Before I had kids I had a view about being a working parent. It was pretty simple, nothing would change. I’ll work full time and be a parent too. Make a career. Enjoy motherhood. Why did I think like that? Because that is pretty much what I’ve seen around me in Denmark for years. Somehow, they’ve cracked flexible working in the true sense of the word. Perhaps because childcare is a third of the price compared to England or because men have huge flexibility too. I didn’t know it could look any different. To my own surprise, ten years in the UK changed me. I asked for flexible working after returning from maternity leave; a reduction of a mere 7 hours a week to make my home-life work better. It was declined. No alternative. No flexibility. I resigned.
I’m not alone in this. I’ve seen countless examples in my network. Many in the UK have had to take career set-backs, stop working altogether or make completely different choices. Most in Denmark have had increased flexibility and even promotions. My English friend Katie and Danish friend Lærke agreed to let me ask them the same set of questions about their experience for this blog. Both are amazing women, passionate about their jobs, super skilled and great mums. Katie used to work as an HR Manager and decided to take a step back in order to try and conceive and have a family without the stresses of work. Today she has a two-year-old son and has returned to a role as a Training and Quality Coach two days a week. Lærke returned to work three weeks ago following the arrival of her twin boys and also has a three-year-old. Her new role is full-time in a Danish bank as the Head of Risk Quality Assurance managing a team of 12 people.
How do you define flexible working? Katie: “It is about employers allowing their employees to work in a way that enables them to balance work and home and generally enjoy life for the better. It’s about moving away from thinking work is 9-5, Monday to Friday and based in one location.” Lærke: “Flexibility for me is about not having a regular working pattern. This applies to both men and women. My husband and I split the child drop offs and our children go to nursery every day from 8am-4pm. When I drop them off I get to work for about 9am and when I collect them I have to leave by around 3pm. I don’t have to ask anyone for approval. I flex the hours as I need it, often turning on my laptop in the evening once the kids are in bed.”
What do they find the hardest about juggling motherhood and working life? Katie: “The cost of childcare is an absolute killer. I seriously question some of the days when I have worked and after childcare, petrol and parking I’ve worked for £5 a day. I think a lot of women miss out on building their careers in motherhood because of this high price so they simply can’t even return to work.” Lærke: “There is only 24 hours in the day and at times I need to run very fast to juggle it all. But it’s possible. I need to work to be stimulated and feel it makes me a better mother.”
Do you feel you’ve had to take a step back in your career after having kids? Katie: “When I first started looking at returning to work I felt returning to a HR Manager role like the one I left would not be sustainable for us as a family. It was stressful, long hours and I wanted a change of career even before my baby arrived. Given the commute and long hours my husband and I were in agreement that I look for a part time role." Lærke: “Not at all. I have returned from both rounds of maternity leave to a role with more responsibility. But it requires time, resources and energy from me and my husband. I don’t have time for everything, so you have to choose what’s important. I’ve prioritised work over other things like time for hobbies and I see friends less than I used to. But with three boys under three, nights out are pretty much off the cards anyway!”
Do you feel your employer supports you equally to your partners in terms of flexibility? Katie: “My husband and I discussed both working four days a week, to reduce childcare costs and get more equality. We didn’t go down that route in the end, as we felt he would have it rejected. In my experience working in HR most employers have a totally different attitude to male requests than female requests. It feels frowned upon for men to take time out to look after their children. With women, employers are more flexible as they are worried about discrimination. Yet they treat men and women differently, which is discrimination too!” Lærke: “Yes. My employer is very supportive – in Denmark most people get a paid ‘child’s first sick day’ both for the mother and the father if the kids are ill. My husband has the same benefits as me and we split it equally. He actually recently changed jobs, with me returning to work, to reduce his foreign travel and make our everyday life juggle better while still getting great work challenges.”
Do you ever feel guilty about how much time you spend at work? Katie: “No. I’m lucky to have found a part-time job I enjoy and be able to afford to work part time. If I didn’t work and we spent all our time together I don’t think I would appreciate the time I do have with my son. It might be a different story if I worked full time though!” Lærke: “From time to time. But I don’t feel my boys suffer because I work full-time. When we are together, we enjoy it a lot and make a real effort to do nice things together and enjoy each other’s company.”
Would you ever consider not working in favour of more time with the kids? Katie: “No. For me it’s important for so many reasons. It’s good for my mental health, I get a sense of achievement and I think it’s important for children to see both parents work as role models for hard work and reward. We need to stop reinforcing the typical female stereotype of ‘mum stays at home’ and ‘dad goes to work’. Plus, my son loves nursery – he learns things he’d never get from being with me every day.” Lærke: “Never. I need the professional challenge and stimulation. Going to work gives me purpose and drives me. I live a balanced life and enjoy work when I’m there and then my boys’ company when I’m home. I can appreciate both everyday life and the weekends as they aren’t the same. And the boys learn more in nursery than they ever could from me.”
So, there you are….. There is no right or wrong answer here. I know even if Katie moved to Denmark and Lærke moved to England – both would be working, both would make great careers, both would be great mothers and role models. I also know that Lærke would never have to put in a flexible working request to make her home life work in Denmark, but Katie would on the other hand have to justify why she’s ‘only’ working part time. There must be opportunities to learn more from each other's cultures?
Let us know your experiences/thoughts on flexible working over on Twitter @WomenWD.
About the Author:
Isabel is a Communications Consultant who has recently gone freelance. She specialises in helping businesses tell their stories, get them media coverage, as well as delivering bespoke communications training.