It was my first day at work today at a new firm. Well, my first morning at work since I only work mornings and not really a new firm as I began my career in their London office years ago, before moving to Dubai.
I am one of the few working mums in Dubai that have been lucky enough to find a professional part-time role that should allow me to put all my years of education, training and experience to good use while also managing my responsibilities and role as a mother and the primary carer for our children.
After a 16 month break, I had been looking forward to my return to work with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement to be using my brain again, to be doing something I know I am good at, to be part of a team, to have uninterrupted conversations with grown ups, to be involved in the world outside the four walls of my house and the kids’ schools and playdates, to be advising people on things other than toddler eating and bathroom habits, and, possibly most of all, to be able to have a whole cup of tea whilst sitting down before it goes cold!
But there was also trepidation, worry and a little fear. Will part-time really be part-time? Or will it end up like it did when I returned to work after my first maternity break, where in practice a part-time contract still meant full time working, long, late nights, early mornings, less pay and not enough thanks (and ultimately a resignation letter). Will I be able to leave the office in time to pick up the kids from nursery and school? How can I not, there is no one else to do it? Will the small team understand the pressures a working mother is under every minute of every day, trying to juggle all the responsibilities on her plate and terrified of dropping even one ball, not wanting to disappoint anyone, while still trying to put her kids first and give them everything they need?
Friends and family, trying to be helpful, kept telling me to “start as you mean to go on“, “put your markers down now“, “make sure everyone knows when you have to go.” That was all well and good for them to say, and I did agree with them, I just hadn’t quite figured out how to do those things while still appearing to be a team player and not getting anyone’s backs up on the first day.
Ultimately, I was prepared to stand strong if things didn’t go the way I hoped, accepting that a few noses might get thrown out of joint along the way if people aren’t fully onboard with my part-time working terms. However, I was not prepared for what my boss had to say to me on my first day.
He told me he understands.
That he knows it’s not easy.
That when my working time is done, I should get up and go and not feel bad or guilty about it, the world will not end and the rest of the team will manage.
That he knows picking up my kids is an absolute non-negotiable and he will make sure the rest of the team gets that as well. That he doesn’t want me to spend the day stressing about how I will manage everything I need to do and still get out on time for the kids.
That I need to be happy in my job.
That, while I might on occasion need to log back in from home to finish off an email or a piece of work, that should not become the norm. I should not be having to go home and put my kids in the playroom while I finish off work.
That from the very top tiers of management back in London there is support for flexible working and family friendly practices. That, whether he is in Dubai or London, he will personally support me in all these things and will be there to turn to if it ever looks like this is not happening as it should.
As those words were spoken, a huge wave of relief washed over me and a smile spread across my face. Someone gets it. I didn’t have to say it. He knows already. While I thanked him for taking the time to say those words, told him I really appreciated it and thanked him again, it didn’t seem enough to let him know how important it was for me to hear that message on my first day. I don’t know if he knows what it meant to me, he’s been there with his own family so maybe he does and that is why he made sure to say those words. Thanks to him I am now filled with hope that this time it might work. I might be able to be happy and fulfilled in my job and happy and fulfilled at home.
It also reminded me of why I joined the firm in the first place. Why, when all other graduates were off filling in as many applications as they could manage, I carefully selected only two that seemed to offer the kind of working culture I respected and thought I could be happy in. Why I was so sad to leave the firm almost eight years ago when I left London and they did not yet have a Dubai office and why, even though I have spent more years working at other firms, this one has always held a special place in my heart and coming back to work here has felt like a homecoming. A lot of things have changed about the firm in the ten years since I first joined them but it is nice to see that the core cultural values have remained. The number of familiar names still within the firm so many years later also tells me that people are happy. This is no small thing when compared to the revolving door that seems to operate in other firms.
My instincts about choosing an employer based on culture rather than rankings has been proved right once again. It is the people we work with and the attitudes they bring to the office with them that will make the difference between a working mother being successful (in all aspects of her life) and her just packing it all in as too hard (I have been there too). Across many companies in Dubai and elsewhere a culture shift is needed to enable more mothers of young children to successfully return back to work in the professional roles they previously held. A culture of understanding and support needs to be fostered, of appreciating the valuable contributions working mothers can make using the considerable experience they may have gained pre-kids and recognising the amount of work that goes into combining these roles. There needs to be more opportunities for flexible and part-time working; unlike Europe, there is no right to request flexible working arrangements here and, given the number of employers refusing to allow more than 45 day maternity leave, I can’t imagine there are that many open to flexible working, this needs to change. The fact is working mothers are likely to be amongst the most efficient and productive members of any team, utilising their well honed multi-tasking and organisational skills to make sure they can get through their work in the limited time available and get back to their kids. They won’t be the ones having a leisurely caramel macchiato in the coffee shop next to the office or gossiping in the smoking corner three times a day. They will be the ones trying to steadily tick off each item on their to-do list, always with one eye on the clock knowing that they will have to leave bang on time or risk being faced with the heartbreaking sight of their 3 year old child sat on a rug in an empty classroom with his teacher, close to tears having watched each of his friends leave one by one with their parents in a flurry of chatter and cuddles, leaving him alone, in the silence, watching the door with an unwavering stare, trying to be brave and hold it together just long enough for for that familiar face to appear to take him home. This is my personal nightmare. The difference between happiness and heartbreak at school pick up can be just minutes for the little ones.
And so I will work hard, and at the end of my part-time hours, I will get up and go to my kids without guilt. And I will support and encourage any working mother who comes after me. And I will make sure my husband and my close friends and family understand, so that they too can be the kind of bosses in their companies that I am now lucky to have at mine. And I will share the experiences with as many people as will listen, so that more mothers can hear the words that I heard on my first day and know that they can be all that they want to be, at work and at home. And maybe one day it won’t be necessary for a boss to say those words to a mother returning to work at all, maybe one day all those things will go without saying, they will be the norm and universally understood. For all our sakes I really do hope we can get to such a place one day soon.
Have you been able to go back to work in a professional job after having kids? How have you found the experience. Leave me a comment below, I would love to hear from you.