‘When I Took A “Career Break” To Have Children, Losing My Own Salary Also Meant Losing My Identity’

'I went from being able to buy an expensive moisturiser without having to worry about the family’s finances, to suddenly having to explain to my husband that yes, haircuts really did in fact cost that much. It felt as if my independence had been stripped away.'

Career break maternity leave finances

by Aliya Ali-Afzal |
Updated on

The problem lies in the description itself. We say career ‘break’, and maternity ‘leave’, and use words that imply a little rest or time away from the normal crazy schedule of work. Yet you will be working in a way that you have probably never experienced before, when you’re on a career break. What kind of ‘break’ means you’re ‘on duty’ 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no time off at weekends or public holidays, in fact, no holidays at all, no sick leave, or even lunch breaks. There is no pay, no praise, no annual bonus and to top it all, you work for someone who regularly screams and cries and often accompanies you to the toilet! This is the everyday reality of being a full-time mother and yet this time in a woman’s life is often overlooked as a ‘gap’ in terms of her professional and personal development.

It is so different to anything we would expect someone to do in any other line of ‘work’ and yet of course, despite being a labour of love, motherhood is work, and hard work, that requires us to multitask, develop an array of new skills and carry on in the most challenging of circumstances, which would horrify any HR department! The thing is though, that as mothers we rarely think about ‘being home’ in these terms, and nor do others. Society does not value the time we spend on a career break and this inevitably filters down to how we are perceived by others- ‘just a stay home mum’, and also impacts our own sense of who we are, without our careers to define us.

When I left my work as a headhunter in the City to bring up my children, I noticed a change in the way people reacted when I met them for the first time. The sudden loss of interest when I said that I was on a career break or an exaggerated delight that I was so good for making this sacrifice. After both these responses, people turned away to talk to someone who they thought may be more ‘interesting’. These encounters knocked my confidence at a time when I myself was struggling with how I wanted to define myself in this new identity as a mother?

As well as a loss of your sense of self, there is a new sense of vulnerability, when your monthly pay cheque stops hitting your bank account. If you’re in a relationship you may suddenly have to explain your spending, when previously you had used your salary as you wished. The loss of financial independence, having to justify your spending or ‘ask’ for money, can feel humiliating and uncomfortable, especially if you had a degree of financial autonomy before. This kind of change in your financial circumstances, such as suddenly having less disposal income as a household, and a loss of financial independence can also lead to arguments over money. It may highlight the different approaches you and your partner have to money, which had never really surfaced until then. I experienced this myself too. Having worked in an industry where I had to dress formally and an addiction to nice bags and shoes was encouraged, plus being able to buy an expensive moisturiser without having to worry about the family’s finances, I suddenly had to explain to my husband that yes, haircuts really did in fact cost that much! It felt as if my independence had been stripped away. It’s not just about spending power though. This can also lead to a shift in the power dynamics in a relationship and affect other areas too. I explored this in my novel Would I Lie To You? where a woman starts to spend secretly, rather than have those awkward ‘money conversations’ with her husband, when she takes a career break. It’s such a common experience and yet one we don’t talk about.

My advice? Try to pursue some kind of hobby or interest in your break so that you don’t lose touch with who you are. I watched lots of writing videos online. Stay in touch with colleagues, even if just to drop an email. Above all, articulate to others that your career break is an intense and exciting learning experience, and you’re acquiring the skills and resilience that will transfer to any job I did in the future. We haven’t lost our identity; we have acquired a powerful new one!

Would I Lie To You? by Aliya Ali-Afzal is published by Head of Zeus, 8th July.

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