This isn’t the life I hoped for when I had children – I thought we were secure because I had worked consistently to be so. No one should have had the right to take that away

I lost my job whilst on maternity leave – but no one told me. They assumed, as I was having my third child, that I wouldn’t return to work and just took me off the books, I think. When I followed the procedure to return to work at the end of maternity leave – when my son was about nine months old – I was bewildered by the situation I found myself in.
Basically, I worked for the same company for almost ten years. I am an NCTJ-trained print journalist, so many of my colleagues I’d actually known since leaving university as the training/ work ex. pool at that time was a pretty small one. I have never been sacked from a job, nor do I have any disciplinary history. As well as my professional qualifications, I hold a masters degree and have portfolios from 15 years’ work in news-gathering, newsdesk and production roles across the south of England. The best employment I’ve had in the six years since I was made redundant are casual shifts, paying approx. £6.50 per hour, in a children’s nursery. My newspaper employers promised me references, then reneged when asked by a potential new employer which was absolutely crushing. At one point, bearing in mind we have a mortgage and three dependents, I felt I actually had to beg, in a series of emails, for references in order to move on. My confidence professionally and socially has been destroyed.
As briefly as possible: at the end of maternity leave I contacted my line manager, with whom I thought I was on good terms. He directed me brusquely towards personnel and payroll in order to organise my return to work myself. With hindsight, I understand I was talking to these departments at cross-purposes: they had taken me ‘off the books’ and believed I was trying to return dishonestly, having changed my mind. I had done nothing that might imply this, so my ‘return to work’ started with very harsh words about how ‘I couldn’t just put myself back on the payroll’.
Return negotiated; on my first shift I was taken aside and told a male colleague had made a formal complaint about me – we had had some words previously because he had expressed the view, in the office, I wouldn’t return to work and shouldn’t be entitled to. Ironically, he was made redundant on the same day as me, and has always denied he made the complaint.
I remained at work for about four weeks – unpaid because of the ‘payroll mix-up’ and already struggling financially. Shift by shift, I was ignored by my colleagues – work was passed over my head while I held my hand up to take it; my possessions were regularly rifled through; I kept copies of work which showed mistakes were being written in; one of the editors of two papers – who I have known for ten years – never spoke to me once, from the day of my return. I didn’t have a desk in an office I’d worked in for almost ten years, and moved spot to spot, shift by shift. There’s more, but it seems a long time ago now, thankfully. It was hell.
I got a letter telling me my post was under threat. I had one ‘interview’ in which I was told I need do nothing because I wouldn’t be leaving, then a week later I was told to leave. As I attempted to leave that interview with some dignity the editor laughed – because I hadn’t made ‘as much of a spectacle of myself’ as the previous victim. He then tried to tell me what that person had done, as though I would find it funny.
It was as if no one even imagined I had any seriousness about the job. There was no recognition that I might need the job financially, or that I might want the job, or have any professional interest or pride. I really felt invisible as a human being. With hindsight I feel I was consistently employed, talked down to and paid at a level lower than my qualifications or experience, I assume because I was a parent.
I just struggled on because newsrooms are demanding places. This goes to show that, for me, I didn’t just lose ‘a job’, I lost a career I worked since I was a child to build. I came through a comprehensive school in the 1980s – there was no leg-up to university or a first job. I was already a parent when I took my last job and had proved myself capable.
No one cared, I felt, because my husband was working and it was assumed he’d ‘keep’ me. No one asked what I wanted. No one, from work or at home, said they were sorry. They assumed I was okay because I was the only one who didn’t know I ‘belonged’ at home. I have former colleagues who still don’t speak to me, for some reason.
I felt like I’d been sent back to the start of my working life and would be forced to rebuild everything and, in my middle 30s at the time, this was devastating. The emotional damage, the damage to my state of mind at what was already a very stressful time – I felt I’d given the desire to maintain a career and raise my three children 100 per cent commitment – has lasted until really very recently. Again, I only realise with hindsight exactly how much damage was done.
Put simply, I have felt worthless – at one point, I said to my husband that it felt like a witch hunt. I felt degraded and soiled for my ‘mistake’ in wanting a family, because that’s what was communicated to me. I never asked for help, or played the system – I worked with many men with children the same age as mine who are now in PR management and editors’ roles. The implication seemed to me to be that I had shown myself to be ‘soft’, while they hadn’t. In truth, they had wives full-time at home, and were not expected to meet the same responsibilities which I, for a long time, felt I’d failed at.
A final twist – my husband was a picture editor for the same company. This meant to fight back against the redundancy seemed twice the risk. Also, it was something we couldn’t afford – again, the managers making decisions for me knew this: we were long-term ‘friends’. In the fallout of my redundancy, my husband felt obliged to take redundancy voluntarily. He set up a photographic business, which remains our sole family income. This has been a huge struggle day to day. In the past 12 months, my husband has applied for 45 jobs and is working as an office temp currently, to boost our low income. We have poor credit; to be in and out of mortgage arrears is normal for us – and our children, which makes us so ashamed. We have a tax debt we’ll probably never pay off. There have been days when the adults in our house haven’t eaten a meal because there isn’t enough to go round – no one helps because it’s assumed we’re well off professionals and we’ll manage.
What’s worse is people imply I should just pick up where I left off – that I stay at home because I’m lazy or have nothing to offer. I wonder this about myself a lot because, somehow, I still don’t feel confident to return to work – I’ve lost faith in my ability to manage, the skills I have to offer or that I could ever rely on or trust a colleague or employer to respect me professionally, to genuinely like me personally, to treat me honestly or to offer compromise in even the smallest difficulty. I’m 43, and I have no idea what the future holds for me or my family, but this isn’t the life I hoped for when I had children – I thought we were secure because I had worked consistently to be so. No one should have had the right to take that away as if it were a game.