Returning to the workplace after any kind of break is not easy - and I should know. I returned to full-time work after taking some time out following the birth of my son, Charlie, when he was 22 months. And, despite the fact that my transition back to work was gradual (I was lucky enough to juggle part-time freelance writing with parenting duties), rediscovering my professional self was a difficult journey.
During the two years I spent at home with my son, my working week was a chaotic mix of rhythm and rhyme sessions, typing on my laptop in pajamas stained with sweet potato puree, and conducting phone interviews while my toddler napped - a far cry from the glam world of magazine publishing I left behind.
However, as my husband and I increasingly felt the financial pinch of not having two full-time salaries coming in, I had to make some changes. Namely, leaving my cosy baby bubble (and beloved PJs) behind to go out and pitch for new work and new clients in an office environment; which was seriously scary.
I wasn't sure I even remembered who 'office me' was before she got buried under a stack of dirty babygros. Post-motherhood, had my talent deserted me as quickly as my ability to wear heels and stay up later than ten o'clock? Did I have the confidence not only to relaunch myself into the working world full-time, but to leave my darling son in the hands of strangers at a nursery?
The Age Factor
As well as suffering a major moment of self-doubt, I was immediately struck by how much the working landscape had changed in the short time I'd been away from office life. Suddenly, at 38, I was pitching against a new generation of multimedia professionals, web-savvy bloggers and 'content curators'. Digital advances had changed the face of my industry while I'd been busy reading ‘Stickman’ and ‘The Gruffalo’. I quickly realised I had to upskill, and so I enrolled in a series of professional courses to fill in the gaps in my CV; updating my digital and technical skills. It paid off and I managed to get a new full-time job as a commercial copywriter, but it was a steep learning curve. And I'm not alone in feeling like a dinosaur in an industry I once dominated.
British expat Anita, 40, was an executive assistant to the CEO of a large company when she returned to work after a five-year sabbatical at home with her two children. "I had previously worked for the same employer, an international oil and gas company, for ten years, and I had only ever had a handful of job interviews, so returning to the workplace at nearly 40 was daunting,” says Anita. “The main issue I faced was discrimination regarding my age. A lot of the positions I was applying for had an age cap on them. This was something completely new to me. Also, as I had been out of the workplace for so long, this age-discrimination did not help my confidence levels."
The Confidence Gap
Archana Bhatia is an HR professional with expertise in executive coaching, training, leadership assessments and gender diversity. She said: "I find that women aspiring to re-join the workforce mostly fear the less-than-flattering stereotypes that are perpetuated about women who take a break in career. They believe that they will be judged as being less committed and viewed as out-of-date with regards to trends in their area of work and technology. They are filled with self- doubt over whether they can hold a sensible conversation and network with professionals, as the last few years have been spent mostly managing the home and children."
I realised that being a stay-at-home mum and taking a career break isn't a weakness, but more of a secret weapon
To overcome her fears, Anita decided to launch a two-pronged attack on the issues that were crippling her confidence: professionally, she brushed up on her interview skills, but on a personal level, she relied on those closest to her to give her the confidence boost she desperately needed. "I spoke to my close friends and family and they reminded me of all the wonderful things I had achieved in my life," says Anita. "It's really important to believe in yourself - and to remind yourself of your strengths and achievements." She adds: "I realised that being a stay-at-home mum and taking a career break isn't a weakness, but more of a secret weapon. Whilst I may have been out of the office environment, I was still negotiating, compromising, multitasking and dealing with strong-willed human beings!"
The impossible choice
For many women in the UAE, a career break is the only option if they want to spend more than a couple of months with their babies, given that the paid maternity leave for the private sector is 45 calendar days. Rochelle Pereira was 32 and working as a human resources professional when she first went back to work after her two-month maternity leave finished. But then she took the drastic decision to quit.
"When I got back to work from maternity leave, my daughter, Ava, was two months old. I was surviving on maybe two hours of sleep, had sore breasts because I couldn't breastfeed - I had to express during lunch time - and I really missed my baby".
She adds, "Eventually, I decided to take an extended break when Ava was a year old. I felt like I was missing out on her formative years. We would only get to spend around an hour and a half together in the evening after I got home from work. We had to compress play time, bath time and dinner time into such a limited time frame. It got stressful some days, especially when I had a long day at work. I wanted my time spent with Ava to be happy and relaxing, not hurried and exhausting. I started contemplating quitting my job and staying home. It was a tough decision to make because I have always worked. Plus, we would be one income down. In the end, I decided it was time for a break because I would never get this time back."
Rochelle's is a common dilemma for working mothers in the UAE. "Many women feel they have a 'forced choice' - work or child, but not both," says Archana.
Demoted for flexibility
Eighteen months after quitting, when her daughter started nursery, Rochelle decided the time was right to return to work. "I started with a three-month temporary role. It was not in HR, my chosen field, but the working hours were shorter, which suited family life. The industry change was a bit daunting," she adds.
Returning to a less senior position than they previously held is a common issue for working mums returning to work all over the world. "Research suggests that three out of five women return to a lower-skilled role than before their maternity," said Louise Karim from Women@Work, a UAE-based organisation dedicated to bringing talented women back to the workforce. "This could be due to choice, as often women don't want the pressure they had previously, or simply that they chose a lower level role as it's the only way to get more flexibility. Whilst this happens, I strongly believe you shouldn't have to choose, and companies need to nurture this talent and provide support to allow women to return at whatever level they chose."
Louise adds: "This ties into the debate about the increase on flexible working, part-time roles and job sharing. To me, it's a massive loss to the economy and business growth if we see women stepping out of senior roles as they feel there is no choice between that and having a family."
The pandemic – an unexpected silver lining
The way that COVID-19 upturned working practices has had some benefits for mothers who want to return to the workplace.
Bedriya Al-Saeed is an HR business partner in Dubai and the mother of two young daughters, who was due to return from maternity leave when the pandemic first hit. She says that the working from home policies that were enforced because of COVID-19 led to an improvement in her colleagues’ attitude towards working mothers – something she noticed both as an HR partner and as an employee herself.
Lockdown meant the male leaders in our organisation had a new appreciation for the mums at home because they could physically see what it takes to care for kids, as well as go to work
“I noticed the male leaders in our organisation had a new appreciation for the mums at home, whether working mums or not, I think they could physically see what it takes to take care of kids as well as going to work, or not.”
As a result she says that the top-level management now encourages flexible working arrangements, which Bedriya says in turn makes for happier, more loyal employees: “This approach has made me personally more dedicated to my company, and now I wouldn’t dream of moving to another organisation, unless they offered this same level of flexibility. Because I find, especially as the mother of two young kids, when I need to work from the office I can do it – when I need to be at home I can also do that. And there’s no-one checking their watch to see if you’re in the office on time, because we’ve all realised that the quality of your work isn’t linked to your location.”
New normal: Here to stay?
While the pandemic led to flexible working conditions for many companies out of necessity, it is something that Helen McGuire Co-Founder & MD at Hopscotch, a recruitment website that specialises in finding skilled women flexible jobs, has always felt strongly about: “We have never understood the need for outdated 9 – 5 practices and have strongly advocated that those practices are not only unnecessary, but can be biased against those who have much to add to the working world, but simply cannot operate under such restrictive conditions.
“We hope that the ‘new normal’ can provide opportunity for women, mothers and those who are less fortunate – perhaps those who cannot commute or even emigrate from countries where opportunity is scarce due to financial, family or physical issues.”
Caroline Parsons, HR Director and Director – Shared Services at engineering consulting firm WSP in the Middle East, says that flexible working arrangements have been a part of their ethos for a long time, “and for good reason. Our ethos is that great people demand great workplaces that can be flexible and accommodate a reasonable level of flexibility for people to balance work and non-work. Of course, not all of the roles we have or the work we do will lend itself to the levels of flexibility we might prefer, but where it is possible we encourage and support flexibility.”
Now that most companies have the technical infrastructure in place to allow efficient remote working, and have found it to be productive, Louise Karim of Women@Work says many have decided to continue to offer remote working - even as the UAE’s successful vaccination drive means that UAE federal government employees have all been called back into physical work since mid-May 2021.
Ultimately, flexible working conditions are something that suit every employee – whether they are mums, dads or not parents at all. “Flexible work schedules, even before COVID were the single most attractive drive for men and women to join a business, according to research from PWC,” says Louise Karim. “Once economies are back at normal pace, the best employees will be attracted to those businesses that offer flexible work offerings.” It’s as simple as that.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia explains, “There’s a difference between guilt and shame. Feeling guilty is about a single action, like ‘I didn’t feed my kids a healthy dinner’, while feeling ashamed is more general, like ‘I’m a bad mum’. Shame is useless and is correlated with depression, aggression, addictions, eating disorders and other mental illnesses, while guilt can be helpful because it encourages behavioural change.”
If you’re feeling either, remember that “these emotions carry a low energy and your children can sense them without you saying a thing,” Dr Saliha says. “A few positive hours spent with your child is much more beneficial than staying at home and being miserable, or working and feeling guilty.”
TOP TIP: Ask yourself ‘did I do the best I could today, given my energy and time?’ and if the answer is yes, let yourself off the hook. “You don’t have to be a perfect mum, you have to be a good-enough mum,” Dr Saliha says.