Returning to work as a solo mum
I used to pride myself on the fact that I wasn’t at all materialistic. This was until I had to review my options about returning to work following my maternity leave. It was at this moment that I had to question my beliefs and make some tough decisions.
For any mum, the return to work following maternity leave can be daunting, but for solo mums, there are two additional considerations:
- You alone are responsible for bringing the money in to pay the bills
- You alone are responsible do pick up / drop off / sort out childcare arrangements
These two things can add quite a lot of stress into the life of a solo mum. Now obviously everyone’s situation is different and some people may be in the lucky position where these points don’t apply. Maybe you have an income from somewhere else. Perhaps you have other people who will help with childcare. Ultimately, even in these cases, you probably still have the sole responsibility for making things work.
In my case the things that I needed to decide were:
- How long I could have off on maternity and therefore when to go back
- How many days a week I wanted to go back and would my company accommodate it
- Who was going to look after my daughter whilst I was at work
You might have other considerations, depending on your circumstances, but these were mine.
1) Length of maternity leave:
The first decision I had to make is how long to have off and therefore when to go back to work. Now this decision will be extremely different depending what country you are in. I’ve been discussing this point with some of my American clients and boy do they have it tough. The standard is to have 6 weeks off. 6 weeks?? I can’t even imagine how tough that must be. I’m not sure if anyone is fighting to change that. I really hope so as this would make being a mum so much harder. Especially if you’re doing it solo. Luckily in my situation I was entitled to a year off and a good portion of that was paid.
There were 3 main factors I used to make my decision of when to go back; finances, Daisy’s age and (possibly to some people a strange one, but important for me) the season! When I had run out of half pay and was living on savings I felt the anxiety kick in. I’m not the sort of person who is comfortable using my savings for day to day living. At this point I felt the need to get back and start earning again. Daisy was at an age when she could confidently sit up unaided and was just starting to crawl. For this reason I felt that she would be OK at nursery. She still seems super little, but before she could sit up on her own, I would have been more anxious.
Then possibly a more unusual point, but I had experienced one of the UK’s best summers on record and had enjoyed getting out and about, making the most of the sun. As winter started approaching it felt like an easier decision to make to go back to work.
2) Number of days to go back to:
In the UK, there’s lot’s of work happening to allow women to go back to work part time or in a flexible arrangement. Mother Pukka among others is a huge campaigner on Flex Appeal. This is providing support to companies about how to enable women to come back on a beneficial flexible arrangement. I’m extremely fortunate in this situation as my company is hugely supportive towards maternity returners. We have a policy of allowing women to come back to work on 4 days a week, whilst paying them for 5 days for the first 6 months. After the 6 months, you can review the situation and decide whether to go back up to full time, or to request the part time on a permanent basis, with the associated reduction in salary.
In my case, I’d also moved location from London to Manchester as I wanted to be closer to friends and family and have their additional support. I asked my company whether they would allow me to work remotely with some travel to London when required and to my delight they agreed. They honestly are a true example of supporting women back into the workplace. But I know I’m very lucky as many companies do not offer anything like these options.
I will still have to make the decision about whether to request a 4 day a week option (or less) once the 6 months comes to an end. This is where the materialism element comes in. I need to consider whether I am prepared to reduce my income and as a result the lifestyle I’m used to. There’s an element of necessity and an element of desire. Am I prepared to change my lifestyle to allow myself to survive on a lesser income?
Again, I know others may be in a different situation where this isn’t even an option. For me, once I had done my budget, I understood that I could physically survive on a 4 day a week salary, but I would need to significantly change my spending habits. It would be difficult to afford nice holidays, eating out, theatre trips (my total passion), baby sitters, new clothes for both my daughter and I. All things I could live without, but did I want to? That’s a question I will have to tackle in 6 months time.
It’s weighing that up against getting to spend an extra day with my daughter, something I am currently loving. Even as I’m writing this, I realise it is such a hard decision to make, as in essence what it feels like I am saying is that if I don’t request to remain on 4 days a week, I am choosing money over time with my daughter. Now that is definitely something that is going to cause me massive guilt.
I’m in a lucky position as my work is supportive and I can survive on less salary, therefore it’s more of a question of priorities. I have 6 months to figure it out and make a decision about what to do.
A few things that I am trying to live by when making my decisions:
- Don’t compare myself to anyone else
More and more lately I seem to be coming back to this theme of comparison. The more I compare myself to others, the more I get confused about what I think I ‘should’ be doing rather than what I want to be doing. I’ve recently come across Lucy Sheridan who does some amazing work on comparison, so if anyone else is struggling with this, check out her stuff. I’m really trying to focus on what is right for me, and trying to shake off any thoughts of what others have done and what they will think of me. Everyone is different. One person may prefer to stay at home, the other may prefer to go back to work. Neither is right or wrong, it’s personal preference and what suits you at the present time.
- Create a budget
I was telling myself I have to earn a certain amount of money, to survive. In reality I had no clue how much money I needed to earn as I hadn’t ever sat down to figure it all out in detail. I decided to rectify this by spending one evening ploughing through the figures and identifying what the bare minimum was that I needed to get by. That way I understand that anything over that figure is what I have to spend after the basics have been covered.
Having a real handle on the facts and figures can take away some of the anxiety and the unknown and can help to get it clear for you on what you can survive on. One of the online learning modules I’m creating in my new online course for solo mums is ‘understanding your finances’. Watch this space for that module to be launched.
A few friends have commented in the past that they’re in a similar situation to me as their husband works late most nights. This makes them feel like they are solo parenting. They forget that access to two incomes, will provide very different choices than when you are the only breadwinner.
- Ask for what I want and what I think is possible
Being bold about asking for what I wanted worked wonders for me. I asked for a remote working option and my company allowed me to do that. My philosophy is that it’s always worth asking the question. The worst you can hear is ‘no’. I’m not saying you’ll always get the outcome you want, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know.
- Plan my day to maximise the best use of time
I’ve figured out the best times to work, exercise, spend time with my daughter and do stuff for myself. There is time to fit everything in (as long as I don’t watch too much TV)
I try to pick up my daughter at 5pm, but then finish off any work I need to do when she is sleeping later on in the evening. I like to spend quality playing time in the morning as we are both early risers and it is uninterrupted time we can have before I start work. If I want to exercise, I take her to nursery a bit earlier and it allows me time to exercise before I start my day. I get over any guilt I feel by reassuring myself that I need to include time for myself in the week, and exercise is really important for my mental health.
- Decide on my priorities
Being really honest with myself about what was important to me was crucial when trying to decide the details of my return. I considered what I wanted from my career at this stage in my life. How many hours I wanted to be working, how much travel I was prepared to do, the level of stress I was prepared to take on, where I wanted to be located, what the minimum amount of income I needed was and how much money I wanted to enjoy life to the maximum. I weighed this up with how much time I wanted to spend with my daughter and that’s how I made my decisions about my return. It’s also what I’ll bear in mind when planning my next steps.
- Get my support network set up
Being a solo mum can mean that back up in an emergency can be tricky. Getting as many people in my network as possible who can help me has proved to be extremely handy. One tip I would share in this situation is to get back-up organised on your first back at work, just in case. I had asked my mum to stay at my house on my first day and was so relieved I’d planned this, as Daisy got an ear infection and couldn’t go to nursery. If I’d not had my mum around, my first day would have started in chaos. I hear it is quite common for this to happen, so it always pays to play it safe if you do have that option.
It’s also sensible to try to make friends with a few of the other parents at nursery, so you can help each other out with drop offs and pick ups if needed. It’s always good to have people in your network to call upon if needed.
- Embrace working time
Rather than feeling guilty about being at work (something I feel I should be, based on my comparison to others and how they feel), I’m trying to truly embrace some of the benefits that the world of work brings. Enjoying being dressed in work clothes (that might sound weird, but I love feeling ready for work in my work outfits), socialising and interacting with work colleagues, enjoying using my work brain and being creative.
The less time spent worrying about having to be back at work and the more time spent making the most of it, works wonders for me. Then I’m also able to truly embrace the time I have with my daughter. It’s only the second week of being back, but so far it’s going OK. Although I was dreading the thought of going back, the reality is nowhere near as bad. Working 4 days has definitely helped with this, as having that extra day to spend with Daisy is so great. I feel really lucky to have that option. I’m aware many others will not.
3) Decide who will look after my daughter whilst I’m at work
Deciding on childcare options is probably the biggest decision I’ve had to make. Who am I trusting to look after my precious mini human whilst I’m out earning a living. What can I afford childcare wise. As well as how long do I want my daughter to be looked after by other people as opposed to myself.
Based on the fact that it is usually just the 2 of us at home and it’s relatively calm and peaceful, I decided that nursery would be a good option. It embraces a bit more chaos and allows Daisy to socialise with other children. I decided that proximity to my house was also important, so the nursery I have chosen is walking distance from where I live. Also there are a real mixture of Day Care Assistants working there. Daisy’s key worker is Spanish. I love that. I have friends from all over Europe and I love that Daisy is being exposed to some Spanish during her day.
I’m in the lucky situation where my mum agreed to do one day childcare, I look after Daisy the one day I’m not at work, and then she is in nursery the other 3 days. For me this is a really nice balance.
I know a lot of solo mum’s I’ve spoken to have many questions and concerns about returning to work. I’ve covered many of the points that helped me, but I’d love to hear from you if you have any specific questions or concerns I’ve not covered. I’m interested in your views on how you found returning to work after maternity, or what you are worrying about if you’re yet to go back. Any struggles you have, any questions you have and your specific challenges that come from being a solo mum.