As the country starts to emerge from lockdown, the gradual reopening of schools across the UK over the last few weeks has been a first in many ways. Not just for teachers and their pupils who are having to get used to a very different way of teaching, but also for society. For instance, I’ve never before seen so many fathers and male carers wave their children off at the school gates.
Lockdown has given us a glimpse of a more flexible future by challenging existing norms both at work and at home. With little warning, it disrupted the status quo and forced us all to figure out a new way of balancing our personal and professional lives. But the biggest change, perhaps, has been for working and non-working mothers.
Pre-lockdown it would have been considered inappropriate, unprofessional and embarrassing to have your child pop up on a video. I’m sure many working mums have plied their toddlers with snacks and sat them down in front of countless episodes of Paw Patrol, just so they could preserve some semblance of professionalism (on what was probably their non-working day anyway). Now, the background noise of a child watching Peppa Pig is considered normal. But, crucially, it’s not just a challenge for working mothers. I’ve also met and had hilarious chats with some of my male colleagues’ children in between discussions about strategy and execution. Since lockdown, this is now not only accepted, but it can lighten the mood and – particularly when there are other parents in the meeting – help nurture business-critical relationships through empathy and common ground.
It’s not just working parents who have been affected. Similarly, many of my male and female friends who choose not to work have found a new flexibility in their day. Previously, they were limited by the working patterns of their other halves who were commonly spending five days a week in an office. Now, by virtue of everyone being at home together, responsibilities are being shared more equally.
I’m loving being able to spend more time in the week with my young family: eating meals together, going for after-dinner family walks in the sunshine and being able to walk my daughter to and from school. The days of wrangling two children out the door with military precision by 7:30am and sprinting out the school gates in a pencil skirt and trainers so I didn’t miss the train seem a distant memory – not to mention pointless. And, thanks to the time saved not commuting, I’m also managing to find more me-time than ever before.
Admittedly, lockdown has not been without its challenges. I say this fully appreciating that I’m one of the lucky ones who has still been able to work. But there are days I’ve really struggled to manage work, home-schooling, cooking and house chores. And I certainly wouldn't advocate for a set-up where we all work from home all the time: I’m really missing my colleagues – the office banter, the socialising, the ability to bounce around ideas – it turns out that Zoom, for all its recent success, just can’t compete with the office water cooler. Not to mention the lifestyle point: it might sound superficial, but I really miss my work wardrobe, the opportunity to wear my heels, afterwork drinks and even the ritual of picking up my morning coffee on the way into work. There have definitely been ups and downs over the last few months but, overall, the balance between work and life finally feels, well... balanced.
For the first time in my five years as a working parent I believe (because deep down I never really believed it before) I can actually have a successful career while being the mother I want to be. Lockdown has freed us from the shackles of the 9-5 and a new, more blended, working pattern means it no longer feels there’s a choice to be made between work and parenting.
It has struck me quite how far we’ve come as women over the last few months – how fundamentally the world of work is changing, and indeed changing for the better – and more importantly, the opportunity we have to shape the future from here.
Now, as attention turns to building a new normal, I’m excited about what I think is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally change the way we work and live – seizing on the benefits of lockdown and ditching the antiquated and inflexible practices of old. The gains we have made in the last three or so months might previously have taken ten years. Get this right and we not only benefit ourselves, but future generations.