I look back on my job interviews early in my career with a huge degree of ick factor. "What are you looking for?", the hiring manager would ask.
"Well flexibility is really important to me", I'd start (strong I thought!).... "You know, I have 2 young children, and a husband that works away, and occasionally I need some flexibility to, you know, keep all of the balls juggling.... if the kids get sick, or if there is an important appointment, I would really appreciate an employer who could provide flexibility."
The slightest little raise of an eyebrow, a clearing of the throat, and I would understand immediately..... It's ok to ask for flexibility, but once you provide reasons for that (ie. kids, medical issues, family) you are automatically seen as unreliable. Another one of those 'working mums who will drop work in a heartbeat in favour of 6 year olds birthday parties, a sniffly nose or a broken nights sleep'.
The truth was, I was (and still am) exceedingly reliable. Calling in sick, or asking to work from home was my last ditch option back in those days, well after I'd tried to call in every favour with every family member I had, missing key events, and insisting my FIFO husband get on a plane home so I could get into work. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter how reliable I was, because the second I asked the F-word question in an interview, I was assumed to be an unreliable and unloyal future employee who would 'take the p!ss'.
So what has changed over the past 10-15 years? Well flexibility is now a given, not something to be bargained for in job interviews. Women are moving on up and smashing those ceilings in much larger numbers meaning 'working mums' aren't such a novelty in senior positions any more, and the rise in public knowledge of gender inequalities in the workplace mean we can call out inherent bias easily and with more influence.
I have changed. I am still reliable and loyal but I now take a sick day if I am sick, instead of soldiering on infecting others, purely so that I wasn't seen as someone taking advantage of their employers goodwill. I go to my children's important school events. I honestly think I missed nearly every primary school event both of my children ever had, and I am committed to not making the same mistake for their last ever years of high school. Appointments? I'm there. Schoolyard bullying? Let me come home early and comfort you. I no longer owe my employers a better version of myself than my family is entitled to. Because do you know what? All those years I gave and gave and gave... shipping sick kids off to grandparents, leaving my husband at the hospital with injured kids to attend meetings, working through glandular fever, and depression, and anxiety........ The businesses I worked for didn't really care! I didn't get a special gold star for being a reliable 'working mum'. They just accepted that I was there, doing my job and got on with it. They didn't see the extent I was wringing myself dry to be everything to everyone all at once. And if I wasn't there, the world wouldn't have fallen apart. The business wouldn't have cared. In fact, the worst that would have happened was probably some sly comments, rolled eyes and some misplaced jokes about 'what you get when you hire mums'. I was the one who suffered. My family were the ones who suffered. Not the businesses I worked for, and to be fair to those businesses the majority were wonderfully supportive. I probably only experienced overt comments and behaviour designed to make me feel bad about taking time off for my kids a handful of times in my early career. The actions of those 2-3 managers then ensured that I projected those insecurities onto every employer I had.....
So what do I want to say to the next generation of working parents, seeking flexibility and trying to juggle it all? Back yourself. Don't ask for flexibility, expect it. It is 2021, we are 18 months down the COVID path, and we KNOW flexibility is possible. So just own it. Don't grovel in interviews like I did. Don't give anyone the opportunity to put you in a little box that you will continually try to fight your way out of with no avail. If you're a good worker, you deserve flexibility. Don't put your family last while trying to prove to your employer that you are deserving. You ARE deserving, and you don't need to bust your gut to prove it. Life is messy. Kids get sick, people have accidents, appointments get scheduled at the most inopportune times. Any employer worth your stress and worry will understand that, and will encourage you to have a well-rounded work life balance.
PS. Employers, check on your staff that never take sick days. Usually they think they have something to prove (unless of course they do have a superhuman ability to stay healthy and well for years on end), and maybe it's time to have a chat about balance.