Five things I learned on maternity leave

  • by helga
  • 28/12/2015

Marketing and maternity leaveI’m on maternity leave.

This means I’m taking a break both from NEST Pensions and from marketing consultancy / freelancing. It’s been a loooong time since I took this much time off work. In fact, I don’t believe I ever took this much time off work EVER.

After 4 months, it feels like old news. But it’s interesting to stop and look at what’s going on, on a personal and professional level.

Some of the lessons may be all too obvious to some of you out there. In my defence, I have arrived fairly late to the party so sometimes I struggle to understand this whole mothering business.

Here are five small things I have learned so far.

1. Childcare is still a woman’s task

This is purely a statement of fact – not an opinion – for what I’ve seen happening in the UK . (I’m not sure about Portugal because I haven’t worked there long enough to notice.)

Who do I spot at the gates of primary schools waiting to pick up the kids? Women. In the stories I hear everyday, who takes the maximum parental leave and work breaks, so long as they can afford it, to look after a baby? Women. (Let’s forget about Marissa Mayer for now – the exception confirms the rule.) Who tries to reconcile career options and childcare? Women. Who do I see at various ‘stay and play’ locations, children centres and baby activities? Always, and almost exclusively, women.

Where have all the men gone? Babyland is like a day out in Saudi Arabia, but the other way around. And it goes beyond maternity leave and younger babies, into toddlerhood and older kids.

That women are doing most of the childcare – and not complaining loudly enough – certainly deserves a nice, lukewarm, nonchalant shrug from anyone who doesn’t have to deal with the problem directly. The exceptions confirm the rule.

But worse than indifference, is the perception that in the end it all boils down to private choice. You know, the whole shenanigan of trying to juggle children and other things (a career or otherwise): in each home you’ll find a personal story, more or less cooperative partners, varying levels of compromise, but the same old same old scenario.

Except that no – no, I’m sorry, but this is not a private matter.

Something experienced by such a large chunk of the population is not a personal problem. It’s a full blown epidemic. This social malaise should shape policy decisions, preventive measures and evidence-based practices, allowing mothers the opportunity of doing other things beyond childcare. Unfortunately this problem is not talked about often enough.

Which takes me to the second point.

2. There’s something called the Women’s Equality Party

Besides meeting other mums and doing all sorts of new interesting activities in babyland, while on maternity leave I have also become a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party.

That’s right – there is something called the Women’s Equality Party (WE for short). It’s awkward right from the name.

I managed to find the time to go along to a meetup of my local WE branch and brainstorm awareness campaigns. To become a founding member, I had only to subscribe to the main policies and donate.

Yes, as many have pointed out, the WE party is probably too middle-class, too centred on white, well-educated women, not radical enough, not left enough, not the right tool or the right shape to fight the injustices (and sometimes outright violence) felt by many women.

I can sympathise with all these arguments, and I agree that a serious political party must have a position on the full spectrum of topics and policies it may encounter at Westminster. However, the focus on so-called “women’s issues” is such a welcome departure from the usual political discourse, and WE’s main policies so spot-on on a personal level (I want to believe not just because I’m white and middle-class), that I couldn’t help but fully subscribe to what they’re trying to do.

Go on and read their main policy document. It’s brilliant.

Here is a summary of their six core objectives:

  • equal representation in politics, business, industry and throughout working life
  • equal pay and an equal opportunity to thrive
  • equal parenting and caregiving, and shared responsibilities at home to give everyone equal opportunities both in family life and in the workplace
  • an education system that creates opportunities for all children
  • equal treatment of women by and in the media
  • an end to violence against women

What’s not to like?

3. It’s a LOT harder to finish reading a book

Right. Before having a baby, I used to read a lot – and fast. (Strangely, they are correlated – the faster I read, the more I can read afterwards.)

After having a baby, it takes me over 3 months to finish a medium-sized book.

This taught me two very important things: firstly, to really enjoy those small windows of time when I can sit back and relax reading a book.

Secondly, that I have to be more selective with my books from now on.

In this occasion, the book was ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’ from David Halpern, and it was a good choice because it’s interesting stuff. I took notes. Lots of notes. Read on for more.

4. Behavioural insight is not a magic bullet

Yes, on the background, beyond baby-feeding and nappy-changing, behavioural economics and behavioural insight are still an open thread on my ‘mental accounting system’. I have a couple of things to add to my previous two posts on the topic.

Behavioural Insights Conference

Although I did not have chance to attend the conference (I was on the way to the labour ward), I have read texts, watched videos and browsed blogs that spilled out from BX2015 held in London this September.

The conference agenda included exploring how behavioural science could help with the world’s biggest challenges – such as climate change, inequality, poverty, bridging the savings gap and palliative care. It also provided key insights into how people behave differently in the digital and physical worlds. So, a very interesting agenda all in all.

Although behavioural insight heralds great hope for social policy and public interventions, I keep hearing from many commentators that the nudging approach may not be ‘worth getting out of bed for’, bearing in mind that it would only save a few pennies from the UK’s public expenditure.

However, this is to assume that the whole purpose of applying behavioural insight to policy is saving taxpayers’ money. What about achieving better outcomes for the citizens who support such interventions and public services with their taxes?

There’s quite a big distinction between achieving cost-effective public services (which I’m all in for) and commissioning behavioural insight only where it delivers cuts in public expenditure. I’d really like to find more examples where behavioural insight experiments are fuelled by ethics rather than financial savings.

One solution – hand women the money

Behavioural insight could also help with problems such as the entrenched gender inequalities highlighted in my previous two points. One example from the conference caught my attention.

Sex selective abortions are responsible for 100-160 million ‘missing’ girls in the world, according to Iris Bohnet from Harvard University. That’s about as many women as those currently living in the US. Changing such practices, especially common in Asia, cannot be achieved through laws and regulations alone. Nudging is also unlikely to stop sex-selective abortion. But behavioural insight and laws combined may find a way to solve problems like this.

In one study in India, giving women control of significant amounts of money changed social gender norms in clear and lasting ways, as opposed to appointing women to the boards of short-term projects. We need more studies like this to understand the best way to change entrenched social issues.

As I said in previous posts, behavioural insight is just one of the many things to account for in behaviour-change interventions. Behavioural insight is not a magic bullet, but it’s very good news for championing a greater use of evidence in policymaking.

5. Cutting your lists shorter

I was planning to add here the notes from the book ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’, but I’m fittingly reminded of another great lesson from motherhood: the need to cut your lists shorter.

You never know when the baby is going to need you again, except that it’s usually earlier than you think!

I’ll leave more thoughts for the next time. I may even try a post on digital marketing trends for 2016. Dream high, right?

Until then, I wish you all a great beginning of 2016.

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