Figuring out if and when you should go back to work after you’ve had a child is a very personal and family-based decision. Can you afford not to work? Who will look after your baby? What impact will it have on your career? Is your child too young? What support networks are available to you?
It’s important to recognise that just as no two babies or two jobs are exactly the same, neither are two mothers. There is no right or wrong decision to make. It’s a matter of figuring out where you stand on the issues, and determining what’s right for you, your child and your family. And what seems right for you at one point may not be right for you at another.
Work and family are not always easily integrated in our society, especially for women. As a result, the decision is not a simple one. Thinking through the emotional, logistical and financial impacts, and weighing up the pros and cons of each, will assist you with coming to a decision that sits best with your own unique needs and situation.
Return to work?
Apart from the obvious financial rewards, employment can provide a sense of identity, independence and self-worth, which can extend into the future as children grow. For some women, it offers a defined path to what they deem as success. You may have already invested a good deal of time, energy and resources into your career and feel it’s important to keep your skills up-to-date and maintain your professional networks.
The mental stimulation, social interaction and sense of achievement work offers may also be important for a sense of wellbeing. The option of part-time or flexible employment if available can make the decision of returning to work easier.
Not all jobs can be easily adapted for flexible employment. This can be stressful particularly when managing the expectations of colleagues. Some mothers may feel they risk being undervalued as an employee if they acknowledge their family commitments. Being ‘pulled’ between work and home can leave you feeling unable to fulfill both roles to the standard you’d like. Separation anxiety or guilt can result from spending less time with your baby or missing developmental milestones.
With current research pointing to the importance of emotional attachment for infant mental health, finding appropriate care for your child becomes a major consideration. You may have access to family networks or the quality, cost and availability of professional childcare could be deciding factors.
Or stay at home?
An uninterrupted focus on parenting and the first-hand experience of a child’s developmental stages can be precious components of the mothering role. You may feel that being there for your baby at all times is important for you both. The opportunity for bonding during these formative years can provide a stable foundation for monitoring and supporting your child’s development.
If you are breastfeeding, there are obvious advantages to being physically close to your baby. For some families, it’s actually less expensive for one parent to stay home than it would be to pay for childcare. You may also enjoy the opportunity to join mother’s groups and other support networks where you can share the experience and camaraderie of others.
Alternatively, the lack of adult interaction or stimulation that some stay-at-home mothers experience can be isolating. An increase in mundane domestic responsibilities can create a sense of boredom and frustration. There may be little appreciation by others of your new role and its challenges, and limited respite from the constant demands of being a parent.
Finding privacy and time for yourself can be an impossible task. With the stalling of your career and possible limiting of future employment prospects, your sense of identity, independence and security may be affected. Of course, for many families staying at home can be a complicated economic decision requiring careful budgeting and a significant change in lifestyle.
What is the answer?
Whether to stay at home or return to work is often a difficult decision with inherent conflicts. It’s not surprising it has become a polarising issue rife with differing opinions and much judgment. Women tend to feel scrutinised no matter what they choose. This is often a result of others justifying the decisions they have made for themselves. Try not to take it personally and resist judging others based on your own experience.
There is no doubt that having a baby is a life-changing event. Parents are often surprised at how they feel. Some women who expected to focus on mothering are dissatisfied and want to work. Others who hadn’t intended to stop working are overcome by a desire to stay home. Babies have different demands and needs that vary as they develop. Family and financial situations change. There are ups and downs, twists and turns, detours and trials in every parenting journey.
It’s likely you will experience doubts about what’s best for you and your baby at some stage no matter what your decision. If what you decide isn’t working for you and your family, the timing isn’t right or you don’t think you can keep it up, then remember no decision is irreversible. It’s OK to review it and change your mind.