When Katie Pisa, digital producer at CNN and mother of three, took several months off after her first son was born, she had no idea about the impact that motherhood will have on her career. And it wasn’t only about (not) climbing the career ladder — having a baby while working as a journalist can turn professional life upside down.
In theory, having a baby shouldn’t be more difficult than coping with the stress of a 24/7 news cycle, right? Well, not quite. Pisa remembers having a chat with a colleague once when her son was a few months old, trying to simultaneously calm the baby, change his nappy in some awful cafe toilet while her colleague was stressing about what seemed quite a trivial matter. At that time she felt completely disconnected and it really put things in perspective. "It's easy to get swept up in being a mum just as easily as it is to be overtaken by office politics."
Having a baby while working as a high-profile journalist comes at a cost. Zoe Kleinman, BBC presenter and reporter, and a mum of two, had her first child in her early thirties, while working as a reporter for the BBC News. When taking her time off, she was afraid of her career stalling, of not being able to keep up with the news beat, of losing the profile she had worked hard to build. She had finally decided to take the full year’s maternity leave but was also very worried about money as the last three months were unpaid.
She told Journalism.co.uk these worries were partly justified. "It has taken me three years since the end of my last maternity leave to feel like my career is progressing again. But that is partly by choice. I wanted to focus on my children and family even when I went back to work." Suddenly there were a lot of networking and after-work events she was no longer doing because she was going home to her kids. "This was again my choice but it does make you a lot less visible."
During her one-year maternity leave, Kleinman struggled mentally and emotionally with the demands of children, especially during the 'keep in touch' days. "It was such a new world to me, a world away from deadlines and the buzz of the newsroom and adult conversation. I felt out of the loop and not a particularly useful part of the team, for one day only here and there,” she explained.
Pisa also said leaving her busy newsroom to stay home with her baby was tough at the beginning. "Spending days and nights looking after this one little human who required so much of my attention — and let's be honest, babies are a lot more demanding than most jobs — was both exhausting and lonely at times. Once we got in our groove, after some months, it became much more fun."
Motherhood has made me a more empathetic person, a better listener and certainly more time-efficientKatie Pisa, CNN
As many women, both journalists got back to work on a part-time basis, with their employers proving empathetic and supportive. That seems to be an increasing trend, as more UK media companies are setting up more attractive parental leave policies in a bid to retain their staff.
Hearst UK, for example, recently launched their New Parent Programme that supports Hearst parents through preparing for and returning from leave. According to Surinder Simmons, chief people officer at Hearst UK, the new programme offers workshops led by a coach and psychologist covering a range of topics from building confidence, to practical advice and skills mapping.
"We also encourage our parents to join the Hearst Parents Network where they can expand their network and share tips, as well as getting the support of a Hearst Buddy as they prepare to return to work," said Simmons.
And they are on to something, as coming back to the newsroom after parental leave seems to be even more challenging than leaving.
"It was very difficult, being half-back, half-not… nobody ever knew whether I was due in or not and I felt like my profile had vanished,” said Kleinman. "I had also lost confidence – I went from someone who was confident she could do her job because it was something she did everyday, to someone who knew she used to be good at her job but wasn’t sure whether she still was."
Although Kleinman’s colleagues were welcoming on the whole when she returned, she got challenged by one senior member of staff about how she would balance childcare and work if, say, the children got hurt at school or nursery while she was at work. "I felt intimidated by that suggestion that somehow I would fail as either a parent or a journalist when forced to choose."
Despite all the difficulties, being a parent while working as a journalist seems to have the same effect as the best life-coaching course. "I feel more realistic now," explained Pisa. "I appreciate the value of having interesting and stimulating work at times but also having the flexibility to choose what I want to work on and when. I'd say motherhood has made me a more empathetic person, a better listener and certainly more time-efficient.”
Kleinman agreed and added: "I feel calmer, more mature, less phased by work stress. And I am now doing a lot of different things, including presenting, which was totally unexpected, and which I love. I would say now I am in a good place. But I do still feel like I am in total five years behind where I would be had I not taken that time out.
"Also, I work really hard. I might not always be in the office but I am always on email, I work during the free time that I have when required and I make myself as available as possible. Lots of news editors here have my personal mobile. I think when you’re a part time working mum you have to push yourself that much harder to retain your currency."
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