot of other things helped too…

When I returned to work, I had a series of managers (Olivia, Luke, Lorna, Angela) and colleagues (too many to name but Sam and Jeba especially) who really made me feel supported and safe and valued. My confidence grew immensely because of working with these people. If you have someone new or returning on your team, be like them.

And, maybe this career momentum would have happened without having children. It could have just been a by-product of age and experience. We’ll never know.

I never really know how to end these things so here’s a photo of the baby that changed everything (she’s 7 now!!!!), taken on the day I went back to work after maternity leave: