Working mums’ guilt gets a lot of airplay these days. There is no denying that you are pulled in different directions as a working parent – although, interestingly, dads are rarely asked about guilt, the assumption being that it is a female thing. There are definitely certain crunch times when you may feel particularly torn. The main one is when you return to work, whether that is after a few months or a few years at home. It will be interesting to see if dad guilt increases if more men share time off after the birth.
For the moment, though, it is mainly mums who are left holding the baby after the birth and there is no denying that the whole period post baby is one of great change. It takes a while to assimilate those changes, particularly when you are often getting so little sleep and there are so many things to do during the day, even if it feels like you hardly accomplish anything in any 24-hour period. Just as you are assimilating the change to your life of having a baby and spending your whole day doing something entirely different to your normal job for which you have usually had no previous training, you are having to respond to another change – returning to that job as a parent.
It is hard to move from being at home with children 24/7 and then leaving them for 8-10 hours a day if you are doing full days. What you are doing is also so completely different, unless you work in childcare and, in any event, it’s more intensive if it is your children since you are often doing it on your own.
For many mums it’s a bit of a relief to go back to work, to return to something familiar when everything else has been new territory. Even if it’s your second or third child, there are always new challenges to face and every child is different. That sense of relief can sometimes make the guilt feel sharper, especially if you happen to glance at the raft of articles on research which purports to show how working mums’ children are more likely to be obese, have behavioural problems and the like. Even though there is often abundant research on the positives of being a working mum, when you are feeling vulnerable it can be the negative reports that chip away at you.
Other mums feel forced to work when they would rather stay at home or at least forced to work longer hours than they would like – just as many stay at home mums feel they would prefer to go to work.
Some 64% of mums now work, with 29% working full time. The picture is complex and with any survey it’s important to know how the question was phrased. According to a recent Department of Education report, 57% of working mothers would like to work less, although a fifth would like to increase their hours. A whopping 94% say they would like to spend more time with their children, but then again it might look a bit bad to say the opposite. Can you feel guilty about not feeling guilty or more guilty than you do?
Guilt in itself, though, is a bit of a useless emotion if you can’t do anything to change what is making you feel bad. It is useful, though, if it forces you to look at the things you might be able to change, such as your working hours, cutting commuting by requesting a couple of days working from home. This can help enormously with stress levels.
Being happy and confident about the childcare you have selected can also be crucial to feeling less torn about working. That means asking around about different forms of childcare, using settling in sessions and finding what works not just for your child, but for you – for instance, if you can’t always leave on time when it’s your turn to pick up, maybe a more flexible form of childcare is better for you than feeling stressed that you have to find someone to pick up your child or have to rush to get home in time.
Employers can also do a lot to help the transition, for instance, offering gradual return so you build up your hours over a period of time, flexible working or support with childcare, including emergency childcare. Talking to your partner is essential too, and not just about the emotional issues but also the practical ones, like who takes time off when the children are sick. If you don’t have a partner it’s still vital to build a support network.
Anything that can reduce your stress levels helps make the return easier and more sustainable in the long term.