August 13, 2021 (Updated )
“It was an anxious time, being pregnant, the pandemic, and worrying about work,” Katherine Nash recalled, a presenter and reporter for ITN and Channel 5. Katherine was one of the 615,557 who gave birth in 2020, forced not only to juggle motherhood with her career, but also the rise of COVID-19.
Having children can feel complicated enough already for women working in journalism. While there are no statistics about the industry specifically, data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that more than half of mothers make changes to their job after giving birth.
Globally, research from the Reuters Institute found that only 22 percent of top editors were women. In 11 out of the 12 markets they studied, the majority of top editors were men. So, just how can you make parenting and journalism work?
“I worried whether everyone would remember all the good bits of journalism that I brought in over the last couple of months,” continued Katherine Nash, speaking at a Women in Journalism event about motherhood. “In reality when I was off, I didn’t think about it too much. But I suppose didn’t have any time to think about it, because you’ve got this new job, you know, being a mum.”
Similarly, Charlene White, a journalist and Loose Women presenter, says taking the leave you’re entitled to is crucial. “Don’t think or worry about it, just do it,” she told audiences. In the UK, everyone who gives birth is entitled to up to 52 weeks off, a full year. However, Statutory Maternity Pay only lasts for 39 weeks, most of which is capped at £151.97 a week.
“It’s easier said than done,” Charlene agreed, but stressed that new mothers should prioritise enjoying their maternity leave. “The one thing I was so surprised about is how quickly the time went.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s almost in the blink of an eye, suddenly the baby’s here, and then suddenly, they’re one and you’re thinking about what you want to do next, or going back to work, and so I would just say enjoy it all.”
Prioritise Your Needs – Even If They Change
In reality, just 12 percent of women will take a full year’s maternity leave, with one in five taking just four months or less. Finance pays a huge part in this, but for many mothers it’s also the pressure they put on themselves.
“I probably came back from maternity leave too early,” Victoria Newton, editor of The Sun admitted. “The reason was that I hadn’t been the editor for very long, but to have the baby as a new editor, have the Brexit vote coming up, the Euros, I felt my own internal pressure.
“Otherwise all my hard work, it felt, would be going to waste. And, for that first year, I was just desperate to get out of the door and see the baby. There’s a visceral sort of need to do that.”
Even later on, Victoria still felt the pressure of juggling the two. “I was editing The Sun on Sunday, which gave me more freedom, because, obviously, I was the boss. But I would still sometimes fib about what I was doing, if I was going to leave early to try and do bedtime, for example.”
“Whereas I wouldn’t do that now. In the senior position I’m in, I’m really honest about if I’m going to the school play, or I really want to go and see my son play football because I never get to pick him up from school. I’m really honest about it, because I think that makes it easier for other women.”
For those in leadership positions, setting the tone from the very top of the organisation can make a huge difference.
Victoria is also keen to stress the importance of flexible working options for women, and the importance of opening up the conversation to men who are parents too. “I hope that we’ve culturally changed that a fair bit at The Sun,” she said.
Having children is a huge life event, it’s natural that any new parent could need additional support when returning to work. The key is not to be afraid to ask the question.
Kate Mansey, an assistant editor at The Mail On Sunday, waited until she almost reached her breaking point to ask for help.
“I got to a point where I just walked up to the editor and said I just can’t do this anymore. I want to do this four days a week and immediately he just said ‘yep’. I had all my reasons, I’d prepared and built up my confidence over a couple of weeks and I went in there prepared to make my case and he just went ‘yep’.”
While she’s since gone back to five days a week, she says she was immensely grateful for the breathing space.
Anna Cook, a senior communications manager at Mumsnet, added: “I work three days [a week] now and I’m not apologising for it. It’s what I do. I work three days. This is when you can contact me.
“I do answer my phone, I do check in with work, but I try not to let it encroach in my time with my children, because I learned to enjoy those days.”
Victoria echoed: “Always ask. In my experience, women are too timid to ask for things and the men never are. Have confidence in yourself. And if you go back and you’re really struggling, don’t go and ask for a demotion. You can do it, just stick with it and ask for help where it’s needed. But don’t give up.”
Becoming A Parent Can Be Boost To Your Work Life
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all though, is to remember that becoming a parent can actually make you a better journalist – even if your nerves tell you otherwise.
“Actually, within five minutes of being back at work, it was almost like I’d never left, Charlene recalled. “So just don’t worry about it until you get to the point where you’re needing to worry about it.”
“I think it’s really easy historically, for people to make you feel as though you’re less than because you’ve had kids and you’ve been out of the game for a few months or a few years. But I think it’s really important to remember that you do the job you do for a reason, because you have the skills to do it, the creativity and the ability.
“And just because you’ve had children, that doesn’t mean those things have suddenly disappeared, they’ve probably been strengthened, because all of a sudden, you’re juggling much more than yourself in your life.
“It can be the most scariest thing in the world for some women, giving birth. And the whole idea of having to squeeze that head out of you can just seem like the most stressful thing in the entire world. And when you’ve done it, be that squeezing it out or having a C section, whatever, you realise you can do anything.”
It’s an experience also echoed by Kate Mansey, who believes having children has actually made her better at her job.
“In my experience, it has made me braver. I suppose there’s something other than this career that you’ve been gunning for, and you’ve worked so hard for. But that you know you’re braver to make decisions, because there’s something else that matters more, basically.”
• Where possible, take the maximum amount of maternity leave you can. It helps to plan ahead, and resources like Maternity Action provide plenty of support on financial assistance.
• You needs will change over time – and that’s fine. Don’t be afraid to approach your boss or HR department to discuss what support options you’ll need, as and and when you need them.
• Be kind to yourself – remember that you’re a professional still with years of experience. And that your children won’t expect you to be perfect all the time.
• Be honest about what you’re facing – you’re more likely to get a positive response, and will help change cultures.
Equally, it’s important to remember that your children don’t expect you to be perfect either. Anna added: “I still do stress and feel guilty sometimes.
“I was supposed to send him dressed as a tiger last week and I forgot. I felt awful. He didn’t even notice. So, be kind to yourself and cut yourself a bit of slack, it’s not going to shape their future. He’s not going to fail his A-levels because he wasn’t dressed as a tiger last week.”
Victoria concluded: “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that you can’t have it all. There’s always something that’s got to give, and you will always feel a bit of guilt or just extreme tiredness and feel like you’re never doing either thing particularly well, I still feel that all the time.
“I definitely haven’t got the work/life balance right. But it’s just about trying to juggle those things at the right moments making that work, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that there’s a perfect solution, because there really isn’t.”
This piece was put together thanks to a panel event by Women in Journalism. You can see their upcoming events schedule here.