As I flop on the train after a really great day of listening to some really inspirational working mums speak about their careers at the Mumsnet Workfest16 conference, I keep wondering if there’s a perfect solution to finding a work life balance as a working mum.

I’ve been a mum for 9 years now and when I had my first baby I was so naïve. I took 20 weeks maternity leave and presumed that I’d skip back into full time work knowing my baby was happy at the wonderful nursery I’d picked out for her. Within a few months, I’d realised the error of my ways and negotiated a 4 day week, and that worked out more or less ok for the following 8 and a bit years. But a couple of months ago, with the prospect of my youngest starting full time school in September, I decided to go back to full time. Which is great for me (and hopefully my colleagues!) Work is more fulfilling. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my childfree time and the full time salary doesn’t go amiss either.

But managing the juggling act between working hours and childcare is a challenge, which I think all working parents identify with, and there’s a huge opportunity for employers to embrace the opportunity to rip up the rule book when it comes to thinking flexibly.

One of the big takeaway comments from the conference was that parents need to appreciate that flexibility is a two-way partnership, not a chance to dictate your working patterns. And having an employer who’s prepared to be flexible makes all the difference to retaining bright, intelligent women* in the workplace through the mummy years. Meaning that when those same women are ready to step back up a gear, once parental responsibilities are less demanding, they’re still up to speed with their role and the industry instead of having to build their career up from a junior level whilst male counterparts have been flying high. Making for a more well-rounded, diverse and experienced workforce. Which surely has to be a good thing for everyone, right?

I’m lucky, Chatter are fabulously flexible and understand the juggling act I go through as a full time working mum. We have an informal understanding that I’ll work flat out and be as flexible as I can when the business and our clients need me to - even if that’s on an evening or from home. But if I have to get to the office late or leave early because of childcare limitations, or take a huge chunk annual leave in the school holidays, or dash off in the middle of the day because school rings to say one of my kids is sick. That’s ok too.

At the conference there were some really great panelists. Well known working mums who have these huge high-flying careers and raise a family too. And women who have negotiated amazing flexible working arrangements for board level positions. So how do they do it? Here are their top tips:

  1. Take your kids to work! Jo Whiley, had her first baby 24 years ago when “flexible working” didn’t really exist and taking her kids to work with her didn’t stop her doing a great job on shows like 'The Word', yet it’s probably still one of the biggest work no nos. Clearly toddlers running around the workplace is totally impractical, but the odd day in the school holidays where your 7/8/9/10 year old brings in a bit of homework or their iPad and chills out quietly in the office while mum cracks on, could relieve the school holiday annual leave bottle neck and keep businesses more productive year round.
  2. Marry a super-husband! Jess Phillips MP had a baby at 22 and spent 11 years developing an enviable career culminating in her election to Labour MP and being in a position where she can do great things. Her kids are thriving and happy with her husband as primary carer and it seems to work well for them as a family. Clearly this is more about who your partner is than who your employer is but employers can help by encouraging parents of both sexes to request flexible working and not just mum.
  3. Be upfront and honest with your colleagues and clients and have a great support network. Karen Blackett OBE is Chairperson of Mediacom UK as well as being mum to a little boy. Karen’s approach has been to make sure she has a great support network that includes neighbours and family as well as a nanny. She’s also a big advocate of being upfront and honest with her colleagues and clients that she is a mum and sometimes he will have to come first but that she won’t let them down when it comes to the crunch.
  4. Find a job share buddy. Claire Walker, Director of Communications at Teach First has job shared with Hannah Essex at 2 organisations. They’re equal partners who trust each other implicitly to do their job to their standard when they’re not there and between them they both have a 3 day week and 2 days off with their kids where they can completely switch off knowing the job is in safe hands.  
  5. Be flexibly flexible! Emma Graham, Corporate Business Lead at IPGIT, works a 3-day week but has the flexibility to ramp up to 4 or 5 days as her workload demands. This does rely on having the support network to step in around your (probably not at all flexible) childcare arrangements, but could give the best of both worlds. Time with your kids when work is quieter and time to focus on work when you’re working on big projects.
  6. Make flexible working a reality for everyone. I attended the Mumsnet conference with our lovely client O2. They offer a whole host of flexible working arrangements that are open to mostcolleagues regardless of whether they’re parents or not. Everyone needs a good work life balance and offering flexibility to all employees put everyone on an equal footing.

So as I sit here watching the countryside fly by, as I race to get home to my kids for an hour of much needed cuddles before bedtime, I think there are so many opportunities to “have it all” if you and your employer can be open and think a bit creatively to find a solution that works for all. It will never be perfect. You’ll always feel that you’re not giving quite enough, either to your job or your family, but working mums of today are one hell of a lot luckier than our mums and grandmas when it comes to having a great career without missing out on the joys of parenthood.

 

*Because whilst times are changing, and there are loads of fantastically hands on dads out there, let’s face it, there are still a lot more mums than dads who take a step back career-wise while the kids are small