The parent gap

Katherine Sunderland asks what opportunities publishing offers women whose maternity leave turns into a career break.


When I slid the white envelope containing my resignation letter across the table to my boss while jiggling my six-month old baby on my knee, inhaling his scent like in an advert for washing powder, I ignored the way his face fell. I ignored how the whole composure of this man who had employed me, given me fantastic opportunities, who valued my skills and harboured higher hopes than I did myself for my professional future, changed. He sighed. His body sank slightly lower into his chair. 

"I think you’re making a mistake," he said.

I didn’t think I was a making a mistake. Not then, not now. 

But when the moment came to return to work after a decade at home bringing up three gorgeous children, I faced more obstacles than in the sport’s day race last term. For many reasons, I couldn’t return to the job I’d had before. I couldn’t afford to retrain. I couldn’t apply for the kind of jobs I’d applied for ten years ago. If you take a lower ranking job, it’s generally lower on the pay scale and that has financial implications. Especially as there’s never much salary left once you pro rata part-time hours, take unpaid leave over the school summer holidays and shell out on childcare. 

Attitudes towards maternity leave are changing. The terms are becoming more flexible, the length more discretionary and by calling it parental leave, there’s more equality assumed in both the raising of a child and career progression. There are growing cases – albeit still not enough – of women being promoted before either going on or during maternity leave. 

I’m sure the women who are changing the rules and challenging the expectations of their employer have found it a tricky road to navigate and one that’s involved emotive decisions and may only have been possible if they were in the right place, right relationship, right financial situation, right company. But challenge and change they have. And these women who show it’s possible to establish a balance between work and motherhood while maintaining their professional status, garnering respect from colleagues and securing top jobs that require long working hours and a huge amount of inadvertent stress, are terrific role models for us all. Their successes mark a change, an acceptance, a greater sense of equality within employment. I hope more businesses start to view maternity leave not as a barrier, but as a gate to be left wide open. 

However, what about when maternity leave becomes a career break, or a career break becomes extended leave or a resignation? Is the gate still propped open or does it swing back on its hinges?

After 10 years of nappy changing, singing nursery rhymes, navigating the school run and volunteering at every PTA event, I’m no longer the rising star I was within my previous profession. I am no longer unencumbered, able to work erratic hours and travel on short notice. I am no longer up-to-date with the latest technology or procedures. I have no network to tap into and no clients to bring to the table.

What I do have is 10 years experience of nurturing talent, budgeting time to the last second and money to the last penny, expert multitasking, recalling numerous amounts of information at any given moment, prioritising, problem solving and meeting tight deadlines for projects requiring a whole range of creative skills. I can bring all these invaluable attributes, as well as a diverse skills set from a previous job, with me. Not to mention a self-assurance, self-confidence, keenness to learn and commitment to making the best of the role – all of which come as an added bonus. 

Of course taking maternity leave shouldn’t affect a woman’s access to the top jobs or applying for promotion. It shouldn’t stop them from thinking they can’t achieve what they set out to achieve for themselves as a professional and as a mother. Of course it should also be the same for women who return to work after a career break.

I have successfully managed to build a new career with an independent publishing company who have been very supportive of my return to work and my career ambitions. It’s a small team and they’re flexible and understanding. But although my experience has been positive and encouraging, it has certainly not been without challenge or compromise.

If I was to step back into that office with my old boss all those years ago, I would still slide the white envelope across the table. Only now, I would reply to his suggestion I was making a mistake and would tell him that there is only one choice you can ever make – a choice that’s right for you in that moment. And in turn, he can choose to overlook the inconvenience of a patchy CV and see beyond the short time it might take to train someone up with the latest procedures next time he reads a job application. He can choose instead to fully consider the benefits of employing someone who, after growing a real person in their tummy, will jump at the chance to birth a new career, grow professionally and become fully involved in moving a company forward to reach its full potential. 

Katherine Sunderland is publicity executive at Oldcastle Books.