Family life: Wife to Joe* and mother to two year old son, Louis*
Work life: Research Scientist turned Childminder and Stay at Home Mother
As the main breadwinner of her family, after just five months of Maternity Leave, Sarah returned to her job at a leading University as a Research Scientist. Her husband Joe became a Stay At Home Dad, looking after their son Louis full time while he finished his PhD. But within four months, Sarah was signed off work with severe Post Natal Depression (PND) after suffering harassment for being a mother.
Sarah’s boss, Matthew*, had always been a difficult character to manage. He worked obscure hours (often starting his day at 1pm and not finishing until 10 at night) and had a history of issues with women in the workplace.
When Sarah returned to work in September 2014, as far as Matthew was concerned, nothing had changed; she had had her time off to have her baby, now she was back.
But Sarah was very clear from the off; she was no longer prepared to work to his atypical hours and going forward would work a ‘normal’ working day like the rest of the team (8:30am – 4:30pm so she could have some time with Louis in the evenings). She also requested one day working from home.
To Matthew, this meant she was distracted and no longer committed to her work. He made it clear he resented Sarah for having a baby and it became an incredibly hostile work environment. Sarah was under constant scrutiny and Matthew became incredibly negative about her performance, passing comment on her social interactions with colleagues or editing emails. He would openly put her down, claiming things like, “you’ve forgotten how to write since having a baby”.
Despite returning to work, Sarah continued to breastfeed. It was her way of feeling connected to Louis, doing her bit to care for him when she couldn’t be the one to physically look after him each day.
It was hard. All my friends were at home with their babies and I was at work, expressing five times a day, wishing I was at home. I suffered badly from separation anxiety, but I just thought it was normal.
Louis wasn’t sleeping through the night and though Joe did most of the night-wakings, there aren’t many places to hide from a crying baby in the dead of night in a London apartment.
She was shattered. She had no energy and suffered from awful migraines on a regular basis. The stress and strain of dealing with her boss each day and his total lack of understanding started to take its toll.
I cried in my office almost every day but I just thought my hormones were all over the place because of breastfeeding. Even if that had been the case though, I didn’t want to stop – it was the only thing I could do for him. I felt like a shit mother.
One day, her boss walked into her office without knocking while she was pumping. He found it hilarious and continued to mock, her for ‘milking herself’ over the coming weeks, bursting into her office a few times in hope of catching her again. It was the final straw.
It was at this pont (January 2015) Sarah was also diagnosed with PND. Initially, she was signed off for two weeks.
She began speaking with the head of her department and HR. They referred her to the University’s Occupational Health department, but they seemed unaware how to deal with someone suffering from PND and offered little support.
I would panic whenever sick leave came to an end I had to return to work. It affected my relationship with Joe, I wanted to run away with Louis, I was a mess. My career and my confidence were ruined.
Joe and her doctor continued to be her sole support as she slipped slowly deeper into the grip of her depression. Over the next year, Sarah ended up with eight months sick leave and heavily medicated to steady her.
A PGCE student had also supported the team, but she quit shortly after Sarah’s return to work and was hospitalised for mental health issues and stress after working with Matthew. Another colleague anecdotally reported issues with him as well after she returned from Mat Leave a few years before and a Post-doc with two children had left the University previously for similar reasons. Yet no one seemed willing to go on record and the University didn’t seem to be listening.
The main issue, according to Sarah, is that “it’s an incredibly patriarchal and hierarchical institute. Nobody wants to deal with complaints or confrontation, especially about senior staff.”
HR facilitated a meeting between Matthew and Sarah, but he simply used it as a platform to belittle her and her achievements. The female HR manager asked to meet Sarah in private and urged her to make a formal complaint. But was told there was a lack of hard evidence to substantiate the claims.
That summer, Joe finished his PhD and entered full time employment. Sarah resigned with almost immediate effect.
Since leaving the Univeristy last summer, Sarah’s health has improved significantly. She’s barely suffered from migraines and is now even coming off her medication. She also completed her childminder training in December 2015 and now not only looks after Louis full time but another five children over the course of the week as well. She even has a client waiting list.
To some, this may feel like drastic career change but to Sarah it was entirely the right choice; “I have previous nanny experience from when I was a student, and this way I could stay home with Louis but still contribute to the household bills. Financially, we’re better off and I’m happy again, I’m having fun, I’m not stressed – I’m enjoying life.”
I asked Sarah what she thought needs to change to help prevent other parents from experiencing similar fates; “There needs to be better support for women when returning to work. There needs to be more monitoring, making sure you’re ok and coping with the changes. It’s a massive thing becoming a parent.”
And as more men take advantage of the Shared Parental Leave laws in the UK, perhaps this is something that needs to be made available for all returning parents, not just women.