The transition to motherhood is a huge one, full of conflicting emotions and expectations. It’s a psychological minefield, where childhood experiences are relived, relationships with partners and parents are re-evaluated and career expectations altered, says Jennifer Liston-Smith. She knows what she is talking about. Not only is she a mother but she has been a coach and then maternity coach for around 20 years. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to her.
The transition to motherhood is a huge one, full of conflicting emotions and expectations. It’s a psychological minefield, where childhood experiences are relived, relationships with partners and parents are re-evaluated and career expectations altered, says Jennifer Liston-Smith. And that’s before you even consider all the practical and physical issues of adding a wholly dependent small person to your life.
Jennifer knows what she is talking about. Not only is she a mother but she has been a coach and then maternity coach for around 20 years.
With a background in law and psychology, and further professional training, Jennifer started up her coaching business, People in Progress, in 1996 with a focus on leadership and performing under pressure. She and her colleague Anna Hayward decided to narrow their focus in 2005 and concentrate on women returning to work. They set up Managing Maternity, a pioneer in its field. The organisation worked with top corporates to devise initiatives which would help stop highly qualified women leaving their jobs. The aim was to spread good practice and give employers an understanding of the very particular issues faced by women returning to work after having children.
The company closed at the end of January this year after Hayward said she wanted to do something different. “It’s difficult when you are a pioneer and innovator not to want to move on and try different things, and we realised we were both ready for a new chapter,” says Jennifer, adding that the two remain friends. She adds that the marketplace was changing too. “The last year has been a struggle for many city firms who have found it hard to justify spending on retaining staff at a time when they are making big redundancies.” For many it has been a bit of a waiting game. “They know that in the long term they need to look at issues of transition to motherhood and back to work, but they have been holding out for an upturn in the economy,” she says.
The expertise of Managing Maternity has not, however, been lost. Jennifer has absorbed maternity coaching into People in Progress. Her focus is now broader and the emphasis is on providing a more “agile’ service which can be adapted within individual companies. For instance, she has been working on training internal coaches working in the big city firms to set up their own maternity initiatives.
She says the landscape has changed entirely since Managing Maternity was first set up, which makes her confident about the future. “When we first dared to raise the subject of the return to work transition with firms they used to ask us why it was important for their bottom line. Now they ring me up. They know they need to do something,” says Jennifer.
Her legal background is also coming in handy, given the number of legal changes that have been introduced in recent years and months surrounding issues like flexible working and paternity laws. Firms want guidance on what good practice is in such areas. Interestingly, she says, many people see new proposals on sharing longer paternity leave as raising novel questions. “People are asking how can men take so long out of the workplace, miss out on pay and face possible sidelining as a result. All of these are issues that women have had years of having to grapple with,” she says.
She admits, however, that additional paternity leave does throw up particular tensions for dads – they are torn between peer pressure to conform and their own expectations to be the traditional breadwinner while at the same time they are striving for more involvement in the lives of their children. Then there is the issue of whether men can afford to take time out since they are still more likely to be the main breadwinners. Jennifer thinks that the whole paternity leave issue could put equal pay more firmly on the agenda.
Another issue is women’s expectations about their role as what Jennifer calls “chief executive of the family”. Most mothers she knows, even if they are the main breadwinners and working full time, tend to be in control of certain aspects of family life, such as playdates and holidays, even if they share domestic and childcare tasks. “At some level women still seem to want to be on the case with what is going on with their children’s lives,” she says. “They find it hard to fully let go of that role.”
She says that she is surprised by how many women in top jobs still live in “a very conventional world” where the mum retains the primary carer role. Coaching, she says, is not about telling people what to do, but about helping peopel to accept what feels right for them so that they are confident enough to feel happy about it.
It is important, she adds, that as part of women’s transition to motherhood they have a network of other mums and perhaps their own mum around to draw from, given the complexity of the issues they are grappling with. Many women revisit their own relationship with their mother after they have children, for instance. Often this can bring them closer and mean they are more understanding of why their mother acted in certain ways.
Jennifer says the whole issue of transition to motherhood and the web of emotions it throws up are rising up the agenda. She is being asked increasingly to speak at conferences and write papers on the subject. Next month, for instance, she will be speaking at the Mothering Heights conference in Oxford, she writes for Management Today’s Parent Project blog and has just been featured in the Mum Ultrapreneur book by Susan Ödev.
“The thing is that the focus while women are pregnant is wholly on the giving birth aspect, but that’s just the beginning,” she says. “And it’s not just about managing your hours, either. It’s all the physical and emotional demands that come with being a mother. For mothers, the best way to cope is to accept that you cannot please everyone and to prioritise what is important.”