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During the Covid pandemic, Annie Abelman launched a free scheme that connects women who have gone back to work with those who are preparing to do so.
When Annie Abelman returned to work in October 2017, after her maternity leave with her first child, her employer was very supportive but she still ended up feeling frazzled.
“I didn’t want to say no to anything, because when you return to work after maternity leave you want to prove that you can do everything that’s thrown at you,” says Abelman, pictured above. “It’s like you want to make sure that they missed you!”
Abelman had an intense two years back in her role running a communications team, before deciding to do a Masters and then go freelance. Along the way, she started wondering how mothers who had returned to work could support those who were about to do it, especially as the Covid pandemic presented steep challenges for new mums.
In late 2020, Abelman started Mentor Mums, a service that matches mothers who have gone back to work (mentors) with those who are about to (mentees). The free service matches women in the same sector or with similar career paths, so they can share relevant advice. Each pair then has six mentoring sessions that they structure themselves.
“When I started this, I didn’t know if anyone would sign up, but it just grew legs without me trying at all…[because] it’s so needed,” says Abelman, whose project has matched 100 pairs of mentors and mentees so far.
In recent years, some large companies have set up in-house mentoring projects for their staff. Banks such as Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have run coaching schemes for women just before they go on maternity leave or when they return. The construction company J Murphy & Sons is developing a “buddy” programme for working parents this year. The Bar Council, the national body that regulates barristers, also runs a maternity mentoring scheme.
But smaller companies might not have enough HR resources or a big enough staff pool to run such projects. And Abelman adds that, even for staff at large organisations, an in-house scheme might not suit everyone.
“People tell us a lot and they trust us with one of the most seminal experiences of their lives. You wouldn’t necessarily tell someone in your workplace about it, because you might end up working with them shortly,” she says. “So we’ve got a real USP in that we match people across organisations.”
At Mentor Mums, some women are seeking advice on practical matters – such as how to approach flexible working requests with bosses, set up housework rotas with partners, and find schemes that support returning mums in their sector.
However, rebuilding confidence is also a big topic of discussion. Mothers often feel insecure about their skills after time off, especially because many women at times feel isolated, undervalued, and financially stretched during maternity leave. Almost half of women feel lonely during maternity leave, according to a 2018 survey. The UK’s state maternity pay is just half of the national living wage.
Abelman says that, over the last two years, the Covid pandemic has created a specific set of challenges for the mothers using her service. She has seen how increased isolation can affect mentees’ confidence, as they prepare to go back to their jobs. After spending months in lockdowns and support bubbles, she also saw women feel anxious about being apart from their babies for the very first time. Many mothers have had to navigate returning to work remotely and find new ways to feel connected to colleagues.
Abelman is committed to keeping her mentoring service free so it remains available to all women. She has started advising companies on how to manage mothers’ return to work, including how to train staff who manage returners. She hopes that in time this consultancy work can fund the mentoring service.
Abelman is now a mother of two, with a wealth of insight into returners. What would she tell her previous self, the one who went back to work in 2017? “Something I know now is that…you don’t need to prove yourself in the way you think you do when you’re returning to work,” she says. “Obviously it’s important to remain visible, but a good employer trusts you – that’s why they’ve employed you.”