In the lead up to my first stint of maternity leave I thought I’d be taking more of a holiday than entering the most physically and mentally exhausting time of my life.
That’s the problem with the word ‘leave’ in this context. It makes it sound like you’re taking time away from the office in order to come back revitalised and refreshed. The term doesn’t at all speak to what’s really about to occur: a major life transition that’ll see you mourning past freedom, adjusting to your new routine and attempting to figure out your changed place in the world.
Almost eight months after walking out of my then publishing office, I was ready to return to work and thankfully had plenty of support in doing so. However, even during that short period of time, my confidence was dealt a blow. There were new people in the office and new processes and procedures to navigate. I’d been ‘replaced’ while I was on leave. My replacement was incredibly talented and had done an extraordinary job. I would be working part time in a different role, instead of the ‘full time’ I’d done my entire career. Office life had continued and moved on while I was gone, but I was both physically and mentally a very different person. How would I fit in? Did people remember my previous performance and did that still count? Could I successfully adjust to the new restrictions on my time?
I can only imagine how women who take more extensive career breaks to have children feel, especially those who find themselves looking for a new role, or even a completely new career once they’re finally ready to return. We regularly hear from mothers on Women’s Agenda who’ve had long career breaks, gotten themselves retrained and educated in an area that fascinates them, only to find their ‘lack of experience’ is treated with hostility in job interviews (if they get to that point).
We also regularly hear from women who’re made redundant while pregnant or shortly after having a baby, finding themselves having to kick-start a renewed job hunt they didn’t anticipate at this point in their lives. They have to negotiate flexible or part time work to a new employer where they feel they haven’t ‘proven’ their ‘merit’ in order to request the privilege of being paid significantly less for slightly more control over the hours worked.
That’s the thing about life after the maternity ‘transition’, as I like to call it. Your attempts to return to a previous job or career can make you feel like you’re starting again. You have new and amazing skills, but they’re not the ones employers recognise. You’ve physically changed and have mentally experienced emotions you’ve never known before.
You’re lowered back down to the bottom of the ladder, to start making the climb up rung by rung again. Only you’re somewhat disadvantaged on your second attempt at summiting. Time is precious, limited and never guaranteed. There are no long lunches or evening drinks to help with bonding and networking with colleagues, you now have somewhere to be every hour of the day.
And your confidence? Well that can be utterly shot. Especially given one in two new mothers experience pregnancy discrimination either while pregnant, on leave or shortly after returning to work, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
With all that in mind, I have to hand it to Serena Williams. She left the tennis circuit ranked number one to have her first child only to return unseeded at the French Open this week and ranked 451 in the world.
Her maternity ‘transition’ certainly hasn’t been easy, despite her considerable fortune. She’s suffered a range of health issues, including clotsmbolism and subsequent hematoma post birth including at one point being bedridden for six weeks. She’s also had to deal with the indignity of being told the literal first ranking she had the day you left to have a baby is mostly meaningless on her return.
And yet this week during the successful first round of the French Open, Williams looked like a superhero in the suit she wore to help prevent bloodclots and stated she felt like one too. She dedicated the outfit and her return to all the mothers who’ve felt physically and mentally exhausted.
In her post match interview, she said: “It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically with their body, to come back and have confidence and believe in themselves.”
It was especially, she added for all the, “Moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and had to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything. That’s what this represents. It’s exciting. And you can’t beat a catsuit, right?”
It’s incredible to see women, like Serena Williams and also the now heavily pregnant New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, doing their thing publicly on the world stage and proving that women shouldn’t have to be ‘unseeded’ or dropped or forgotten at work during a transition into motherhood.
Catsuit anyone? For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy—here you go. If I can do it, so can you. Love you all!! pic.twitter.com/xXb3BKDGNF
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) May 29, 2018