Returning to work – or not? How to decide what’s best for your family

Deciding whether or not to go back to work after having a baby is not simple. I have made this decision twice and I always knew I would go back to work. What was complicated for our household was whether that would be part-time, flexible hours, a job closer to home etc. I now work four days a week, spending Fridays looking after the children (my unpaid job, or so I inform anyone who tells me to enjoy my ‘day off’…).

My first day as a working mum – July 2018

Much of the inspiration for this article, and indeed a lot of my parenting, comes from a fabulous book, “Cribsheet” by Emily Oster. It is an absolutely fantastic resource for all parents and provides a grounded, data-driven approach to parenting. She writes in such a relatable, honest way and I have read the whole thing cover-to-cover many times.

So back to the topic at hand. Firstly, I’d like to talk about the gendered nature of the discussion. When people first started asking whether I would go back to work, not a single person asked if Tom would be changing his work schedule to accommodate our family. It is still assumed that any change in working patterns will be made by the mother of the household (I’m aware I am only referring to two-person heterosexual households here, which is not inclusive and I know the situation must be even harder for others). The framing of this question creates a vicious cycle – often because the question is never asked, many fathers don’t even consider that they could stop working or work flexibly to provide childcare.

The other aspect that weights the discussion so heavily towards women is the gender pay gap. For anyone rolling their eyes that we’re still banging on about this in 2020, let me illustrate clearly for you the impact of childbirth on income. Before I first became pregnant, Tom and I earned the same wage doing similar jobs. By the time I returned to work after having Carys, Tom had earned a promotion, moved companies and now earned 30% more than me, whilst my pay had not changed. Now, after my second maternity leave in three years, Tom earns 43% more than me. This reflects both a stagnation in my wages during pregnancy and time out of work and the fact I work part-time to take care of our children. The gender pay gap exists and it is not just in big corporations with boys’ clubs on the board. It happens because women shoulder the lion’s share of the impact having children has on the earning potential of a household.

With that in mind, what should you consider when making the decision of how to arrange your working hours as a household? Emily Oster suggests that there are three main components to the decision:

  1. What is best for baby in terms of future success?
  2. What do you want to do?
  3. What is the financial impact of your decision?

The striking thing for me is that often people don’t place enough weight on the second point – what they actually want. I know I’ve felt almost ashamed for really wanting to go back to work, as if I was being selfish. But it’s important that you factor in what both parents actually want when drawing up your working patterns. It is not wrong to want to do something just for you. I enjoy my job. I enjoy doing work which people thank me for. I enjoy the professional and personal development, the break from being responsible for another human, conversations with other adults that aren’t about poo or chores, the peace and quiet. This was a huge factor in my decision to go back to work – I really wanted to go back and that’s not selfish.

I get to be more “me” than “mum” at work. I’m a bit of both all the time, but the balance just shifts a little.

Going back to work just because I enjoy it would be selfish if that was detrimental to my children. However, there is no evidence to suggest that either working or staying home will make or break your child’s future success. There may be small positive or negative impacts depending on your household circumstances. But largely, the data suggest that your child will not suffer long-term effects if you decide to work or not work.

Finally, I’ll come back to finances. I have heard women say ‘oh, well nursery costs more than my wage so it just wasn’t worth it’. This might be true in a simple calculation. But it’s worth considering the long-term impact of working vs. staying home on your finances. Children become cheaper once they reach school age, by which time your earning potential might be far higher if you have already returned to work. It’s worth also assessing the impact of not working on long-term savings, like your mortgage and pension. There’s no magic rule for this and it may be very clear for you one way or the other, but just make sure you consider beyond the first few years.

Ultimately, be honest with yourself about what you want. I love my children to pieces and being a mother has helped me grow in so many different and unexpected ways. However, I find parenting exhausting at times and I enjoy my job, so I do not want to be a stay-at-home parent. I would not be good at it. I don’t feel ashamed to say that, it’s just a fact. Likewise, some parents genuinely don’t want to return to work and want to be with their kids all day. This is a personal choice, a decision that each family should have the right to make free of judgment.

Whatever you decide, it’s a complicated, multi-faceted decision and absolutely unique to each household. I will leave you with the words of the wise Emily Oster: “…even when we are happy with our choices at a personal level, it can feel as though there’s a lot of judgment coming from both directions […] People, this has got to stop. All cross-parental judgment is unhelpful and counterproductive, and this is no different.”


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