How I Did It: Jess on Returning to Paid Work - Jobs for mums

How I Did It: Jess on Returning to Paid Work

Jess Speir, mother-of-four and Event Marketing Manager at Kiwi tech company Auror. As far as parenting journeys go, Jess’s is one to tell the grandchildren! As a qualified lawyer, Jess switched to the fast-paced world of advertising as a young executive. When she fell pregnant with her first child, Ophelia, Jess embarked on what she imagined would be a short stint away from full-time employment.

Six years and 4 children later, Jess returned to the workforce with a new employer. It was a wild ride just getting in the front door, but it was a move she considers one of the most fruitful for both her professional and parenting life. Jess shared her journey with Crayonite Penny Sheffield.

You first took parental leave in 2016. What was that journey like for you as a young mum-to-be?

It was financially daunting for a number of reasons. Nathan and I were the first in our families to have kids, as well as one of the first among our friendship group, so there were no hand-me-downs, and we were uncertain as to what we needed to set up for a baby and how much it was going to cost.

Dropping down to one income was also challenging, and the thought of losing my own income and being reliant on my husband’s was also a mental hurdle for me to overcome. In addition, my employer at the time had no parental policy, so the 18 weeks of paid parental leave offered by the Government was the only supplemental income available to us. Given these factors, we siphoned away a portion of our combined income when we found out we were pregnant to prepare for the initial set-up costs. This made things pretty tight, given we also had a mortgage to cover on top of the costs associated with home ownership. However, we were incredibly fortunate to have some very excited grandparents-to-be who assisted us with some of the bigger ticket items, for which we remain incredibly grateful.

Before you went on leave, what were your initial plans and feelings of having children and returning to work?

Honestly, I was a bit conflicted. I had worked so hard to get to where I was in my career and was on a good trajectory, so I was really keen to return to work as soon as I could after taking parental leave. However, I had always wanted to be a mum and assume the primary carer role, so I was really torn as to how to reconcile the two. Fortunately, we were in a position where we could rely on one income if we made some lifestyle changes, so I decided to apply for 12 months’ leave with a view to return earlier. However, like many first-time parents, I definitely didn’t anticipate the impact that having a child would have on me!

So, what was the reality?

My husband’s career was taking off; he was working long hours, travelling a lot, and the professional demands on him were increasing. If I returned to my job, I would also be working long hours. Part-time was not a realistic option, and the concept of hybrid or flexible working did not really exist at the time. Childcare costs were also prohibitive – financially, we would have been no better off had I returned to work.

Reflecting on our family situation, I knew deep down that returning to my job didn’t align with the kind of parent I wanted to be. We also wanted to have more children, so six months into my maternity leave, I decided to put my career on hold to focus on expanding our family. I’m so grateful to have had the choice to go back to work or not, because I know that so many people don’t have an option. Personally, however, it was a really difficult decision to make. Being naturally ambitious and career-focused, I worried about the impact that a solid stint off paid work would have on my career. However, being at home with my daughter changed my priorities and for a variety of reasons, I decided to pick up part-time study in Psychology with a view to retrain as a Clinical Psychologist. I did this via distance learning and funded it with a student loan, given we were living off one income. During this time, we welcomed our second child in 2018, and our third pregnancy in 2020 turned out to be twins! So two children quickly became four aged 4 and under, and what I had intended to be 6 months off paid work ended up being 6 and a half years.

When did you start to get an inkling that you would like to go back to work and where did it come from?

When I embarked on the study, I thought it would take me 7 years to complete it before I could start working and earn an income again. However, I never anticipated I would have four children (especially twins!), and the amount of time I would have to take off study in between each pregnancy or a pandemic. 2022 was also a big year of change for our family – we moved from the city to the country, our two older children changed school and kindergarten, and we had a really bad run with COVID-19, which meant I had to isolate at home with the children for 7 weeks. With these factors at play, the study became too taxing on the family, so I made the difficult decision to withdraw.

This forced a personal rethink and a professional reset. My corporate law background and advertising experience had instilled in me an interest in business. However, having children changed my priorities. I was no longer interested in driving consumerism but rather wanted to be involved in a business that was doing something for the benefit of the community.

I started looking into New Zealand businesses with a community focus that had local roots and global aspirations. While I had a burning desire to return to the workforce, I didn’t want that to come at the expense of my family, so any business on my shortlist had to be ‘family-friendly’ and open to flexible and hybrid working. Although I had been out of paid work for 6 years, I had kept my finger on the pulse and knew that businesses had evolved with respect to flexible working and parental leave policies, especially off the back of the pandemic. So I was hopeful that I would find a business that was open to giving a candidate like me an opportunity.

How did you find the job hunting process, and how did you go about looking for roles?

Having taken such a long stint off paid work, it took a lot of courage to put myself out there again. Having four children these days is not that common, and I was concerned that prospective employers would consider that a hindrance to my capability to perform a role. But this is the reality of my life, and I strongly believe that being a parent shouldn’t have to be at odds with having a career.

So my approach was to be as transparent as possible – my cover letter opened with the fact that I was a mum of four children aged 6 and under looking to re-enter the workforce after a six-year hiatus. In my view, a prospective employer would read that, and either love it or hate it, and I was only interested in being part of a team that would opt for the former.

I had intended to send my cover letter and CV to the businesses on my shortlist in the hope that I could get an interview and a foot in the door in whatever capacity. However, I was Facebook-targeted with an ad for “Jobs for Mums”, a platform dedicated to connecting mums with prospective employers open to flexible working. Fortuitously a listing they had was for a role with one of the businesses that I had on my shortlist – Auror. I had heard that Auror was family-friendly, with an attractive parental policy, flexible working and a hybrid environment. The fact they were actively advertising the role on this platform reconfirmed this for me.

After taking a career hiatus and changing industry, how did you figure out how much to ask for/how did you negotiate your package?

It was really important to me that the business aligned with my values, accommodated my family situation, allowed for professional growth, was culturally the right fit and was ultimately doing something for the benefit of society. Provided these boxes were ticked, I was honestly just grateful to get a foot in the door!

However, I was also conscious of not underselling myself – something I still struggle with, given the insecurities I have around the six-year hiatus I took. A salary band wasn’t advertised as part of the role, and this was my first time applying for a role client-side and in the tech industry. Given I was flying blind to a certain extent, I used what I had earned six years ago as a starting point plus some. The number I pitched wasn’t far off their target, so they were happy to accommodate me, and although I am only on a 12-month contract, I am very fortunate to receive most benefits of full-time employees.

Four kids aside, going back to full-time employment after six years off is a big undertaking – how did you find the transition?

The transition has been pretty smooth sailing, and I owe that to Auror. The first two weeks were focused on onboarding, and there was absolutely no pressure to get stuck into the substantive work. This really helped with the transition, as it gave me the opportunity to get a feel for the business, the people and the environment without the pressure of performance goals. It also enabled me to ease back into professional life and learn how to balance this with my role at home as a mum.

With 49% of employees being parents/caregivers and 51% being women, Auror has created an environment that genuinely embraces the concept of work-life integration. From the moment I applied for the role, throughout the interview process and beyond, the Auror team has been so accepting and accommodating of my home situation. I feel well-supported and empowered to perform my role both as an Auror team member and a mum.

It is so refreshing to see how businesses have evolved over the last 6-7 years to acknowledge the importance of parenthood by introducing parental policies that supplement Government payments. Becoming a parent is such a life-changing experience; to have the full support of your employer by means of a robust parental policy is something that cannot be underestimated.

You’re 3 months into the role now, and the children are settled at school and kindergarten – how is the juggle going?

I’m not going to lie, the juggle is real! Given my husband and I both work full time, and our twins are still quite young, we are very fortunate to have the support of a wonderful nanny. The mornings and evenings are always absolute chaos, which I’m sure any parent can relate to! My husband had to make some changes to his schedule, and fortunately, he was in a position to be able to do so. He has been so supportive of my return to work, for which I am really grateful, and we now split the morning and evening duties with the children, which he really enjoys.

Thanks to Auror’s flexible working policy, I’m still able to do activities and attend school and kindergarten events. We’re encouraged to put these sorts of commitments in our work calendars so that our colleagues can see that we’re unavailable at certain times due to family and/or life commitments. I love that level of transparency – the business respects and values that we all have lives outside of work, and I believe this generates a highly engaged team.

What was the most challenging part about throwing your hat back in the ring? And how did you overcome those challenges?

I was so concerned about the judgment I would face for having taken six consecutive years off paid work and that prospective employers would doubt my ability to perform a role with four young children in tow. However, deep down, I knew that the skills gained being a primary carer to young children are significant and readily transferable to the workforce. That’s why I opened my cover letter with the fact that I was a mum of four young children; I was hopeful that a progressive business would see that as a benefit, not a hindrance. I’m grateful to Auror for acknowledging the importance of these skills and for genuinely having a flexible work environment that has enabled me to re-enter the workforce and still be present for my children.

Is there any advice you’d give someone who wants to take a decent career break and plans on returning to the workforce later? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Fortunately, a lot has changed over the last 6 years, especially since the pandemic. Businesses have had to evolve to accommodate flexible working and hybrid environments. There are more platforms, such as Jobs for Mums and HIRE HER, which are committed to connecting mums and primary carers with progressive employers who embrace flexible working, value work/life integration and put their money where their mouths are with respect to their DIEB initiatives. So have confidence that you will be able to re-enter the workforce if you do choose to take a career hiatus to raise your family.

Secondly, be transparent, open and honest about your situation when you do come to apply for a job after a period of time off work. Getting an interview is confirmation that the business sees value in the skills you will have gained being a primary carer and is a good indication that it has embraced flexible and/or hybrid working to accommodate the needs of working parents.

There were absolutely times that I wished I had done things differently, particularly when I saw friends progressing in their careers while I was at home changing nappies and pureeing baby food! However, I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be at home with my four children full-time while they were so young. Time really does fly! There were highs and a lot of lows, but it forged a path for me that I never would have anticipated 6.5 years ago. I’m on a new trajectory now and am so excited to see where it takes me.