This time it was all planned. This time we were going to have everything organized and taken care of.
This second time my return to work post maternity leave was going to be smooth. Considering we were about to start new jobs, it had to be. We had it all sorted. It took 10 months to plan. It lasted one day.
In Switzerland maternity leave allowance is normally three months. Yes a “generous” three months. In my company the allowance available is exceptionally up to six months. The average EU mother has and takes 12 months leave, considering countries like Germany where parental leave is up to 3 years, although most mothers take 10-12 months, countries like Italy and the UK where it`s normally 1 year and countries like Spain where it`s around 6 months. And considering countries which are 100 years ahead like the Nordics where parental leave can be shared, fathers can take 3 months off without stigma, flexible working is a reality and not a career killer and results are not based on face time, childcare is available, high level and affordable for everyone.
Per se Switzerland´s 3 – 6 months would not even be too extreme if the support network around parents and childcare arrangements were functioning well or in some cases existed at all. If mothers and fathers who decide to invest in their careers had it a tad easier, going back to work a few weeks after birth would be possible without major headaches. In a country where nursery schools are mainly private (unless you fall under a certain income threshold, and only about 10-15% of the population does, in that case you could apply for one of the few subsidized nursery places, well before you plan to get pregnant), where the 0 – 5 care is fully and only up to the parents, it is not a surprise that only 25% of the women return to work after the first child, and less after child number two.
The childcare bill is on the high end, come June, when our second son will start nursery, we will have a monthly CHF 6000 bill only for two nursery schools, 7.30 to 6pm, and we are not in the most expensive school. No, it is not in line with average salaries, it is well above, this the reason why mothers in the workforce are so scarce in full time or executive roles. The same goes for the majority of the working parents we know, mostly affluent or above, and still. That does not include a possible nanny to help with late work days, sick days, school holidays (12 weeks a year for which you still pay school fees). Nannies cost between 20 and 40 CHF per hour and most importantly it is not easy to find a person to whom you leave for the whole day your children, your house and your car while you are gone. Of course there are some amazing people and professionals out there, and we were blessed until now, but what an adventure to find them?
We are lucky to be able to afford this so that we can both have the choice and continue with our careers. But it is little wonder that a strikingly high number of mothers list costs as reason number one for deciding to take care of their kids themselves and stay at home, in many cases giving up to her aspirations and careers. Reason two and three being the pressure from the employer, from society, and of course from themselves. Yes, society. It was a family doctor in his 40s who told me with a grave voice “Why are you doing this to your family? Can you not just stay at home.” when I asked for vitamins as I was feeling slightly exhausted the first few months after my return, the lack of sleep, the weekly nursery bugs of my first baby and the long work days were tough.
Switzerland is an amazing country and we chose to stay here in Zurich instead of London, Milan, Frankfurt for example, because of the many advantages it offers. But one thing that this country is missing is realizing the potential of the many amazing talents who because of the above we are losing daily. While it is a great country for having a family for example, it is very far from being a good country for working mothers and fathers. Here a good article with stats about this.
After our first son was born, I returned to work after 5 months for 3 days a week for a short period of time, before going back to full time, we had a part-time nursery school and were positive that things would just work out fine. They do for some families, they didn`t for us. This first particular school we had in order to “stay competitive” accepted sick children, in some cases highly infectious children – the normal standard of care states that when visibly sick children should be sent home. This meant that my son hardly ever went to school as he was sick every other day, we paid for the nursery school to keep the place and we paid for a nanny who helped when he was sick to go to the school that weekly made him sick. An interesting loop. Until we cancelled the school and got stung with 3 months "exit fee" anyway although my son had been there 20% of the time while he was still enrolled. So nanny and family stepped in until our little man and his immune system were able to cope with the daily bombardment of nursery school germs.
Aware of the above and of the fact that this time I was going back to work full time, a few months before baby 2 came we started looking for a full time nanny who could take care of him the whole day for the first 14 months of life, until he would start nursery school. We made our choice and our new nanny started a few weeks after our second little boy was born. I was keen to have her with us during my maternity leave so that we could all get used to each other. Things worked, she was doing a very good job, the kids liked her and I felt in good hands. The plan was waterproof, older child in nursery school full time, 5 months baby at home with the nanny and family a few days a month when and if needed.
I went back to work on October 1st. On October 2nd I almost choked on my coffee while reading a text from our nanny, who was off that week as my family was with the kids, who asked if we could meet for coffee the next day.
I just knew. I have to say I totally understand her reasons and there is nothing none of us could have probably done differently. She was about to go back to the corporate world as had been offered a great job by a very good company. What can one say? Is there a prize for worst timing?
What was I supposed to do with my job and my baby? Our place at the nursery school would not be available until June, that was only ...8 months to go. I was now back at work, to a new job too, and had very little time to interview or “try” nannies. Once again one of our blessings, family, and a friend whom I cannot consider anything else than family, came in. But how many parents can rely so quickly on their families really? We will find a new nanny of course, but could timing have been worse? Why do many parents have to cope with and live in a constant house of cards when it comes to childcare?
To make things easier, within the first week of me going back, our then 5 months old baby started to:
- Wake up between 4 and 8 times a night (he had been a superb sleeper since birth and until then)
- Refuse formula (which we had often been given as a little top up and were now trying to increase)
- Demand milk the whole night and refuse it during the day (while I was away)
Only who has been there knows what it means to survive on little, interrupted sleep for months on end and try and perform at work and be on top of your life. It is a type of exhaustion, effort and pressure that cannot be explained. Thankfully, like everything else, you get used to it. Almost.
Everything beyond kids and work becomes secondary unfortunately. A particularly gifted journalist like Carolyn Hax, was able to explain why parents really have little time and what they can do about it (guess?). Here is a great read.
However, I have now known for some time, while stressful, pressure can be good. In fact, pressure can be a privilege.
One of my favourite entrepreneurs, Mr Branson just wrote an illuminating post:
"The other day someone asked me how I deal with pressure. Without thinking over my response, I said that pressure is a privilege – which really is a great way to think positively and proactively about any challenge. When we are faced with exciting scenarios and situations, dealing with the stress that they bring can lead us to be more alert, alive and attentive. It can help to improve our performance."
"You need to balance high-pressure periods with plenty of time for rest, reflection and recuperation, or else you won’t be able to switch off and get perspective. This is partly why work-life balance and spending time away from the office is so important," he says.
"And remember: When the stakes are higher, the rewards are greater — and the journey is more enjoyable."