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“Processes and policies are great, but a human touch goes a long way.” Mom of two Susannah Dale learned firsthand the difficulties working moms face trying to balance it all. She stumbled across the term “matrescence” as a new mom and felt both validated and angry at once, learning there was a very real, science-based explanation for the emotional journey she had been going through. Inspired to do more for other moms, she created The Maternity Pledge, a series of wellbeing steps that companies can adopt to ensure they go beyond statutory requirements for maternity leave.
Susannah, tell us about you:
I live in Glasgow, Scotland with my husband and two boys (5 and 3). I know more than I ever thought I would about construction vehicles, Paw Patrol and dinosaurs and I've stepped on enough Legos that my feet are hardened to those little bricks. When I'm not saying 'put that down, it's not a weapon' to one or both of my children I love to read, watch trashy TV and even go to the gym (don't hate me, it's good for my mental health and means I'm strong enough to carry my toddler when he swears he'll walk the whole way - liar).
What was the most unexpected part of your own motherhood journey?
Probably that I'm so fascinated by motherhood - the psychology of it, the societal expectations, the juggle with work, the tribes that exist. I did not see that coming. I thought having a baby just meant that I wouldn't get quite as much sleep. I didn't realise it would become such a huge part of my identity.
What inspired you to create the Maternity Pledge? Tell us about the work you do!
The Maternity Pledge was inspired by my own experience. My first son was born five weeks early and I ended up with postnatal depression; my second son was born during Covid lockdowns and I'm pretty sure that was a bout of postnatal rage. Both times my mental health wasn't great. I found the term matrescence by accident, and it validated so much of what I'd been through and helped me understand that the identity shift I'd felt so strongly was all wrapped up in a very normal developmental phase of life. The more digging I did, the more interested I became and the more angry I was that this word wasn't recognised. I came up with “matrescence packs” to introduce the concept of matrescence, but also address some of the other issues that can affect perinatal mental health, such as feeding, expectation vs reality, the relationship with your partner, as well as a postnatal plan - not something that is widely used in the UK.
I spent some time talking to other mothers and quite naturally maternity leave and return to work became part of the conversation. I found that lots of women were leaving the workplace after they came back from maternity leave because they no longer felt valued. I then created the five pillars of the maternity pledge to help employers support their employees during this period so that they are more likely to want to stay at the company.
Now The Maternity Pledge is a UK initiative that organisations of any size can join to show their support to working mothers, get resources to help them implement the pledge and provide matrescence packs for their employees.
What struggles have you encountered balancing work and motherhood? How do you navigate them?
I'm very lucky that both myself and my husband are self-employed. It means we have much more flexibility, but particularly in my previous role as a wedding planner I would sometimes have to work evenings and weekends. I've never been able to take a traditional maternity leave in the way some of my peers have and when my boys were younger I found it harder to find my “village” because I had to work during nap times or be at home to do a call. As they've grown up and I've changed careers I've found the balance easier to manage.
How can we do better for working mothers?
There is so much that can be done for working mums. As a society we're overly judgmental of mums, so the construct of motherhood needs a whole attitude shift. We should stop putting mums in boxes and labeling them a certain way just because they do something differently to the way we do it. From a work perspective, employers could look at a multitude of options from flexible working to a phased return to work, support with childcare, buddy systems in the organisation to help new parents etc... Processes and policies are great but a human touch goes a long way, so having a point of contact that communicates well, and offers support and empathy is going to make every working mum feel more comfortable in their role.
Talk to us about “mom guilt.” Have you felt it? How have you worked through it?
I haven't felt much mum guilt because I haven't had to put my child in a nursery gut-wrenchingly early or had to miss important events. I do annoyingly feel guilty when I do something for myself. Literally nobody makes me feel like that but me, and I haven't really figured out a way round it other than having a serious word with myself, but the guilt still lingers. It's getting better as they get older though.
How does Matrescence’s Mission to “mother the mother” resonate with you as a mom? In your career?
It is so important. Society seems to have forgotten how big an impact having a child has on your life. Childbirth itself is an enormous undertaking. It's a physical trauma to your body and then you're given a small human to look after while you are recovering. Imagine someone handing you a puppy after you'd had heart surgery, it just wouldn't happen!
And then when you have a baby, all the focus goes on them. I make a point to ask any new mums I meet 'how are you?' Inevitably they say 'fine' because our stiff upper lip isn't going to allow us to be vulnerable with a stranger in the lift of a TK Maxx, but I wish someone had asked me. I might not have told them the truth but it would at least show that they recognised what I'd been through and that I needed to be looked after too. Ultimately it is your life, your body, your identity that changes and as a mother you need support with that.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being a mom, and how do you manage it?
For me it's two things. First, the most challenging aspect of being a mum is the emotional side of it. My small kids have big emotions and I am trying to parent them in a way that validates those emotions. I was born in the mid 80s so that wasn't how parenting was then. I am learning how to manage my own emotions at the same time as teaching them about theirs. I don't always get it right and I feel horrifically guilty when I get it wrong or get too frustrated and shout. I have to remind myself that I'm learning and doing my best without putting too much pressure on myself.
Secondly I find the language around motherhood a real challenge. I hate that it's infantilised, 'baby brain', 'baby blues.’ These are real structural changes in your brain, hormonal changes and just a damn right logical response to the stresses of having a child. I find the rhetoric of 'enjoy every minute' or 'why did you have children then' very frustrating because no one likes everyone at all times (even your own kids) and these kinds of judgements make it harder for mothers to speak up about how they're feeling which has a terrible effect on mental health.
Anything else you want us to know?
Be kind to other mums. Never underestimate the impact a smile or kind word might have on their day, week or life!
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