To the outside world I was perfectly expendable

25th November 2005 at 00:00
While I was stuck at home picking bits of cradle cap off my baby's head, the last thing I needed was to be reminded that to the outside world I was perfectly expendable

Gemma Now that I am just about re-entering the land of the living, my colleagues have been asking me to bring the baby into school.

Usually I take any opportunity to show off my new child but, with my colleagues, I tend to hang back. Although I know they are genuine in their desire to admire my reproductive capacity, I am also aware of the work pressures they are facing and I don't want to take up too much of their time. Maternity leave etiquette, I am discovering, is yet another area of professional life that needs to be navigated with care.

The terrible realisation that my school continued to function exponentially without me was a major shock during my first maternity leave.

Having left perfectly organised files, pages of notes and various strategically placed Post-it Notes for my maternity leave cover, I was a bit nonplussed at her apparent ability to run my department exceptionally well. As the weeks went past, and I did not receive the calls or emails that I had assured her were perfectly acceptable, to be honest, I became more and more pissed off. While I was stuck at home, sterilising bottles, picking bits of cradle cap off my baby's head and pondering the direction that my life should take, the last thing I needed was to be reminded that as far as the outside world was concerned, I seemed to be perfectly expendable. I made a couple of "how's it going" calls, sent a few friendly emails, and then realised that maternity leave is nature's way of ensuring that you focus full-time on your baby, and some other deserving colleague gets a boost up the career ladder. I must admit, it hurt. It's hard to know how to conduct yourself when another person is doing your job. I began to worry that I was becoming that sad person who hasn't got a life outside school.

On the occasions when I was needed, I tried to strike exactly the right note of helpful support while acknowledging that another person was in charge - and while knowing that, in the end, I would be taking over again.

Talk about the need for diplomacy. When I did come into school I was wracked with anxiety that I was taking up too much of everyone's time, that maybe they wouldn't want to play with my baby for the whole of break time; that maybe, despite their polite enquiries, they didn't actually want to relive every minute of my (very long) birth experience. If I was catching up with someone during their free period, how much time should I take up, given that I had the bizarre status of a suspended membership of the school community?

On maternity leave, I acquired a kind of double vision, where I was at once a full-time mum and also a member of my school community. With every visit, I became aware that faces in the staffroom had changed, new acronyms were in use, the timetable looked different, and the school that I had in my head was very different from the one I would re-enter. I have also learnt that although I am away from school, it welcomes back returnees with open arms. I am leaving my maternity replacement simply to get on with it, while I enjoy my time at home. I have learnt that fortunately, or unfortunately, when you return to school, it doesn't take long to feel as if you've never been away.

Gemma Warren is on maternity leave from her post as head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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