Lisa's story will resonate deeply with women starting a family, the decision to take a career break to start a family and raise child(ren). Fortunately, the workplace has evolved, there is so much more support for working parents and career breakers today. She highlights some really key points around faith, planning for the future and integration into the UK to improve the cultural exchange, unconscious biases and ultimately, manage change well.
Thank you Lisa. Your journey and bravery is an inspiration.
I migrated from Fiji to the UK in the summer of 2011 as a newlywed to join my service spouse. My migration journey is no different to that of 1st-generation migrants in that I had to deal with a whole lot of CHANGE upon arriving into the UK and with the purpose of WHY I was here in mind.
Like many women who have migrated for the same reasons, I left behind a thriving career to become a full-time housewife and then mother. The decision was a leap of faith, and one that I have never regretted - career wise.
The decision to take a career break was not an easy one to make; especially as I really enjoyed what I was doing, and I was doing well. But my dream to have a family and raise my own children was too strong, so I chose to take the career break to start a family and live my dream of being a full-time mother. Here I am, almost 10 years later, I have been blessed with a son who is now 9-years old. And I returned to work as a UK civil servant - my first role in the UK.
Like any person from a migrant and ethnic minority background resettling in the UK, I was exposed to specific challenges relating to language, culture, climate, social integration, to name a few. And I also had the challenge faced by all career breakers - getting used to the change of pace and routine. For me having a good support system, a good plan, and my faith in God helped me integrate into the community and return to a career.
Taking a career break
I graduated from the University of the South Pacific where I attained a Bachelor of Laws Degree, and Professional Diploma in Legal Practice. Whilst in university, I enjoyed short internships in private practice and at a regional organisation. Post bar-admission, I worked in private practice before joining the Native Land Trust Board (now known as Itaukei Land Trust Board) as one of the in-house Lawyers.
My work focused on Property and Land Law practice areas. I enjoyed this area of work thoroughly, and I relied on this prior experience, and focussed on transferable skills when I needed to return to a career path here in the UK.
A few things which have worked for me during this journey and which I would like to impart are - mindset, planning, integration, taking risks and asking for help. These are the lessons which I would like to impart by sharing my story. If any one person takes anything away from my story that helps them in anyway, then I would have achieved the purpose of my doing this write up.
I took a long career break of 6 years before returning to work. This career break was planned. While considering marriage and having children, there was one thing that I absolutely had to do, it was a dream (which I thought was impossible at the time) to be a full-time mother to my child(ren) when the time came. Reality was not as easy as the dream though. But I sure did not let reality dampen or stop me from achieving my dream. My mindset was a 'positive' one, for living my dream - I made sure I enjoyed every moment of being a full-time mother. Every possible thing I imagined of doing during my free time (when I couldn't find the time back in my career driven days) I did. I always knew that this time would come to an end when my son starts full-time school so I enjoyed it as much as I could. Yes, our family had to live on a budget with only one income, yes I had to go without a lot of things I had freely enjoyed while I was a single working woman - but this was my dream and I was going to live it. Sharing all my son’s experiences up until the age of 5 is irreplaceable, and I can only hope that he enjoyed it as much as I have. I count myself blessed to be able to experience that and to have been able to give him those experiences.
What helped me enjoy these moments was knowing that one day both my son and I will outgrow this stage of life; this helped me maintain the positive outlook, and gave me abundant patience with not earning any money for a while as well as helped me look forward to returning to a career.
As a full-time housewife/mother, I took on the role of being the family finance manager and we always stuck to a budget. Every little thing was planned, and the whole experience taught me life skills which are highly transferable to any career - financial management, managing change, being disciplined, managing unconscious bias, general management and planning - all these soft skills are transferable to any role.
So, you see my mindset was - I was not 'housewife' or 'full-time mum' - in my head I was an unpaid Manager. My self worth did not diminish with my unpaid status, quite contrary, I knew exactly where I was and why, and believed that I would return to a paid role at some point when the time was right.
A well-versed rhetoric attributed to Greek Philosopher Heraclictus states that 'Change is the only constant in life'. I concur with Heraclictus, and believe that 'Planning' is central to managing change. I believe that Change should not be left unmanaged otherwise you put yourself at risk of being swept away by it. To not manage change is to take a gamble. Planning provides the ability to manage Change. It creates expectations in our minds, and provides a guide to follow in the unpredictable world we live in. When I took the career break, my plan was to return to work after my child(ren) had started full time school, put simply, that is how it panned out.
When I reflect on my journey over the last 10 years, it appears as though by faith, everything panned out as I had planned/wished - start a family, raise my child(ren) to school age, then get back on the career ladder whether it be going back to school to prepare me for a career change or to apply directly to employment that related to the career I had taken a break from.
My initial plan was to take on a post graduate course to help me with mental exercise and also to prepare me for returning to work. I had decided I did not want to return to being a practising Lawyer, as I weighed the pros and cons and realised that I wanted 'balance' for my sons sake, and I was not ready to invest the time needed to the traditional legal practise setting.
The Lord had a slightly different plan, and I did return to work when my son started full time school at age 5 without having to go to University to take up a Masters degree. As a person of faith, the lesson I learnt here is that we may have our plans, but the Lord’s plan always prevails and also, that sometimes we have to do our part then the Lord will do His.
Integrating into the Community:
As many of you can imagine, coming from a laid-back island nation, we all have had to adjust to the new culture and find ways to intergrate into the community. My first 3 homes were in Service Families Accommodation (SFA) in areas that lacked an active Fijian community; and it was no easy task dealing with isolation and homesickness.
To overcome this, I made sure that I integrated into the community as much as possible, and as quickly as possible. I spent a lot of time at the local Community Centres (all by myself in the early days) to keep an eye out for local events and activities and to get to know people. I became involved in my local Wives Club and have made some friendships which I still maintain. I had to do this many times over, as we have moved 6 times in 10 years, to different parts of the UK and the longest time spent in one location was 3 years. Change became part of our lives and has got easier over time.
Reflecting on my experiences, I can say that my BAME background did not pose a hindrance to my integration into a community where I was the minority. I have been blessed to have lived in areas where the local people have been very inclusive. I would often get questions about where I came from originally and what I was doing in cold England, leaving behind warm and sunny Fiji. This is how some of my early relationships were established. I always felt included and given the space to be myself. I brought my whole self to the table and did not expect anything but to learn a new culture, try new food and enjoy the new experiences. I attracted people who wanted to learn about my culture and it was a positive cultural exchange. I realised later that it prepared me for my integration into the workplace.
After the excitement of enjoying the cultural experience had died down a bit, I began to feel withdrawal symptoms from my normal work routine and missed being a career woman. I also missed doing work that stretched me mentally. To help me cope, I enrolled my son into nursery for one day a week beginning when he was 8 months old up until he was 3 years old and was able to begin full time nursery. This was an opportunity for me to take a break from mothering duties and focus on my interests. During this time I explored my artistic side and took on DIY projects for the various homes that we lived in, and worked on my hobbies. I also sought volunteer opportunities, and carried out formal and informal volunteer work. Throughout my 6-year career break, my voluntary activities ranged from online translation of publications from the English to Fijian language, to assisting displaced families settle here in the UK. I took up volunteer roles with Citizens Advice Bureau, Barnados Children’s Charity, and at a Mental Health Unit at a local hospital. All these experiences fed my inquisitive mind and taught me things I would not have learned in the classroom.
Faith and Taking Risks:
When my son turned 3, I began to consider options for how to return to returning to a fulltime career. As mentioned, I initially thought it would be a good time to return to university to do a 1-year full time Masters Degree course. It was 2017, my son started Reception Year, and we were living near Durham University then. It was my university of choice. I sent out applications, hoping to start by summer. A few months before the start of the course, it occurred to me one evening that I had not yet prayed for guidance about registering for this course. Up until that point I had never made key decisions without consulting God in prayer. This was something I practiced, since I discovered faith and met God during my University days. In my faith, I found my anchor and my lighthouse when things got rough, and my comfort and joy at all times. The one constant in my life through all my moments of change was my relationship with my God. So, I prayed about this decision. I asked for Gods will to be done, and for God to guide the decision to return to school or to work. And if I was going to return to work, I asked Him to provide something suitable for me.
A few weeks later, my answer came in the form of an advert, for a role based more than 200 miles away – a 4.5 hour commute to the South of England. Yes, it was far but I knew it was a role I could perform in, and that would challenge and stretch me - which I felt I needed. I applied for the role and was invited to the interview stage. I took a few risks to attend the interview - I risked losing the time, monetary, and emotional investment to attend this interview. But I had faith, and I drew from previous professional experience and from transferable skills during the selection process. My career gap of 6 years did not faze me, as I truly believed in my God-given ability to deliver in a mid-management role. My faith paid off and I was offered the role.
I believe I am testament to the fairness of the civil service recruitment process, appointments are based on merit, fair and open competition. My being a woman from a BAME background, who was on a 6- year career break, and did not hold prior UK experience did not work against me to secure a middle management role, with line management responsibilities in a highly technical team.
Return to Work Experience
Ask for help:
The transition from stay-at-home mum to career mum brought with it attributable challenges that I had to manage. To manage these challenges, I have had to ask for and be willing to receive support from my friends, colleagues and networks.
Dealing with Childcare:
My most notable and unanticipated childcare challenge emerged when I had to attend my 1st job interview 200 miles down South; my service partner was away on operational duty. I needed to make a decision on whether I will attend the interview or not, and this decision hinged securing overnight childcare for my son as I planned to take the trip down on the night before the interview, to allow me to be well prepared and well rested for the interview. A friend encouraged me to go, in fact, she insisted. I am very grateful to this particular friend of mine, as I felt a peace of mind knowing that my son would be well looked after. I had never spent a night away from my son before, so this was a big deal for me. Sometimes you need that one friend to push you; and sometimes you have to be that friend.
Organising childcare for when I started work was fairly a smooth transition. I had prepared for the financial responsibility by saving up for childcare costs for a few years prior. I knew that childcare is expensive, and not wanting to struggle with costs when I did have to return to university or work full-time. So when I was offered the role, apart from organising housing and moving down South, I was able to secure and afford 'out of school hours' childcare. Without a doubt, planning and preparation is key.
Dealing With Guilt
I did not anticipate the feelings of guilt that I had to deal with for leaving my full- time mothering duties to pursue a full-time job. I was not prepared for the emotional experience of watching my son adjusting to not having mum drop him off and pick him up from school, of him having to get used to waking up very early in the morning so he could be at the child-minder’s by 7am and not seeing much of me in the afternoons either, as I would get home at around 7pm. This was our new daily routine. I felt guilty about having to leave him with a child-minder; I felt I was abandoning my foremost duty, to be a mother first. I missed doing everything I had always done with him.
To manage this, I had honest discussions with myself and with him. I explained all the changes that have happened and why. Both my son and I eventually adjusted. During this time, my emlpoyer was supportive after I asked for support. I have been working from home for two years now, and as a result I have been able to be more involved in my son's life. From this experience I have learnt that sometimes you can never be prepared enough - and this is perfectly all right. It helps to adopt a fluid or flexible approach to problems, and things will always work out if they are meant to be. Ask for help when you need it. If you need support with adjusting to returning to work - talk to your employer about it. In most cases they will be willing to support you where they can.
Dealing With Skills Fade
Another significant challenge was overcoming what I call ‘brain rust’ otherwise known as skills fade. Brain rust for me is akin to foggy thoughts and feeling overwhelmed. I had to get used to working standard hours again, and I also had to get used to the early mornings, the travel, there was a lot to get used to again. I wasn’t used to feeling like this at work. It exposed to me the impact of taking such a long career break can have on a professional skill set.
From my experience, identifying these feelings straight away is key. I had to learn to manage my expectations of myself, and to accept that I am not required to necessarily know everything there is to know or be used to travelling and early mornings, these things took time, and I need to be kinder to myself. More than that I need to learn to ask for help, to ask for support in a timely manner. In my experience my employer has been very supportive and have made reasonable adjustments to support me, and have continuously invested in my personal development. I qualified to become a Project Manager within months of joining the team, and now manage a number of Projects concurrently; and I have also gotten used to the early mornings and travelling when required.
We do not get if we do not ask, therefore tap into your support system to help you transition into the workplace - your God, your family, your team, and your employer. Ask for help, if you feel like you need it - your employer is not a mind reader - they will only know what you needs are if you voice your thoughts.