Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

It’s time to stop keeping mum about this raw deal

Mothers, such as the Duchess of Cambridge, are 'often becoming increasingly empathetic, thoughtful and imaginative people.'
Mothers, such as the Duchess of Cambridge, are 'often becoming increasingly empathetic, thoughtful and imaginative people.'

European law might disagree, but recent surveys of working mums suggest that, alongside sleep, solitude, free time and stress-free use of public transport, career ambition is thwarted when motherhood comes along.

Of course this used to be a given; women bore children, thus women changed nappies, sterilised milk, made doctors’ appointments, and spent three years of their outdoors life glued to |buggies.

Only the odd lucky low-shelf theft (my own best get; three pairs of Debenhams' control pants) from the opportunistic kleptomaniac they ushered around recompensed for those years of high-alert fatigue, a condition which could only be re-created by men if they spent their days on a diet juxtaposing Valium and cocaine.

The deal was simple; fathers carried on up the career ladder and mothers sat it out. Often for the rest of their lives.

In the last couple of decades however, women have been told that having a baby needn't mean re-setting their brains for the role of housebound carer and erasing all memory of the working person they once were. Successive governments have promised that once we've taken our maternity leave we can return to full-time work as if we never left.

For women banking on such guarantees, the recent survey revealing almost half of return-to-work mothers claim they were overlooked for promotion, more than a third had their responsibilities reduced and almost a fifth were demoted will make scary reading.

As the Government keeps assuring us, such discrimination is unlawful. But since that same government changed the law so that it now costs around £1,200 to take your employer to court, the chances of new mothers being able to afford to do anything about being disregarded, disrespected, and discarded by their bosses are vastly reduced.

There are those who will say women shouldn't have children if they're not willing to make sacrifices for them. I agree. And I think the same should go for men.

Personally, I felt an intoxicating, physical bond with my baby — some women get this right away, some not until later, some not at all; it's a matter of science, not morality or love — and had no desire to leave her side during the first year.

After that however, I worried about my brain going to mush and moved back into part-time work. To accommodate me, my husband had to make some changes to his own work schedule, which probably weren't ideal, but seemed fair. I've always had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about fairness.

I was quickly struck by the lack of flexibility among work colleagues who either didn't have children, or whose children were beyond an age which might involve a panicky call from a nursery, accompaniment to the dentist or bedside attendance when sick.

Northern Ireland is a society which talks a lot about mothers' responsibilities regarding their children, but in my experience, there's little sympathy or support when these responsibilities actually impact on real life. Eyes are rolled, sarcastic comments about commitment and reliability do the office rounds. I saw one mother of a special needs child virtually frozen out of her job, as she struggled to balance her job and an above-average amount of emergency calls from his school. Nice.

The irony is that, while mothers are doing their bit to raise the next generation of tax payers, employers and carers, they're often becoming increasingly empathetic, thoughtful and imaginative people themselves.

Which makes them unique and rather worthwhile employees. Now there's a crazy thought.

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