Maggie Gordon-Walker: How can we support mothers working in the charity sector?

Maggie Gordon-Walker, founder of Mothers Uncovered talks about how the sector can support mothers and make the workplace more inclusive

Most new mothers both want and need to retreat from the world after the mammoth event of childbirth. What had been simple tasks beforehand: paying bills, walking the dog, even dressing before midday, can now seem like insurmountable challenges. Many we work with in Mothers Uncovered report an overwhelming feeling of wishing the world would go away and come back when they’re ready for it. A helpless being is literally dependent on you for life and this may well affect how you view your career, which was once all-consuming.

A lot of women work, some merely from necessity, but many truly loving it, both for financial independence and the sense of self-worth. However, many women struggle with the return to the workplace when they have a child. Quite often, a woman who has confidently predicted she will be back after six months can find herself dreading the day as it comes closer. Her mind will be like a mouse on a wheel, weighing up whether she can continue breast-feeding, should she attempt controlled crying to get better sleep, who will look after her baby, is she ready to leave him in the care of strangers…?

I put a call out asking mothers whether they had felt supported on their return to the workplace. ‘Yes, although challenging to establish different working patterns with a young, mainly childless team. I am no longer available at all times. There is also a culture to work late, which I can arrange with notice only.’

Then of course, different jobs have differing requirements. In an environment where you can clock on and off without much thought, having a few hours respite from a demanding baby might be a welcome relief. But what if you work in the charity sector? A large number of those working in this field do so because of the ethos or values of the charity. They might describe themselves as ‘not corporate’, and the job may rely heavily on the empathy that workers in it often bring. If you are already feeling mentally, emotionally and physically shattered by weeks of restless sleep and continual anxiety, there is a very real risk of complete burnout. How can you care passionately about those you are working on behalf of when there is no-one taking care of you?

One respondent acknowledged that she can be her own worst critic. ‘I put myself under pressure to be as knowledgeable and committed to the role as before, to keep my position within the company, resulting in a certain amount of ‘franticness’ at times.’

This may well be exacerbated by working in this sector. Not all employees will have lived experience of the issues their charity is engaged with, but many are drawn to roles that echo their experience or that of someone close to them. There is a temptation to keep putting in extra hours because you care passionately about the work and don’t want to think of others suffering in the way that you, or someone you know, suffered.

Mothers can face a barrage of opinions from all sides: family, friends, the media, not to mention their own thoughts and desires as to what they should do regarding work. The French Minister, Rachida Dati, sparked a huge debate in 2009 when she returned to work five days after giving birth, some applauding her decision, some realising that she probably had no choice considering her position, others deriding her as a neglectful mother. Some of the harshest critics were other mothers. It is unfortunate that in so many areas of mothering, women’s choices are pitted against each other, fuelled by the media.

There’s not an easy answer to this problem. It is certainly true that it will be harder for a mother to focus fully, at least to begin with. Work pales into insignificance if you are wondering if your child’s cough that morning has developed into something more serious. The concern should be shared by both parents and often is, but it is more likely to be the preserve of the mother. This is why many women find themselves passed over for promotions before they have even had children, the assumption being that they will not be as committed. This is short-sighted. Consider the skills that have been enhanced by caring for a child: negotiation, patience, listening, perception, multi-tasking – these should be an asset to any working environment. There needs to be a greater commitment to flexible working, including working from home, to better support mothers in their jobs.

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