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Column: Baby v Career – how to pick a path through the minefield of working motherhood

Throughout the eventful months of pregnancy, and amid all the changes a new baby brings, one question can remain the hardest to answer: “Will you be returning to work?”, writes Sarah Crown.

Sarah Crown

“SO, WHAT ARE you going to do about working, afterwards?” For many mothers-to-be, this is one of the first questions you’re asked when you announce your pregnancy – and throughout the coming months, amid all the changes a new baby brings, it can remain one of the hardest to answer.

In the first place, the once straightforwardly practical arena of work is now emotionally freighted: new mothers often find themselves caught between the twin pulls of their new child and the career they’ve spent years building. In the second, your decisions about your career and your family life, which up to this point have been entirely personal, suddenly become the subject of public scrutiny – and even, on occasion, moral censure. All those accusatory articles about “having it all” that you used to flick past in the paper? Start reading them: it’s you they’re talking about.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that many women struggle to pick a satisfactory path through the minefield that is working motherhood, and decide, where family finances allow it, to opt out altogether. But if you feel, as many of our users do, that you want to maintain your place in the world of work, and the fulfilment and financial independence it brings, there’s plenty you can do to smooth the transition back into it – and, once you’re there, to establish a balance between home life and career development that works for you.

Returning to the workplace

Before you re-enter the workplace, there are two key decisions you need to make.

Firstly, you must decide in what capacity you’ll be returning. Will you go back full-time immediately, or choose, as many do during the early years of parenthood, to work part-time for a period? Before you make the decision, talk to other parents in your field or place of work to get a feel for whether part-time working is viable – and if it is, speak to your employer as early as possible to establish whether they’d consider it as an option. Another possibility, if your career allows it, is to go freelance: worth exploring if you think this could work for you.

Secondly, when you’ve settled on the number of hours you’ll be spending in the workplace, you need to sort out childcare.

Our users are united in agreement that the key to success is starting the process early. Begin by thinking about which type of childcare – nursery, childminder or nanny, assuming you’re not lucky enough to have a doting grandparent on hand – you’re going to use, then give yourself plenty of time to view all the options, until you find one you’re happy with.

Word of mouth recommendations are priceless, so ask around. And bear in mind that back-up childcare plans are crucial; as one user put it, “I’d suggest plans C and D for childcare as well a plan B, frankly.”

Once you’re back at work

Remember that you’ll need to accommodate the time spent travelling to and from the workplace. For couples where both parents are working full-time, Mumsnetters suggest each parent tries to work one or two days from home. Flexible hours are also really helpful, if your workplace is amenable; leaving early and making up the time online later, when the children are in bed, can work very well for some.

Be prepared to find that the workplace dynamic may have altered. If you’re struggling to reintegrate, talk to your bosses about it: as when you’re being interviewed, make sure they know what it is that makes you so valuable to them.

You may have to let certain things go for the time-being – after-work drinks, for example, or volunteering for extra responsibility – but you may, conversely, find that parenthood has honed other talents (such as efficiency and ability to delegate) which your employer will find very useful. Things may not be the same as they were before you left for maternity leave, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The home front

All for one, and one for all should be your mantra: the key to maintaining a happy life at work and at home is to share the responsibility with your partner.

Juggling family and work is the job of both parents – and that continues to be the case even if you’ve separated from your child’s father.

Viewing the whole thing – from pick ups to packed lunches – as a team effort is crucial. Talk about how you’ll divvy things up.

Potential pitfalls

Away from the emotional tripwires which all parents newly returned to work will encounter at some point or another, we advise getting to know your legal and employment rights, and your company’s policies – and make sure you have any agreements around flexible working in writing, in case you need to refer back to them at a later date.

A regular issue encountered by working parents is coping with unexpected illness: having to dash home when your child is sick is a regular occurrence, particularly during their first months in childcare, when they seem to pick up every germ going. Make sure you split the responsibility for the mercy dash with the other parent, and again, talk to your boss; establish whether you’ll need to take all time off with your child as holiday, or whether there’s the option to make up the time after hours.

Above all, remember that when taken in the context of a working life, the early childhood years are short. For most of us, it’s a case of muddling through as best we can until we emerge on the other side – at which point, you’ll be reaping the rewards for having invested in your career when the going was tough.

Sarah Crown is the editor of Mumsnet.com, the UK’s biggest network for parents.

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