Jo Dutton is a working parent, which brings with it challenges that many of us can relate to. Her 10-year-old daughter Jess has Down Syndrome and balancing working life with caring for a child with special needs can be overwhelming at times. Read her candid story.
What are the greatest challenges for a working parent who is caring for a child with special needs at home?
I was a full-time practising lawyer when Jess was born and as soon as she was diagnosed with Down Syndrome I knew I had to change my schedule. I went down to part-time hours in order to fit in hospital appointments which worked really well when she was at nursery, where the days are longer and the structure is more flexible than school. Our problems began when Jess started school and she really struggled with the transition. I was trying to be a good lawyer, to give my full attention to clients, yet to continue to support my child in terms of time and attention, in the same way she was used to and deserved. It was simply too hard. It became clear that corporate life is full of difficulties for any parent, but when your child has special needs, the obstacles feel impossible to overcome. I also had to face the prospect of her doing reduced hours at school, which we discovered was often recommended for kids with SEN, and completely threw me. How could I collect her early? How would I get her to appointments? How could I be waiting at the school gates with open arms to greet her after a day filled with challenges? She couldn’t stay on after hours for school clubs, which was the solution that other working parents turned to, as she needed one to one care, which was not on offer. I didn’t have much support in the office. With a heavy heart, I had to leave my job.
In your experience, are workplaces in the UK well adapted to helping carers balance work and home commitments?
I was incredibly lucky and after only 6 months at home, a perfect job came up. I work at Central Law Training, 2 days a week as a consultant, with complete flexibility and autonomy. I am now fulfilled professionally and have time to be a hands-on mum too. In my personal experience, one job, or career, was well-suited to my caring duties, and the other was not. I feel sorry for carers who are ‘stuck’ in my old world and can’t see a way out. I think there’s a long way to go, but we’re raising awareness of the issue and it will happen, it just takes time
Looking to the future, do you believe that carers will eventually be offered the same flexibility and empathy as those with illnesses themselves currently receive in the workplace?
It depends on the area of work and it depends on the needs of the child, or the individual who requires care. Some needs are more complex and time-consuming than others.
All parents face struggles balancing work and home life, but caring for a child with special needs brings added pressures, both emotional and time related. Employers must begin to allow carers more flexibility and afford them complete trust. With the digital world evolving and more businesses functioning online, there is certainly hope that improvements are on their way. Raising awareness is the first step but employers must open their eyes to the needs of their staff and put in place strategies to help them feel happy at work, and ultimately perform better. I couldn’t give my child what she needs without the support of my colleagues. I feel very lucky.