Natalie Sigona is a Global Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, having worked in various HR related roles over the last fourteen years, including HR business partner, graduate recruitment and global shared services. She has two young children and works three days per week. Natalie volunteers as a mentor for the Aspire Foundation. She is keen to encourage and help others earlier in their career or returning to work to stay confident, fulfil their potential and live their dreams. She took part in ‘The Work & Family Show’ in London in February, where she was a panel member on a discussion session on flexible working and balancing the challenges of a career with family needs. She picks up on discussion points from the show here.
“…there’s a lot of discussion about ‘women being able to have it all’ and my thoughts on this are: You have to make a choice and decide what your ‘all’ is, and then choose where you want to give your time…”
You currently work part-time. What made you choose this arrangement?
I’ve always had a very strong work ethic and typically worked really long hours in most jobs I’ve done. Even when I got pregnant with my first child I did long hours. During my maternity leave I made a conscious decision to ask to work part-time because I wanted to make sure I had more of a work life balance and had time out with my children – as well as a career.
I was worried that otherwise I’d get swallowed up in work and miss my children growing up. I had a really supportive manager who knew me well and promised to find me a challenging role that could be done flexibly. He actually encouraged me to stick to my guns and I am so pleased he did, because otherwise I might have lost confidence about it.
When you’re at home with the children, how do you make sure you’re not distracted by thoughts of work and what’s going on in your absence?
It’s not easy and it’s certainly taken me time to ‘be there’ in mind as well as body sometimes – especially when there are important deadlines for work to be met or I am worrying about something I need to do. However I now try to make a conscious effort and make sure I do things with the children when I am off work. Getting out of the house helps and if I do need to catch up on work I do it in the evening when they are in bed or allocate a time to do it, instead of ‘half and half’ and then feeling guilty for doing neither very well.
On working part-time however, I will say I am not someone who ‘works to rule’ and I see work as part of who I am as well as what I do. In return for the flexibility I get from work I am doubly committed and feel like a full time contributor in that space. So this means I will listen to my messages or log on if I need to in order to do what’s needed.
But equally I don’t feel guilty if I want to leave earlier to attend a nativity or something. I don’t want to miss the important milestones in my children’s life and they do come first. I equally realise work doesn’t revolve around my personal life and I need to be just as flexible for work commitments too.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I left something which needed to be done ‘undone’, even on a non-working day. I personally think the ‘psychological’ contract one has with their manager is so much more important than having fixed working arrangements or working ‘to rule’ and not a minute more or less. I feel that times have changed and output is much more important than being seen to work all hours God sends for the sake of ‘presenteeism’.
In return for the flexibility work gives me I will make sure I plan my time as best I can in order to deliver as much as I can and give back two fold. I think organisations will attract the most diverse and best talent if they can be agile.
Is technology a help or a hindrance here?
It can hinder but you do have the choice to turn it off! I think if you allocate a time to look at urgent emails and listen to urgent voicemails then technology does mean you can work flexibly and be at home working when necessary.
For parents with partners, how can they split childcare arrangements ‘fairly’?
This can take a lot of discussion and compromise. For example when a child can’t go to nursery because they are ill, it means discussing who has the more urgent work commitment. This may mean one parent going in late or working from home or not at all and the other taking the turn next time. More generally, I think it’s important for both parents to get some time out doing something else for themselves and both being able to muck in and spend time with the kids equally, so a calendar and diary helps here.
What is a good way to negotiate arrangements and divide up domestic tasks / childcare responsibilities?
I guess making sure you understand how work plays out for each of you and how flexible things are; having some friends or family who can help as emergency back-up can also help. Domestic wise, my partner would say you need to be a team with one leader for some things and one leader for others. I’m better at diary / holiday planning for example, where he would be better at (dare I say it) doing the dinner or sorting the garden. Playing to strengths and trying not to get into ‘tit for tat’ arguments when it’s stressful is helpful too!
Is there sometimes the temptation for one of the partners to leap in and take over when things go wrong?
I know I used to do that, especially when the children are little and you are nervous about every little thing. But as they grow and you become more confident then you realise it’s not healthy to micro manage everything. I have been the ‘neurotic mum’ but feel so much happier now that I’ve had a good talk to myself! I really want to be a good role model for my kids and feel that in order to do that I need to be confident myself. So that means not nagging or perfecting every time I think things aren’t going well without me.
It helps to have your own interests so you get a different perspective and other things to think about. It’s also useful to weigh up the benefits and risks every time you want to jump in. So as a silly example, I do try and stop myself from swapping or nagging about the clothes my kids have chosen themselves when they are going out with daddy, despite me thinking they aren’t suitable. (My little boy went around Toys R Us in goggles and a swimming hat once!)
So there’s family time and there’s work time; how do you make time for your own personal interests?
Well the diary and calendar are vital in our house. And as my partner works shifts we are constantly negotiating who can go out when and also making sure we have family time. The children do come first, but I certainly plan nights out and make time for friends when my partner is there and vice versa he would too.
When it all feels too much (work, kids, tidying, washing etc.), I’ve found that doing something different, just for an hour or so, makes everything feel so much better. You feel more energised and positive and that those plates you are spinning aren’t crashing down anymore!
What is the best way for parents to break out of the cycle of feeling guilty that they can’t be all things to all people?
I think it’s completely natural (for mums in particular) to feel like they aren’t pleasing anyone or getting anything right at times. What’s helped me is remembering that it’s OK to feel like that but, in order not to get bogged down in a negative spiral, that it’s equally important to have the ‘bounce back factor’ and get things in perspective.
Also letting go of some things which really aren’t important and not being such a perfectionist has helped me. It’s impossible to constantly keep the house tidy and remember everyone’s birthday or make the best school Easter bonnet, so just doing the best you can and not taking yourself so seriously would be my top tips.
Listening to the kids, being there for them and having fun with friends and family is also much more important than perfecting the cushions on the sofa. (I actually use to have time to do that!) I know there’s a lot of discussion about ‘women being able to have it all’ and my thoughts on this are: You have to make a choice and decide what your ‘all’ is, and then choose where you want to give your time.
My ‘circle of life’ (picture a pie chart with segments in it) would be:
- My children and family/ friends;
- My work;
- Doing something that makes me feel good and is purposeful / makes a difference to others;
- Time for wine, chatting and laughing with those I love. This HAS to fit somewhere!
How can parents encourage their children to understand the separation between their parents’ work and home life?
Children don’t think any different if they are brought up with a balance. They just know mummy and daddy have to go to work ‘to get pennies’. And equally they know that they can look forward to days off together as a family or with mummy or daddy. If I work from home they understand.
When it gets towards bath time and I am still working they will want to come and ‘help’ me on the computer and be told ‘stories’ about work. They love daddy’s work in particular because he is a fireman, so unfortunately that’s much more exciting to them than what I can tell them about! However I am taking them to my work next week, which I am really proud to do for them.
Is it becoming more socially acceptable for parents to admit to enjoying the time they spend away from their children whilst they’re at work?
I think that’s more the norm nowadays and everyone I know would definitely admit that work can feel easier than being at home with children sometimes! Being at home when you are sleep deprived can be hard and you can often feel like the walls are closing in and you need to go into a cupboard and scream or cry or sleep! (Well, I found like that a lot.) You can have the washing, cleaning, tidying and cooking to do all at the same time as having four arms and legs wrapped around your ankles and trying to get out of the house for a sing-a-long class.
No matter how stressful work is I’ve never had anyone wrapped around my ankles whilst I try and manage things! So for me I think it is acceptable to have and enjoy both. Hats off to full-time mums (who work full-time looking after the home and children, and enjoy that), but that often that isn’t a choice everyone can make.
There are bills to be paid. For me, having my work and also having the quality time with my children makes me a better mum. If I was at home all the time I’d feel isolated and stressed, and given my imagination I’d become a worry wart about minor, over protective things which don’t matter and that wouldn’t make the kids happy.
Do you think working fathers are able to be more upfront about this than working mothers?
I think it’s just the norm for most fathers and they don’t feel the need to have to explain themselves (on the whole), but hopefully that itself will reverse over time. I know a lot of men would love to spend more time at home playing with the children because they feel like they’ve missed out. So ironically, in the future we could see women working more and men having more time at home.
What advice would you give to other mothers returning to work after maternity leave about work life balance?
Remember they are not alone if they feel apprehensive or lacking in confidence. Or if they are anxious and upset as they leave their precious son or daughter behind at nursery! Some people are just better at hiding this ‘lack of confidence’ than others.
Getting a mentor or coach or someone they can speak to whilst on maternity and during the first couple of years returning to work will help hugely. Also doing anything to reduce the feeling of stress and increasing self-esteem and will help them stay resilient. If they can realise its normal to feel like you are going mad. This can often be if they feel sleep deprived or due to hormones still being all over the place.
Don’t try to be perfect. Make sure they keep balanced in where they give their time (the circle of life) and what choices they are making. Keeping perspective is key. And when it all gets too much, do something different – go for a walk, listen to music, exercise or reach out to someone who inspires you. When you go back the problem will seem much smaller or you will be more creative in tackling it.
Could you tell us a bit about your role as a mentor for the Aspire Foundation?
The Aspire Foundation is a social enterprise that exists to positively impact the lives of one million women and girls by 2015. The Aspire pro bono mentoring scheme enables me to select a mentee from a list of potential candidates working in the not-for-profit sector. After a telephone introduction, my mentee and I agreed to meet virtually once a month for a call. I act as a sounding board and guide for my mentee. I try to ask questions which allow them to consider things from an alternative perspective.
What made you decide to do this?
I really love the ethos of the Aspire foundation and felt their pro bono mentoring scheme offered a great opportunity for me to personally help someone else by sharing the benefit of my knowledge and experience. I wanted to ‘give something back’ and make a difference within the wider community and help someone else achieve their goals and aspirations.
What are the most rewarding parts?
Encouraging someone else and giving them the confidence to reach their potential feels very rewarding. When my mentee went for a job she would not have otherwise gone for and got it I felt a massive sense of achievement too.
Are there any challenges?
I guess being careful to guide the mentee to come to their own conclusions rather than leap to what answer you think is best can be a challenge – especially if you are desperate to do whatever you can to help them. And also the balance of caring and being there as much as you can without becoming get too emotionally involved. You have to remember that just having someone to listen can be a help in itself and you aren’t expected to have a magic wand to solve everything as a mentor. So detaching myself can be hard.
What would you say to others who are thinking about voluntary roles?
Doing something which makes a difference, helps others learn your lessons and encourages you to be the best they can be is hugely rewarding. So in a selfish way, something purposeful for a greater good than money feels wonderful.
Who inspires you?
There people in my life who have inspired me along the way; my aunty Kath for example, who was always loving and laughing and would do anything for you. She never judged. I remember her saying, “you can only do your best,” which stays with me today.
Also a couple of senior male leaders who I worked for earlier in my career sponsored me and I looked up to them because they weren’t afraid to stand for what they believed. They were great leaders.
Most recently, it’s probably more of a question about the type of person that inspires me – so someone who is authentic, open, has passion and gives everyone else permission to be themselves is very inspiring to me. Dr Sam Collins exemplifies this and had inspired me hugely during and since attending one of her aspire events.
I’d also like to say that as a mum I do look to my sister when I’m having a moan about ‘how hard it all is’. She had a baby at 25 weeks and for the past four years has been in and out of hospital. She’s incredible – very patient and selfless and I’ve NEVER heard her moan once, so that helps me realise how lucky I am and get things in perspective!
Please can you tell us a bit about your ambitions for the future?
I love what I do and would like to create more pace and change in the diversity and inclusion arena. Connected to this I am very passionate about doing things with social purpose, which make a difference to the next generation of children and parents.
My experience at The Work and Family Show, along with invitations to speak at local schools to encourage and inspire pupils about how they can best prepare themselves emotionally as well as academically or to be leaders of the future particularly appeals to me. In addition to this I am organising a charity concert for Bliss (charity to support premature babies), which I’d like to make bigger and better year on year; the aim is to do something creative and for a good cause which also pulls the local community together, giving amateur talent the chance to shine. I can’t wait to see the audience with smiles on their faces and cheering others on – so watch out Gary Barlow…