Having a child shouldn't have to affect your career, but it often does. Over the last few decades, particularly since The Equality Act of 2010, the general situation of women in the workplace has gradually improved, but there's still a long way to go.
Having children can also affect your career when your employer behaves absolutely properly. This can be because balancing the demands of your career and children forces you to make compromises, but also because parenthood can change your priorities.
Will pregnancy affect my work?
Your first pregnancy, in particular, is unpredictable. Some people feel wonderful throughout, but most will experience some of the common problems. These include:
- Early pregnancy symptoms: morning sickness, headaches, feeling faint and bloating.
- Later pregnancy symptoms: tiredness, backache and aching legs.
Whether these symptoms affect your job depends on your workplace. Your employer should make adaptations to allow for your pregnancy if it is reasonable for them to do so. There are some jobs which you generally can't do whilst heavily pregnant, because of physical requirements you can't meet. In such cases you may need to be given alternative duties.
If you struggle to keep doing your job when you don't feel up to it because of pregnancy, but don't explain, then this could affect your performance. We all make more mistakes when we are tired. It means it is important to ask your employer to adapt your duties before your pregnancy affects your work, so that you can continue to perform your best.
Although pregnancy should not affect your career progression, it will usually interrupt it. You should be able to return to work at the same level of seniority you left it, but you can't accrue experience or technical skill whilst you are not at work, so your leave will halt your progress until your return.
Should I take all my maternity leave?
In the UK employees can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, although how much of this is paid, and whether you are paid more than the government minimum, depends on your contract. It is unlawful to dismiss (or single out for redundancy) a pregnant employee for reasons connected with her pregnancy.
You may decide to take less than 52 weeks maternity leave. If you plan to go back to work much earlier you are likely still to be tired - from pregnancy and from sleepless nights with your baby. Your heroic shouldering of the full burden of your job when you don't feel up to it might mean that your performance affects your career. Some employers may offer you a phased early return to work, if you ask.
Will parenthood change the way I feel about my career?
The maternal feelings that come after childbirth take some women by surprise. Your career may seem less important to you than before. You may decide you want to go back part-time, or wish you didn't have to go back at all.
Feelings like this are common. For some women they fade, so that by the time the maternity leave is over the wish to get back to work is very strong. Others find their ambitions change for longer and they would like a career break. For some this becomes a long-term change.
Take the break as an opportunity to think about your career. Did you have a plan, or were you just winging it? Can you imagine any alternative jobs you would also consider? What would be needed to change careers?
How do employers view parenthood?
Sensible employers create a workplace environment that is supportive to a wide range of employees, irrespective of factors like parenthood, gender, race, religion and disability. This doesn't mean that employers need to treat parents differently to everyone else, it means that everyone needs to be treated well, and if you ask for a reasonable adjustment for your circumstances, your employer should consider it properly.
Many employers understand maternity rights and parenthood. Employers who want and value the contribution of parents to the workplace are most likely to recognise that complying with employment law makes them more attractive and allows them to recruit from the widest pool of applicants.
But some employers seem less enlightened about maternity leave. This may be because they are being deliberately difficult, or because they genuinely struggle to cover for your absence. If they offer a generous maternity package then your maternity pay will represent a financial investment in you, and they will want to know you'll come back afterwards. None of this affects your rights, but it can help to understand your employer's perspective when you discuss your plans.
As a parent you can ask for adaptations to your working day, such as starting and leaving work earlier in order to collect your child. Your employer is obliged to consider such requests, although whether they have to grant them depends on whether this is reasonable for them.
In very competitive career environments, maintaining a poor work-life balance is sometimes seen by colleagues an an essential demonstration of commitment. This isn't only a problem for parents, but it may be that it's when you become a parent that it first becomes a problem for you. You will need to be strong and clear of purpose in order to make it clear to them that going home on time does not mean you are less committed than others. Realistically, if your job is like this and you want to be offered the same opportunities as others, it might be easier to choose a better employer.
There is good evidence that many women experience discrimination in employment, that some feel they are dismissed because of pregnancy or maternity leave, and that very few take their cases to tribunal. Perhaps women feel guilty for taking maternity leave and for having children, although they shouldn't. More likely they feel that, with the many demands of parenthood and financial life, it's just too much of a battle to fight.
What kind of challenges does parenthood bring?
However much you and your employer want your career to progress, there are some things which can get in the way, once you have children. How you negotiate them will depend on you, your children, the support you have from others and the kind of career you want. Some things that other parents mention include: unpredictable finish times, living far from family support, expensive childcare, and childhood illnesses that require the child to stay at home.
What are my employment rights?
If you want to know about your rights regarding work when you are pregnant, a good place to start is the government's own web pages on pregnancy, which detail current UK law and explain the details of issues such as the minimum maternity pay you are entitled to, and what constitutes discrimination by your employer. If you think you may have been treated unfairly you could talk to any, or all, of:
- Your employer/boss/line manager.
- Your HR department.
- Your union representative or advisor.
- A lawyer - privately, online or through the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Can I return to my career after children?
When you first have children it seems as if parenting them will last a lifetime, but your children will not be dependent on you for their physical needs for ever. Gradually, through their teens, they will become more and more independent, and eventually they will leave home.
Many women start to feel, as their children approach adulthood, that it is now time to think about themselves again. But unfortunately women who want to step back into the workplace at this stage often find that they are competing against young, recently qualified people with full CVs.
The earlier you think about and plan for this time, the better chance you will have of feeling you have succeeded in it. Think about your interests and what you enjoy doing. Whilst your children are still at school there may be opportunities to retrain, to plan, to acquire useful qualifications and to decide what you want to do with the next phase of your life.
Can you really have it all?
The phrase 'having it all' is usually attributed to Helen Gurley-Brown, who was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. The words are now usually used to refer to the debate over whether women can balance career and motherhood in a way that allows them to fully experience both.
Whether you can have all you want from parenthood and your professional life depends of course, on what 'all' is. Life is a series of choices and compromises. Your satisfaction of these will depend on you, your partner (if you have one), your family, your employer(s) and, to a certain extent, luck. On top of that, what you want out of your life and career can change over time whether or not you have children.
The most you can hope to do at the start is to equip yourself as best you can, to plan the things that can be planned and to accept the things that can't. That seems most likely to be the best way of making sure that where you finish up isn't too far from where you were going in the first place. As Douglas Adams once said, "I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be."