On returning to work

My days as a full-time stay at home parent are numbered. I’m incredibly, unbelievably lucky to be returning to a flexible workplace (located less than ten minutes’ drive from home) on the days I chose and to be able to leave Emma with people who love her. This is mostly luck, and also because I’ve spent my 20s making decisions with a future family life in the back of my mind – one of the reasons I stay in the APS is to take advantage of the family-friendly policies, one of the (less important) reasons I applied for the job I’m in is because it was close to home, and I chose a husband who wanted to share child care duties and not just on weekends. High five to me indeed.

I’m looking forward to going back to work. I’ve written before about struggling with the stay at home gig, especially around the lack of intellectual challenge and adult interaction. Part of me does wish I loved it more. I wish I never wanted to go back to work. I wish I could say to Emma when she’s older, “You were all I wanted.” I guess if I felt that way I’d probably still have to go back to work for financial reasons, or we’d have to make much bigger sacrifices in order to let it happen. But it would be nice to not have the ambivalence, to just want one thing and be able to focus on that, rather than know I’m going to spend the next 18+ years trying to juggle my need to work with my need to be with my child(ren).

I don’t feel guilty about wanting to work, or about going back when she’s 10 months old, which is earlier than even I expected. Of course it helps that she will be at home with Toby and her grandma – I will miss her, but I won’t worry about her or whether she is being looked after. Even as someone who is all for child care and doesn’t think a child necessarily needs to be looked after by a mother or father in order to be raised properly, I’m glad for now she’ll be at home. It will make the transition easier for both of us. Come January we’ll be revisiting our work hours and she’ll go into care two or three days a week, and that will be great too.

What I am worried about in returning to work is the work itself – and I know these worries reflect a position of absolute privilege, but they are my worries and they are legitimate for my life. I’ll only be in the office two days a week, and I will want to leave not much after 5pm to get home for Emma’s evening routine so we can have time together before she’s in bed at 7pm. I’ll have remote access to my emails and files so I can stay in the loop the rest of the week. But I know I’m not in for an easy return.

I’ve been the full-time worker fielding cranky phone calls for the part-timer at the next desk. I’ve been the full-time worker staying late while the part-timer clocks off at 5pm regardless of what else there still is to do. I know the kind of resentment that can build in a team where flexible working arrangements aren’t properly managed. On the other hand, I’ve been the full-time worker who got to go to interstate conferences and meetings, who got acting and other development opportunities, who has been supervising graduates and other staff for what feels like a long time, who was able to stay late to meet with the higher-ups, or come in on the weekend to work on something important, and thus build a reputation and build relationships that led to further opportunities and the pleasant feeling of being on first name terms with the deputy secretary or whoever.

These are the sorts of things I’m going to miss, because despite all our flexible work policies and claims to the contrary, if you’re not in the office, you’re not in the running. It’s disheartening to know that even when I am working my butt off, even if I’m the best two-day-a-week worker ever, I won’t be getting nearly the same opportunities as I used to, or as the full-timer at the next desk. I’ll be doing my best to advocate for myself, and hopefully I’ll have a boss who does the same, but I know that part-time hours plus having a little one to look after (which I wouldn’t change for the world, obviously) mean I’m just going to have to live with this for the time being. But it’s a difficult realisation after feeling so good about my career for a long time.

Most part-timers I’ve worked with have worked harder than anyone else – they have to, because they don’t have the luxury of staying late and they won’t be in tomorrow to get it done then. I know I’ll be working my butt off the two days a week I’m in the office, and I know I’ll be doing my best to stay connected the other five days of the week. My work has always been important to me and my sense of self, I am someone who functions best with tight deadlines and I’ve always been able to give my work as much time as it needed. But I don’t know how to be in the office two days a week and actually be valuable, let alone be seen to be valuable, and feel valuable.  If I only wanted to work for the money none of this would matter, but I need more from my work and my challenge will be how to get that ‘more’. In two days a week. When one of those days is Friday and in our division Friday is morning tea day and we all know what that means for productivity.

This is the reality for now, and it’s a reality I am trying to prepare myself for.

Luckily I’m not the first person to face these challenges and I have already had lots of discussions with friends and colleagues who have gone before me, bright, intelligent women who face these same questions and dilemmas and are managing to muddle their way through somehow. They have all been able to give some very thoughtful and helpful advice, from time management to office politics. They don’t make out that it’s easy, but I’ve got a good base of a supportive husband, a division where part-time work is very common and a role which won’t be subject to Cabinet-related time pressures. Between this base and my wonderful network of working mums I guess I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be to jump back into the fire.


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