Growing up, I was convinced that you had to stay at home to be a ‘good mother’.
I remember feeling so lucky that my mother was always there: waiting for me at the school gates and cheering loudly at the side-line of every sporting event. Indeed, I was. Enormously so.
But what was misplaced was the sorrow I felt for those of my friends who had working mums. They needed my mother’s help with pick-up and drop-offs and seemed somewhat worse off. But they never complained.
I like to think now that their silence came from a sense of pride in their mother’s working commitments and not just because they didn’t know any better.
Twenty (or so!) years later, I now live in a very different world to those working mums before me.
As a mother and a director of a leading law firm in London, I’ve learned that flexibility is everything and our generation is really the first to know what that feels like and what opportunities it can bring.
If you are going to balance the demands of work and childcare, and stay sane, you need to adapt, and with any luck your firm will adapt with you.
In doing so you will both win, and your respective productivity will soar.
When I had my son, I realised just how lucky I was. Not only did I have the incredible support of my, and my husband’s, family through this life-changing time, but I had a firm that offered me complete flexibility and control over my return to business life.
There was absolutely no pressure. I knew from the off that I was valued enough that, whatever happened, I could determine how the transition would work.
Vardags’ parenting policy was pioneering enough to make my two lives sit perfectly together without me having to compromise my work or my family.
This came to bear from the moment the thought of returning to work crossed my mind for the first time.
Yes, you want your grown-up life back: your work, your colleagues, your smart suit and a whole cup of tea, but the initial wrench when you leave your baby and shut the door behind you is hard for new parents to manage.
So, at first, I felt that three days in the office was all that I could manage whilst I found my feet.
When I shakily first requested this working week structure, my request was immediately approved. The approval and the ‘no questions asked’ attitude removed all of my concerns about leaving my young son for the first time.
I convinced myself that I was just popping out of the house three days a week and would still have more days with him at home than I would without.
Once back in the office and I grew more and more confident that I could master the work-life balance, again I increased what I could do at work and my productivity boomed.
I moved slowly, and at my own pace, from three days in the office, to four, back to three when it seemed too much (with two afternoons at home with childcare paid for by my firm) and now to five days on those weeks I choose to work five days.
I have complete flexibility and my gratitude for that means that I work harder, and live harder, than virtually anyone else I know.
Now I am running billion-pound divorce cases and still get to take my son swimming on a Tuesday and a play group on a Monday morning.
Yes, there are days when I have to rearrange things, like when I have to attend a hearing, for example. But when I can bend and shape my week entirely around what works for everyone involved I do it, and I do it gladly.
I truly believe that an empowered workforce that appreciates its employer’s flexibility is unstoppable. I’m one of many dedicated working mothers running ultra-high value cases at my firm, and we’re all the better for it.
It is bolstered by the help with childcare that my firm offers. So many women are squeezed out of the workforce by the prohibitive cost of childcare. For some, the cost-benefit equation can make it scarcely worth it financially. Vardags cover childcare costs for senior employees and is certainly the only law firm, or indeed business, I have heard of to do so.
It is the future.
On one occasion I tried to balance too much and was forced to take an urgent conference call with my baby balanced on my hip. At one point, the gurgling got so distracting that I was asked by leading counsel whether anybody else was able to hear the baby on the line.
I now have childcare to help me even on my work days at home. This means I don’t miss out on a thing and am still on call when I am needed.
I didn’t have to ask for this kind of support; it was the enlightened suggestion of our founder and president Ayesha Vardag.
Ayesha set up the firm from her spare room whilst supporting her young family as a single mum. Within a few years it was market-leading. Prior to that she’d worked at large City firms, staffed by old-school lawyers with a miserable track record of supporting working mothers. So, she gets it.
Now she trusts her employees to stay committed to their work, and the firm, like she did. That leap of faith means that when they do give up time with family to work, it’s rewarded.
I am certain that this is absolutely right.
People talk about a work-life balance; I’d call it a delicate seesaw. Children’s needs, even more so than clients, can’t always be restricted to designated hours. But if properly managed, everyone wins.
Support your workforce in supporting their children, the things they love and value most in their lives, and they will pay you back in spades.