Returning to work after maternity leave has been a lesson in many things: How to effectively avoid the sticky fingers of a determined and affectionate toddler as you dash out the door, actual time management, and a new respect for working mothers.
Stella Bugbee, editorial director of New York magazine's The Cut once wrote an article titled: "I had no sympathy for working mums until I became one." I was much the same.
I never felt like I judged a working mother for, say, leaving on time to pick her kids up from daycare. But I didn't, couldn't, understand the line of dominos it takes for a woman with other responsibilities – and probably too little sleep – to make it to the office and get through her work, and how easily it can all topple down.
I've realised since returning to work part-time that most of us are patching it all together and almost every working mother I quiz about how she gets it done, because that is now my opening gambit for any working mother I meet in any social circumstance, would like a better balance.
In December 2018 JustMums Recruitment surveyed 550 women in Australia and New Zealand about their experiences as working mums.
According to the survey, 83 per cent wanted a flexible working arrangement in their next role and 73 per cent wanted to change roles due to the lack of flexibility on offer.
Of the quotes compiled from those surveyed, these will ring true for many women trying to be both a good mother and a good employee:
“My request for flexibility was granted, however I ended up doing a full-time role in part-time hours!”
“I was expected to do a full-time workload in three days and do the extra work from home on my non-working days.”
It's a common theme among my friends, colleagues and mother's group. They're grateful (often too grateful and willing to accept crumbs in exchange for flexibility) to work less days or shorter hours but end up logging back on after the baby is asleep at night to be able to finish their work or spend days off answering emails and taking calls in between enthusiastic rounds of Hot Potato.
To compound everything is the pressure for women to work as though they don't have children, and parent as though they don't have a(nother) job. As well as research that suggests women working part-time will be most impacted by the gender pay gap.
According to a study from the University of California, mothers in wealthy countries spent an hour more taking care of their children in 2012 than their mothers did in 1965.
It's little wonder then that part-time working mothers of two children are reportedly 40 per cent more stressed than everybody else.
Campaigning for truly flexible work, which empowers and frees employees, is something Vanessa Vanderhoek is passionate about. She started her consulting firm FlexAgility last year. The business works with companies on how they can modernise their flexible working arrangements and culture and work through both the barriers and benefits.
Vanderhoek says often people don't know the options that are available.
"I think often it goes back to that saying ‘you don't know what you don't know’. That is often one of the big things when I step into organisations or teams where flexibility is not mainstream," she says.
"One of the biggest obstacles is overcoming the cultural barriers. The businesses who are doing it really well have leveraged what are called now often called ‘behavioural nudges’, to really show how other people can use it."
Vanderhoek says soft drink company Pepsi's "Leaders Leaving Loudly" approach is a good example of this where a manager would say to their teams, "I'm off to to pick up the kids" at 3pm rather than the old leave the jacket on the back of the chair and sneak out approach.
However Vanderhoek says we will see a true shift when we think of flexible working as something that can be great for everyone, not just working mothers. Although re-thinking parental leave and caregiving is a very good place to start.
"I am a big believer that flexibility should be available for everybody. And it's not until the normalisation of men working flexibly and men, let's be honest, taking parental leave and being active carers in their children's lives, that we will really make traction at the societal level."