Career after baby
Having a baby gives many women a break from the daily grind and a chance to reassess their career goals, writes Sarah Tennant.
When it comes to women's issues, there are a few truisms every writer knows. One, the Kardashians/Bratz/pop stars are ruining our daughters. Two, breastfeeding is best, but don't be nasty about it. Three, having a baby will cripple your career.
Regarding the latter, most mums voicing their views online are in agreement — the situation is woeful. Writers bemoan the lost promotions, the re-training, the scramble back up the corporate ladder and the trials of finding decent childcare. Economists point out the recession is making women reluctant to ask for flexible hours or extended maternity leave.
A 2000 report for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment states: “Reduced experience, reduced seniority and lost training opportunities are among the “consequences” of motherhood that have the potential to lower the hourly, as well as the weekly, earnings of women with children.”
The report notes that working mothers were “more likely to experience work-life conflict” than employees without carer responsibilities. And careers adviser Jillena Taekau at My Career House in Hamilton, often sees well-qualified women taking menial weekend or night-shift work because those jobs, unlike their career jobs, let them pick the kids up from kindy.
Currently blessed with a working-from-home husband and relatively un-clingy toddler, I get a few trickles of income from various sources. I mystery-shop, bake the odd wedding cake, dabble in freelance writing, scrutineer high school exams and spend a few days a year cleaning graduation caps. Good for my social life and sense of self-worth? Doubtless. A liveable income? Not so much.
The lucky ones are the women whose pre-baby careers dovetail nicely with parenting. Teaching piano from home in odd hours is do-able, so is tutoring university students. A friend of mine who trained as a nanny simply switched over to in-home childcare when she had her own baby. Another friend, a former schoolteacher, earns some pocket money — and a holiday — every year marking maths exams overseas while her husband watches the kids.
But what about the others? Not everyone has the luxury of relying on a partner's income, while a lot of careers don't lend themselves to flexible work. You can't just rock on up to the operating room and do a spot of part-time neuro-surgery while the baby sleeps in the Ergo, after all.
Well, there is good news. And that news is: women are adaptable, innovative and hard-working. And when given the freedom of a few months' maternity leave, a surprising number of women decide that the job they left isn't worth going back to after all. Instead, they can turn their motherhood into an asset, their hobbies and passions into cash and their temporary unemployment into entrepreneurship.
For some women, the new career starts almost by accident. Cambridge mum Frances McInnes was only trying to sell online some extra reusable breast pads she'd made when she discovered she'd found a niche market. Later, after dealing with a clueless salesperson, she realised there was a gap in the market for good breastfeeding and bottle-feeding products, combined with intelligent, helpful advice.
As the website business grew, Frances chose to work on Breastmates full-time, using daycare to free up the necessary hours. While that's not uncommon, many mothers prefer to keep things small while their kids are still young.
One such mum is Sarah O'Halloran. Before having kids Sarah worked as a teacher and a court reporter. At home with kids she turned her love of vintage clothing into a simple online store, Bella Vintage. She works on the business when her children are asleep.
“I would love to grow it and one day even have a physical shop, but at this stage it would be impossible with four small children. Perhaps when they're older it will become bigger and more profitable, but for the moment I'm kind of happy with how things are going.”
Becoming an entrepreneur doesn't have to be a solo effort either. When Louisa Currie was pregnant with her second child she knew she didn't want to repeat the trauma of leaving her baby to go back to work. So she and her friend Heidi Riley put their heads together and decided to start a business.
Not that either of them had relevant experience, mind you. Louisa explains: “I was in quota management for a fishing company and Heidi was in front-line banking and general admin.”
But undaunted, the pair came up with their first business idea — selling fully-packed hospital bags to expectant mothers. Eventually, this evolved into Belly Beyond which sells everything from travel cots to breast pumps.
Louisa and Heidi acknowledge that the business has been a tremendous amount of work, but after the freedom of running their own business, neither woman can imagine reporting to a boss again.
“We're pretty much unemployable now,” jokes Louisa. She doesn't sound worried.
Internet businesses have temptingly low start-ups costs, but the cost in your time, energy and mental health can be much higher, as Kate Carter found out. When she started a web business selling children's products, she had to do everything herself: “From accounting to stocktaking, customer service, business planning, purchasing and the list goes on,” she recalls.
What's more, working from home, Kate never got away from it all. She was always tempted to answer one last email late at night or catch up on a spot of work during the weekends.
Kate's business was by no means a failure but she realised after some soul-searching that something had to give. To grow the business to its fullest potential she would have had to devote more energy to it — and less to her family — than she was willing to give. Rather than feeling as if she was living two lives badly, Kate sold the business when her son was a few months old and is now happily staying at home.
Kate's biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs boils down to the good old “know thyself” rule. She encourages women to think about whether they can deal with a messy house, a neglected love life and a lot of late nights while a business gets under way.
Kate recommends talking to plenty of business owners to get pros and cons before making a decision and stresses the importance of an entrepreneur's family being completely on board with any new enterprise.
For the love of kids
Not all post-baby career changes involve becoming your own boss. Liz Sutton had a busy life working as a television video editor but when her own kids came along she realised a life spent in a dark video booth was not for her.
“I wanted something that would work with my family but would also make me feel like I was doing something worthwhile, actually making a contribution to society, rather than making fun of it from the sidelines via an edit suite.”
Liz ended up following in the footsteps of her mother and two sisters into a career in education. After three years of retraining at university, Liz is now working as the head teacher at Green Bay Kindergarten in Auckland. One day she plans to return to study for a master's degree but she’s pretty sure she's found her calling.
“Change is good, and looking at who I was after I had children, I had changed hugely, so my old life just wasn't going to fit who I was anymore.”
Learn some more
Going back to study is especially daunting when it involves juggling uni or tech with a young family. But Sue Bennett, director of Waikato University's campus crèche, has noticed that since the recession began, more mums than usual are dropping off their babies before heading to class.
As well as the crèche, Waikato has a kohanga reo, seminars and workshops for students with small children and a policy of allowing children into lectures on occasion, by permission from the lecturer.
But any kind of full-time study, with the issues of childcare and potential loss of income, is problematic. Many mothers choose to study part-time, taking the “marathon rather than sprint” approach. Others learn via the Open Polytechnic, a flexible system of online, vocational and correspondence learning. The polytechnic website boasts that in 2012, 68% of its students worked while holding down another job, and 93% studied part-time.
Perhaps the best careers come from hobbies, tinkering around for the love of a thing before realising there might be money in it.
Such was the case for Delia Beuker. Formerly employed by The Waikato Times, she wanted to stay home with her two small boys, so to keep life interesting she took a class in bead-making and soon found herself hosting jewellery shows (think Tupperware parties, but more bling) for her friends. Now she imports jewellery, makes bespoke pieces and sells her work online under the name, D’zignz Boutique Jewellery.
And then there's Shelleece Stanaway, the interior designer who came up with the idea for her business while on maternity leave from a job in real estate. Or Angela Scott, a single mum who worked with property developers until, after a month back at work, decided to quit to spend more time with her baby. Now she heads Angela Scott Photographers, photographing babies, weddings and more.
So instead of nervously apologising to your boss for going on maternity leave, look at it another way. Maternity leave is when your job should woo you. If a few months' break doesn't leave you itching to go back, don't. Take a deep breath and start something new. You might just find your calling — and no one in your new career will know what size you were before the baby. That's freedom.
Tips for working off the grid
- Don't treat internet-based earnings lightly. While it's possible to make serious money online, it's extremely hard work. Making good money from a personal blog with advertising, be it ever so pretty with gorgeous photos, is next to impossible.
- Don't sell yourself short. Women notoriously under-value their own time and skills. If you make a pittance, you'll become frustrated and burn out very quickly, not to mention ending up broke.
- Keep on the right side of the law. People often ask me why I don't sell my baking. Well, because I can't, unless it's baked in an approved kitchen which isn't used for non-commercial purposes.
- Sell to women. Most business owners are male. If you're not, you have insights into your female customers' needs and desires which men probably don't, and you can provide a better service.
- Sell locally. Sarah O'Halloran from Bella Vintage got it right when she noticed a gap in the local market. There are hundreds of websites selling vintage clothing, but in a remote place such as New Zealand, customers will be happy not to see astronomical shipping prices added on to the price tag.
- Sell niche. Don't just be a photographer — be a photographer who specialises in working with special needs children. Don't just be a florist — specialise in allergen-free bouquets.
- Ask for flexible working hours. Even if you can work only one day a week while Grandma watches the baby, ask! Your boss might be happier to keep you around than you think. Point out that staying around and trained up will make you available when other staff are sick or on leave.
- The 2008 Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment. This allows parents to request fixed-term or permanent flexible working arrangements — anything from working on weekends or after hours, to working from home or switching to a four-day week. Mind you, the boss doesn't have to agree — but she does have to give a good reason for her refusal.
Sarah Tennant lives outside Hamilton with her husband and two children: Rowan, five, and Miles, two. She began her working life at 14 in a fish and chip shop, compared to which, her post-baby career doesn't look too bad
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 23 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW