“Perhaps you should hand your notice in. You don’t seem as robust as you once were.” With disbelieving ears I absorbed the words and, winded by the wound they had inflicted, struggled to defend myself.
The lump in my throat dissolved into the tears that are always much closer to the surface these days, and with utter humiliation I slid back to some time in 1993 and cried in the headteacher’s office.
It was November – four weeks before I was due to return to work from maternity leave. It had all been agreed – my three day contract, the days I’d be working – months beforehand, but once a colleague handed in his notice they needed me to pick up his timetable. I was informed that my days of work had to change.
Childcare everywhere is expensive but where we live it is also hard to come by – plenty of people arrange their childcare while they are pregnant – I repeat, WHILE THEY ARE PREGNANT. Finding childcare at the drop of this plate-smashing, ball-bouncing bollock I already knew, sobbing in the headteacher’s office, was going to be impossible.
I did a lot of crying that day. I felt hurt, confused, and betrayed. The other members of my faculty, including my line manager were as shocked as I was, but reassured me with their efforts to find a solution.
At that time, and many times since, I’ve tried to understand why my Headteacher behaved in the way she did.
With twelve years experience I know I was expensive for “just” a classroom teacher – they could (and just before I left, did) employ a full-time Newly Qualified Teacher for the same money they would be paying me for three days.
In the meeting the headteacher talked about the difficulties in accommodating part-time teachers into the timetable, even though my three day a week agreement had long since been approved.
Budget cuts were imminent, she had also thrown into the conversation, and somewhere quiet in the back of my mind a voice said, “You shouldn’t be saying that” but I was disappointingly powerless to speak through my shock.
And she brought the school manager into the meeting almost immediately to discuss just how much of my Maternity Pay I would have to repay. £7000 it transpired and I was silenced once more by the prickling behind my eyes.
Of course it’s tempting to consider the appropriateness (and legality?) of some of these comments but as my understanding of my professional reputation collapsed around my ringing ears, the most important thing was how railroaded and unwanted I felt.
I came out of that meeting feeling like my seven years service at the school counted for nothing. My branches of self-belief were shaken to the point they were laid bare and as all parents do in the bleak days of mid-winter I wondered if I had imagined the be-leaves were ever there at all. Maybe I’d been bare-boned, stark and skill-less all along. Maybe I was shit and they were just glad to see the back of me?
Eventually however, a solution was reached. It took a couple of weeks; contortionist levels of bending over backwards by the other members of my faculty; two further meetings in which the solutions they had created were rejected; and ended with success after a senior colleague advocated for my return.
Meanwhile I had written my letter of resignation. Like most people I didn’t and don’t have £7000 collecting dust (imagine!) so, with the help of the National Union of Teachers, I’d cobbled together a plan.
Essentially, every parent of under 18s is entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid Ordinary Parental Leave and it was this that I was going to exploit. It meant that officially I was returning to work thus would not have to pay anything back, but in reality I would never physically set foot in that school ever again.
I was desperately unhappy for many reasons – not least that my colleagues who had so determinedly had my back were going to be left with a knife in their’s, stressed and dealing with the fallout from being a member of staff short.
In the end though, I got what I wanted, right? I returned to work on the days that I had originally agreed.
So why am I sitting here, unemployed and (after several months of intense navel-gazing) mildly irritated?
Well, in short, because someone had to look after the children.
The reality of returning to my job as a teacher with two small children was that, compared to my pre-procreation working hours, I was in deficit of between four and five hours every day.
Morning routines, drop-offs, pick-ups, bath and bed time were my responsibility every morning and night because of the demands of the Mr’s job. He was typically out of the house before the children woke up and three times a week he arrived home for the last 10-20 minutes before they went to sleep. The other two nights a week they would already be in the land of nod when his key finally scraped in the lock.
A sales environment in the city, his was not a workplace where employees even requested flexible working. Unsurprisingly there are next to no women in senior positions and the culture is firmly one of face-time over Facetime, even though a considerable proportion of the job is possible with the wonders of modern technology.
If he had been able to contribute one morning, and one evening routine each week, who knows? Perhaps I would still be educating the future instead of bashing my keyboard in impotent dissatisfaction.
Instead, because of his employer, I had to turn my back on being an employee.
It has been a difficult learning curve and there have been times when I’ve sent myself into a spinning dive off the sides of the track, but at this point it would be disingenuous of me to say I’m still angry about what happened.
I’ve been granted a second chance, new horizons to explore and new opportunities to be excited about, but even with this positive spin on the matter, the question still begs to be asked – should this have happened?
Should my school have made it so difficult for me to return? Is it right that my job was so demanding that I required an extra 4-5 hours a day, after working 8.30-5.30pm without breaks, to make it happen? Is it fair that my partner-in-slime was unable to support me in my return to work because of the culture of his company?
I was a successful, respected, passionate, driven, committed, caring professional, but thanks to circumstance the skip-load of skills that I developed over twelve years have been wrapped up like a dead pet goldfish and flushed down that most deplorable of brain drains – maternal unemployment.
Surely this can’t be right?
Surely this is a bit bloody bonkers?
Surely, there is a better way?
For all of the above I am supporting Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka with her #flexappeal campaign. She’s got her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek as she prances around in lycra and grinds to a rewrite of 90s hit “Let’s talk about sex” but I’m going to be right there beside her on Friday March 31st when she brings it to Trafalgar Square for a second time. Check out her Instagram feed for more details but safe to say it will be flexing awesome.