Waking up from the Maternity Leave dreamland
Written and illustrated by: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Plextek
15th August 2022
People sometimes want to know what it’s like being a female engineer, but it’s really just like being a male engineer who goes into a different bathroom. Becoming a mother and primary care giver adds a completely new dimension to the question, though. I just got back from six months of maternity leave, for the second time in my career, and it’s slightly surreal. As more women are encouraged to go into engineering as a field of study and a career, we may soon see more and more women going through this transformation of engineer into mother, and then into an engineer-mother hybrid.
Returning to work this week, after six months at home on maternity leave, I can feel the engineering part of my brain waking up; Everything I know about ISO fastening standards and heat-shrink ratios, and the muscle-memory I’ve refined through the years of using 3D CAD software. Everything I need to know for my job is still there, it just hasn’t been used for a while and needs a good stretch and a bit of coffee to get going again.
Never the twain shall meet
Now it feels a bit like I’m living a double-life, with two secret identities. My colleagues don’t want to hear me singing Incy-Wincy Spider (no matter how good I am at doing the actions,) and my two infant children get nothing at all out of hearing about mechanical design, so I keep the two modes of existence separate from each other. Or at least I pretend to. In secret, I check my emails and Teams notifications during odd quiet moments at home, and if my child-minder sends me an update while I’m at work, I often can’t resist checking it, especially if it’s a photo.
Parenting and engineering are both demanding activities that require my entire attention, and each uses a completely different mode of thinking. The only time the worlds really collide is when I’m sitting on the carpet with my daughter, having a bit too much fun building towers with the giant Jenga blocks, and trying to explain that a structure will topple when its centre of gravity falls outside its footprint.
It was March 2020 when I returned from maternity leave the first time around, only to be sent home almost immediately at the start of the first lock-down. That was when I discovered, as many others discovered that week, that the two facets of my double-life were not compatible. It wasn’t possible to be in charge of a six-month-old while also being an effective engineer. My daughter wasn’t old enough to play on her own, or even to watch cartoons, and when I tried to bounce her on my knee while using my laptop, she delighted in slapping her hands against the keyboard.
That’s why I’m grateful now, to do my spinning phone-box transformation when I leave home in the morning, and give my colleagues and clients the benefit of my complete focus and professionalism, knowing that my daughters have someone to play with and to talk to as much as they like while I’m at work. Then at the end of the work-day I can come home, ready to make dinner and build Jenga towers.
What did I learn from Maternity Leave?
Admittedly, there aren’t many transferable skills that you can learn from parenthood, because it’s just not like any other job. The way you manage young children is nothing like the way you deal with adults, in my experience. The most significant personal development that I’ve been able to take out of maternity into my professional life has been an increase in my endurance.
Mechanical design can be mentally taxing, especially when there are difficult decisions to make and unknown factors to account for, but I find the physical demands of the job to be quite manageable. In the office, there’s always time to stop and consider things properly, whether that means sitting quietly with your thoughts, or getting together with others for some intense white-board problem-solving. When caring for an infant, the times you need a break the most are the very times when you can’t take one. When the baby is crying, everything becomes URGENT in a way that feels much more immediate than an all-caps “URGENT” in the subject line of an email. I had to learn to act first and think later and I found myself building a kind of physical and psychological fortitude in the face of stress that I had never had before.
Being a mother is enough to keep me busy every waking hour of my life and doing it full-time for six months was very rewarding, but it was challenging too. Coming back to work has its own rewards along with its own challenges. Doing both on a daily basis is its own kind of challenge, but it is also a wonderful privilege. It wouldn’t be possible without the understanding and support of Plextek, where there is no judgement for taking maternity time off. I am happy to be back and excited to tackle some new engineering challenges.