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The pandemic is wreaking damage on working mothers – it’s an exhausting juggling act

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With nurseries shut, Claire Newell was wondering how she would cope if she was to return to work - Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph
With nurseries shut, Claire Newell was wondering how she would cope if she was to return to work – Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph

Last year, I gave birth to a baby boy – wonderful, if life-upending. A few months in, as I began to emerge from the fog of sleep deprivation, I started to consider how I would return to my job as The Telegraph’s investigations editor.

But just as I was grappling with how to restructure our lives, the first lockdown hit. Childcare all but dried up. Most of the nurseries I applied to were closed and I started to wonder how we could cope.

It will be a familiar scenario to families all over Britain. As Lockdown 3 gears up, many parents are wondering how they will make it to spring – particularly women, who have been disproportionately affected by the restrictions, with the tension between the demands of caring for their family and careers more strained than ever.

According to University College London, women spent more than twice as much time as men on home-schooling in Lockdown 1 – and with schools once again shut, they are again having to put their careers on hold. Many are starting to wonder what’s going to give.

Instead of descending into a full blown panic, I decided to investigate for a new podcast, The Juggling Act, interviewing high profile women in business, politics and entertainment to see what they could teach a new mum like me.

Emma Pinchbeck, who leads industry body Energy UK, told me that her childcare disappeared due to the pandemic just as she was about to start her high profile job last year, after maternity leave.

She had no choice but to work “one day a week, with hours wherever I could” until she was able to secure a nursery place for her young child in September. But balancing a demanding job and childcare took its toll and she admits that “It would have been easier not to go back [to work] at all in some ways”.

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, faced a similar juggle when she needed to attend a House of Commons debate and her partner, a key worker, couldn’t look after their daughter. So she took her baby to Westminster.

“I got her to go to sleep and parked the pram in the corner of the division lobby,” she recalls. “Two minutes before the session started I heard her cry. So I took her into the Chamber with as much food as I could stuff into her and asked my question.”

Her decision led to her being “reprimanded” by another MP who thought it was “inappropriate” for her to bring her infant daughter into the House. Listen to Stella Creasy’s interview on the audio player below.

The Juggling Act podcast - Stella CreasyThe Juggling Act podcast - Stella Creasy
The Juggling Act podcast – Stella Creasy

The juggle crossed the political divide. Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns, was based in Yorkshire during the first wave with her toddler, while her husband – also a Conservative MP – was embedded with his constituents in Bristol.

“I was exhausted,” she says. “My team would be getting emails at two or three in the morning where I was trying to catch up. It was a real juggle and very emotional”.

Little wonder experts are concerned about the impact Covid restrictions might have on women’s careers. Karen Mattison, co-founder of flexible working consultancy Timewise, believes some companies might be put off from allowing staff to work from home in future.

“Although the past year has shown businesses what is possible in terms of flexible working, it hasn’t been plain sailing,” she says.

“The enforced remote working experiment was unplanned. Some didn’t have the right tech or equipment and had to cope with home-schooling.

“Businesses might think it doesn’t work because of the added pressures the pandemic created. The concern is that many could throw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding that flexible working doesn’t work after all, which would be to ignore all the positives.”

Sam Smethers, former chief executive of the Fawcett Society, also has concerns. “The real issue for so many parents, particularly women, [is] that we still think about whether someone’s doing a good job based on whether they’re there [at their desk]”, she says.

With two children in their 20s and two approaching teenagehood, she is experienced at the juggle and was always “upfront” with her bosses about what she could deliver – leaving at 5.30pm to collect her children but often picking work back up in the evenings.

It’s this kind of arrangement that Baroness Ruby McGregor Smith, who was chief executive of Mitie until 2016 and has two children, thinks is key to ensuring working women thrive in the post-pandemic world. But being out of the workplace, she says – whether on maternity leave or because of Covid – can lead to a loss of confidence.

“You have a lot more time to think by yourself and to dwell… things we know can knock confidence”, she says. “It certainly did for me.”

The peer advocates questioning “how you can work differently” – particularly when so many will be in the same boat post-Covid.

“There is no such thing, in my book, as some super mother that can have it all,” she says. “You can absolutely have an amazing career and have kids. You may not be able to do it all at the same time, but you can do it”.

Listen to The Telegraph’s new podcast, The Juggling Act, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Join the Telegraph Women Facebook Group to discuss The Juggling Act and more.

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