Has having a baby made me better at my job?

September 14, 2015

A few months ago, before the summer, which feels like last decade, I received an email. It was from a lovely woman called Claire who I met via twitter, and she was asking me to speak at a ‘power breakfast’ for women in September, on a topic of my choice, for around half an hour. I was hugely flattered, said yes, and thought I’d worry about it later. A few months passed, I secretly hoped all had been forgotten, then the confirmation came through, asking what I’d be talking about so they could send out an email to all the members. Eek. Big eek.

While I go on the radio fairly often, public speaking makes me want to vomit. I spent a few nights worrying, debating getting out of it, then decided to put my big girl pants on and do it. I told Claire that I’d be talking about how having a baby has made me better at my job, which got the thumbs up, so the only thing left to do was write it. Below is a draft of the speech I gave last week (and, I’m thrilled to say, it went really, really well).


The last two years have been a little overwhelming when it comes to my identity. I’ve gone from girlfriend, to fiancée, to wife, to mother. All the while being a woman, an editor, a friend, a daughter and a sister. Changing my name was more unsettling than I thought.

Where has this left me? How has motherhood affected my career? And can you have it all?

I’ve always been maternal, forever tucking up my dollies in their tiny beds, making sure they ate enough at the tea party, sewing clothes for teddy bears. There was no doubt that I wanted to be a mother. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was my burgeoning desire to succeed at work too, and that’s what I’m currently trying to reconcile.

A few years ago I saw a psychic, who told me I’d have one daughter (so far so true) and that I wasn’t very ambitious. She quickly said, “That’s not to say you don’t work hard, you do, but you don’t tie your happiness to the next promotion. You’re generally very content in the moment”. And that’s true, too.

Or it was true, until I had Phoebe seven months ago.

I had a sneaking feeling that once I gave birth the rest of the world would fade away. My job, the magazine, the office and my bosses would lose significance, and the centre of everything would be my daughter. And, of course, that was the case for the first few months – I’d take great delight in deleting huge swathes of work emails from my phone, and would give the magazine a cursory glance when I saw it for sale with someone else’s photo at the front.

And then something changed. I heard myself talking to my husband one evening about the smallest details of someone else’s baby. A baby he didn’t know. He hadn’t even met the parents. And I had a flash forward to the future if I didn’t go back to work.

I was hungry for adult interaction, to reclaim my identity as a working woman with more to talk about and contribute than nappy counts and the price of formula.

So much of my identity is tied up in my job. Good magazine covers family, food, shopping, ideas, money saving, inspirational people and more, so it’s pretty much impossible for me to spend a weekend without thinking ‘that would be great for the next issue!’ or actually enjoy another magazine – when you work in publishing you have an imaginary red pen hovering over every page at all times, ready to correct a typo, suggest another header or scrawl a giant cross over an ugly image. It’s very annoying!

But above all, I love my job. I adore my team. Going back after having a baby would have been a very different matter if I suffered from that awful, gnawing feeling that I can only describe as ‘the Sunday night homework blues’ each evening before work.

So I returned to work, just in time for one of the biggest issues of the year. Straight in at the deep end. We have a fantastic live-in nanny who not so helpfully held up Phoebe as I left the house on that first morning, pretending to speak for her, saying “Bye bye mummy! When will you be home, mummy?”. Cues tears in the car.

And you know what? As soon as I was back, it was fine. Being busy helped, but I quickly realised that my intended plan of working three days a week was just not feasible. Similar to many part-time workers, I ended up working full time for less money.

What I have found, however, is that my productivity has shot through the roof. My husband often asks “Did you see the Daily Mail today? Did you see…” only for me to stop him short and explain that if it’s not work, I’m not looking at it. I don’t want my workload to take a second longer than it should, so I can get in the car, beat the traffic and head home for cuddles.

Mothers, I’m finding out, are incredibly productive. If you want something doing, ask a mum. In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran states that mothers are by nature “superhumanly productive”, adding, “Give a new mother a sleeping child for an hour, and she can achieve 10 times more than a childless person.”

Moran says: ‘Multi-tasking’ doesn’t come near to the quantum productivity of someone putting in an online grocery order, writing a report, cooking the tea, counselling a weeping friend on the phone, mending a broken hoover – all within the space of a 3pm nap.

If you employ a parent in your place of work, yes, they may occasionally have to take the day off, to nurse a child through Dengue fever. But I bet they’re the only people who know the correct way to kick the photocopier when it’s broken, and can knock you up a six-month strategy plan in the time it takes for the elevator to go from the 24th floor to the lobby.”

For me, it’s not just about using my time in a better way; I’m also becoming more ambitious. I want to set a good example to my daughter. To show her she is capable of achieving whatever she wants. To show her that I’m capable, too.

And I’m not alone in thinking that having a child has made me better at my job. Broadcaster Lauren Laverne recently wrote on her fantastic website The Pool:

“Having kids has made me more efficient, ambitious, focused, and more determined. My domestic set-up is tediously conventional, but it has given me the firm foundations I needed to live more boldly. I take my work more seriously, but have more fun because I know that what I do matters. I take on exciting projects that scare me. I have experienced some extremely useful failures and become less judgemental in the process – this makes both failure and the judgement of others much less of a concern. I have more responsibility than I have ever known, but I feel freer.”

And last month a staff writer at New Yorker magazine published an article online that included these words:

“Obviously, if you don’t want kids, having them won’t make you happier. But if you already know you want kids and you’re worried that they’ll ruin your life and destroy your career, think again. Kids don’t just bring a lot of joy to your life by being weird and funny and yes, annoying and loud, too. Kids also force you to decide what’s worth your time and what isn’t.”

When earlier this year a Harvard Business School study revealed that daughters of working mothers earn 23% more than stay at home mums, I breathed a sigh of relief and let a little bit of guilt go (not all of it, of course). Harvard Professor Kathleen McGinn studied 50,000 people from 24 countries and found that daughters of working mothers grow up to be more successful in the workplace than their peers. They earn more and are more likely to be bosses.

While daughters see the biggest tangible financial gains, sons of working mums are more likely to grow up contributing to the childcare and household chores. Hurrah.

All over the world, children of working mothers are less likely to stick to traditional roles of male breadwinners and female homemakers – and children under 14 who were exposed to mothers who worked (either part-time or full-time) for at least a year grow up to hold more egalitarian gender views as adults.

Maternity leave, however short, was great for perspective and helping me prioritise. It’s not about perfection, it’s about good enough. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t signed Phoebe up for Baby Sensory or Baby Gym classes (I couldn’t take her anyway, as all the classes are midweek), or if I’m not at my pre-pregnancy weight yet.  I’m not putting any more extra stress on myself. I’m forgiving myself more.

Dr Ellie Boag, a social psychologist at Birmingham City University, claims that growing pressure on working mothers – both external and internal – contributes to a feeling of intolerable stress.  She said: “We want to prove we’re capable of this dual role that’s expected of us, that we may have babies but we can still be the best employee, almost because we have children, not in spite of it. The pressure comes from the media and society, but mostly it comes from ourselves.”

I’ve been clear with both myself and my employers – things have changed. I won’t go to as many evening events as before, as I’ve promised myself that whenever possible I’ll be there for 7am and 7pm bottle feeds.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S State Department, insisted in The Atlantic that working women, especially those in power, talk about their children in the office, and are honest about the balance they are trying to enforce. If you can’t attend a meeting because it’s a parent-teacher conference, or can’t travel for work because it clashes with your child’s birthday, be honest about the real reason, instead of making up a more ‘neutral’ excuse in case you’re seen as being less than committed to the job. We have to make efforts to change the norms.

Slaughter added: “Whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons. It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time.”

This does not mean that you should insist that your colleagues spend time cooing over pictures of your baby or listening to the accomplishments of your 4 year old. It does mean that if you are late coming in one week, because it is your turn to drive the kids to school, that you be honest about what you are doing. Indeed, Sheryl Sandberg recently acknowledged not only that she leaves work at 5.30pm to have dinner with her family, but also that for many years she did not dare make this admission, even though she would, of course, make up the work time later in the evening. Her willingness to speak out now is a strong step in the right direction.

I admit it’s getting harder to leave Phoebe each morning. When she was three months old she didn’t do much – now she’s trying new foods, teeth are poking through and there’s the imminent threat of crawling. I’m missing more. And when it comes to first words and walking, the thought of being at the office while someone else witnesses these milestones makes me want to rip my heart out.

What the future holds, I don’t know. Very few companies here offer flexibility with office hours, or working from home. Mine included.

I keep thinking that this is all a temporary stage, that one day things will change and a solution will present itself – where I’ll be able to produce a great magazine on a timescale that suits my family life, on a salary that suits impending school fees.

Can you have it all? I’m trying to find out. I’m trying to be both mother and editor, without compromising either role. I have a feeling that something’s got to give, but I also know that becoming a mother has made me braver, and that is very exciting indeed.

4 responses to “Has having a baby made me better at my job?”

  1. Mrs Dubai says:

    Very interesting, Helen, thank you. I used to have the same job as you; went through the same thought processes as you; went back to work full-time when my baby was 12 weeks old. I loved working; my identity was also bound up in my job. And we got by for a bit. But, by the time my daughter turned two, I realised I couldn’t do it anymore. I was the glue holding everything together but nothing was holding me together. My me-time – the time my friends spent getting their nails done, reading books, meeting for coffee or getting their hair done – was spent at work or at home. I was running myself ragged trying to run a magazine and a home. In the end, I quit office life. It was the right decision but it was hard to accept for a while. But I started to see it not as an end, but a metamorphosis. We are blessed in that journalism is flexible, and can be adapted to suit different phases of our lives. It’s a matter of continually assessing what works for you and your family, and adjusting accordingly. Things will change as your daughter grows up and has different needs. You will find your way. Just remember this: happy mummy = happy baby. X

  2. Kath Hawkes says:

    Helen, I’m only reading this post now and loved it! Wise an brutally honest words in there. It’s a tough topic that seems to take on entirely different forms for everyone and yet we all have the same underlying concerns and guilt. I think we eventually realise that there is simply no magic formula and you just learn to go with whatever works best for you and your family. I’m thrilled that you’re finding the time to blog! Kath x

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