Motherhood requires sacrifice. Our time is not our own. Our identities get erased and re-written, sometimes on a weekly basis. And you may have to kiss goodbye to a normal-functioning pelvic floor.
But there was one sacrifice I wasn’t ready for with motherhood: the ability to navigate the QANTAS check-in.
The first time I caught a flight on my own after I’d become a mother, I was on the verge of having a panic attack.
This was a genuinely new reaction; I used to travel on my own through busy airports in China and not-so-touristy destinations such as Lithuania for work.
But after spending nine months at home doing little else than changing nappies, trying to breastfeed and reading ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’, an airline check-in process almost tipped me over the edge.
Of course, the check-in process wasn’t really the issue. The problem was that all those months out of the workforce had hammered my confidence.
It turns out this is not uncommon. According to a recent study conducted by skills recognition specialist Get Qualified Australia, over two-thirds of mothers suffer a hit to their confidence at the prospect of returning to paid work.
The national survey of 550 Australian mothers found that only 32 per cent of women feel confident re-entering the workforce after maternity leave.
Thirty-six per cent of respondents said they would be “somewhat confident” and 32 per cent would “not be confident”.
One of the major causes for women’s lack of confidence is the concern that their current qualifications and skills are out of date, with 72 per cent of mothers saying that they need to up-skill in order to re-enter the workforce.
HR professional Jane Hollman says the longer women stay out of the paid workforce the more likely they are to worry about the currency of their skills. However, even taking twelve months or less maternity leave can affect women’s confidence.
“The concerns these mothers have are usually two-fold,” says Hollman who has 25 years experience in the corporate world. “Firstly that the company will have moved on and forgotten about them — especially if they get a new boss whilst on leave — and they struggle to get back into the company just through lack of knowledge of what’s going on business wise.”
“The second concern is if they are replaced whilst on leave. There is often concern that the person who replaces them might be better than them and the company might prefer to keep them. Sometimes that’s true but not usually,” she says.
Louise White, Director and Principal Career Consultant at Likewise, says that mothers’ confidence is put at risk by the challenges of balancing family and work priorities. This can prompt women to seek a job that is less senior than their previous role.
“Mothers are self-sacrificers who tend to take on blame and guilt; a catalyst for feelings of inadequacy,” says White. “Mothers often seek lower-level jobs, as these are perceived to be the ‘best option’ to suit the situation.”
The irony is that the skills developed by mothering should give women even more confidence in the workplace, not less.
“The Montreal Gazette released an article on the top 10 job skills for the future, which included: Complex problem solving; Critical thinking; Creativity; People management; Coordinating with others; Emotional intelligence; Judgment and decision-making; Service orientation; Negotiation; and Cognitive flexibly. Of the list provided, select one that isn’t involved with raising a family and being a mother,” says White.
Unfortunately this is not just a simple matter of mothers toughening up and getting back into the “real world”. In the real world most mothers continue to shoulder an unfair burden of domestic work and childcare. All the work they did while they were on maternity leave still needs to be done when they return to paid work.
White says that mothers should remember that a loss of confidence is common and that these feelings need only be temporary.
“Develop a lifeline to the workplace, attend industry networking events, watch TED talks, or read magazine articles. Stay at a distance, but up-to-date until ready to integrate back into the workforce; this will help with self-confidence and currency,” she says.
And the good news is that even though progress is painfully slow, more enlightened employers are beginning to realise that working mothers – especially those who work part-time – are the most productive workers.
Because if anyone understands the value of time, it’s a mother.