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When Is The Right Time For A New Mum To Return To Work?

26/10/2015 6:03 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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Mother in business dress balancing on one leg, holding her baby in one arm and her laptop in the other looking at both.

I had a horrible realisation recently: I put my job before my baby.

I went back to work just a few months after the birth of my first child, and even earlier then I had planned. As a newsreader I felt I couldn't be 'out of the game' any longer. News moves so fast and I'd been warned that being absent from viewers' lounge rooms for too long could take a toll on my career.

But mainly, like many first-time Mums, I didn't realise the impact of what having a baby really means. I just figured I could be 'superwoman' and manage both.

Cue reality check.

I must preface this -- my workplace has been incredibly accommodating with my schedule, and due to the nature of my job I am able to spend a good chunk of the day at home with my baby. But despite this, the 'mummy guilt' I have felt as a result of continuing my demanding career so soon after having a baby has been plaguing me ever since. And I know I'm not alone.

According to 2008 research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 11 percent of first time mothers return to work in some form within three months of giving birth, and 22 percent have returned to work by the time their babies are six months old. The reasons are wide and varied, but the more I speak to women in the same situation, it seems many simply didn't have a choice.

The first reason is obvious -- money. I have a friend who, despite having access to the government's paid maternity leave, and saving her hard-earned cash in the lead up to the birth of her little girl, simply couldn't afford to be away from her job for more than seven months. And this presented another problem -- how to pay for child care once she did return to work.

For those who don't have family to 'fill the gaps' or provide 'free care', there's a fine balance between money coming in and money going out to pay for child care. But that's a topic for another day.

Another reason I have discovered (and I may be guilty of this myself) is that despite the countless number of working mums who have gone before us, many new mums returning to work still feel as though having a child will make them more vulnerable to losing their jobs.

Friends of mine have described feeling as though they are a 'liability' or they're suddenly seen as 'distracted' after becoming mothers. When business is all about maximum productivity and the bottom dollar, many feel as though they need to fight to keep their jobs, even attempting to outperform their former childless selves, in order to prove they can be a professional and a new mum. One doesn't necessarily have to affect the other -- but it does.

When my little one arrived a little over eight months ago, one of the first things I was asked was how long I would be away from work. When I said "five months" I was given a few odd looks. Despite statistics showing otherwise, it seems working women are expected to take the given 12 months off, and if they don't, it's almost like they're seen as selfish.

But only a new working mother can know what it feels like to be truly torn -- to feel that pang in the pit of your stomach when you're away from your baby; the constant pull that you should really be somewhere else. I'm finding it gets better with time, but for those returning to work in those first few crucial months after bub arrives, it's excruciating. It's instinctual. All it takes is those innocent eyes staring at you as you rush to find your keys and slide your shoes on to rush out the door to know that the choice is hard and the guilt is real.

For me, it really began when I started cutting down breastfeeds in the lead up to going back to work. My baby was only four months old and I struggled to reconcile the fact that I was choosing to no longer give him a basic necessity, like milk, because I had to be at work. I now feed him once a day -- and I'm sure it's more for me than for him.

And then it was the feeling of never really being 'present' when I was with my little boy. My mind was always thinking ahead to work -- or I would be answering emails, or rushing from one commitment to another -- never really giving my child my full attention. In trying to 'do it all' I felt like I wasn't doing my best at work or parenting. Eight months in, I'm still struggling to find the balance.

So, maybe we need to ask ourselves, what do we as a society find more valuable: having working women return to the workforce as soon as possible by leaving child rearing to family, nannies and childcare workers, or allowing for the choice of when to return to be made without external pressures?

Should we be supporting mothers more to stay at home as long as required to raise their child, at least within that first crucial year? Until new mums are able to return to their jobs -- when they're ready and with flexibility -- women will continue to be forced to make this difficult choice.

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