Returning to the workplace after you have had a baby can be nerve-wracking.
We recognise that this is not for everyone. Returning to work as a new mum is daunting as the prospect of being away from your little one can be painful.
However, you might find you need to return to work for financial reasons or to boost your self-esteem in the wake of knocked confidence.
For some, this may not feel possible straight away, and that is okay. It might not even feel possible in the long term, and that is okay too.
The most important thing is that you make the decision for yourself and for your family.
What we’ll be looking into:
- Knowing your rights when returning to the workplace.
- What is the ‘Motherhood Pay Penalty’?
- Making your transition back to work as smooth as possible.
- What is “mum guilt” and what can I do about it?
- The potential of your co-parent.
What are my rights?
If you feel like returning to work is the right decision for you, it’s useful to know where you stand legally.
When returning from maternity leave, your employer legally must return you to your previous position, if you have been away for 26 weeks or fewer.
If you have taken a longer period off, which many do, you are still entitled to your previous job unless your employer has good business reasons why not.
These reasons, however, do not include:
- The job security of the person covering your job;
- You wanting flexible or reduced hours;
- What they expect you to be able or unable to achieve in the workplace.
You are entitled to request a conversation with your employer regarding flexible working when you return. Your employer legally must accept this conversation, and if they say no, must give you their reasons in writing.
Flexible work, in the context of returning to work, refers to arrangements that alter your days, times, or place of work. Some common arrangements include part-time, flexitime, work from home and job sharing. To submit a flexible work request, you will need to complete an application form.
Knowing your rights when making the decision to return to work is imperative so that you are not unfairly treated, even unknowingly, by your employers.
However, we recognise that these are difficult, and might be scary conversations to have. Maternity Action UK provides some helpful resources to get started with this.
Did you know?
You continue to accrue annual leave during your maternity leave. You can use this in order to take more time off at the end of your leave, if you feel like you need it.
What is ‘The Motherhood Penalty’?
The gender pay gap is reflective of a number of things. Factors that may affect how much the average woman can earn in relation to their male peers could include their industry, the nature of the work, location, age, as well as motherhood.
‘The Motherhood Penalty’ means that due to the extended period of time away from work, as well as factors upon their return, mums’ earnings can initially drop by almost half after the birth of their first child.
For 49% of families, the mother only works part-time until the child is 11. The father, in these scenarios, is still working full-time.
There is a gendered pay imbalance between mums and dads too.
According to one UK Charity, the Fawcett Society, over her working life, a mum of two might see their earnings drop on average by 26%. However, dads of two are paid on average 22% more than men without. This is known as the fatherhood bonus.
Despite this ‘bonus’, for young parents, the price of childcare and juggling work is becoming impossible. This is often exacerbated by demographic and location. In their Motherhood Pay Penalty report in 2016, the TUC called for greater access to free childcare as a key recommendation to reduce these imbalances.
However, according to data from the organisation Pregnant then Screwed in 2023, 75% of those paying for childcare said that it does not make financial sense for them to stay in work.
For many new parents though, returning to work is about more than financial stability.
How to make the transition as smooth as possible
It is perfectly normal to feel nervous about returning to work. According to research from TENA, 52% of new mums are nervous about it.
Motherhood Coach Deanne Logan explains that, “there’s this real pull for a lot of women. So many are happy to be back at work, but there is this pull that they feel they are going to let their employer down”.
It is important to be realistic in your capabilities, especially in the first few months of returning to work.
Whilst you might be excited to go back, Logan says that “there’s also the fear and anxiety of ‘will I be good enough, who am I now?’. It’s such a roller coaster that goes on beneath the surface.”
Asking your employer for a staggered start to work, for example, might be useful if you are nervous about jumping straight back into your work pattern pre-pregnancy.
It is important to remember that there should be no shame in feeling like you need to take time off.
Keeping up regular meetings with your manager, as well as ensuring you have a good support network, will be useful for your wellbeing.
The physiological changes that occur with pregnancy are vast and the effect on your ability to work is likely to be present at the beginning, but you will improve. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself, and recognise any potential discrimination in the workplace.
We recognise that these changes affect everybody differently, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gaining back momentum in the workplace. This means that it isn’t useful to compare yourself to others. Everybody has a different pace, and all of them are valid.
I feel guilty about returning to the workplace, is that normal?
Yes. What you have gone through physically, mentally and emotionally whilst creating a baby is life-changing.
Having a newborn might be a novel thing to you, and even if it isn’t, those first days away from your baby may be tough, even if you are excited to go back to work.
These feelings can manifest in negative emotions for a lot of mums. This is what Logan calls ‘mum guilt’ in the workplace.
She says, “there’s that sense of ‘I feel different, but I feel torn between trying to show that I’m back and present and committed, but also thinking and feeling and missing this small human that I’ve made.’”
Women may feel guilty for wanting to pursue their career after having a baby, and others might feel undervalued if they do not do so.
There is a serious double bind when it comes to navigating the workplace as a mum, so if these pressures apply to you, you can find some practical tips for reducing these guilty feelings here.
Gender inequalities returning to work
“I hate to say ‘working mums’”, Logan says. “We never say ‘working dads’”.
According to research from the British Psychological Society in 2022, these feelings of ‘mum guilt’ are exacerbated by internalised feelings of gender stereotypes between mums and dads.
The assumption is that in order to be a good mum, a woman will put everyone’s needs before her own. To be a good dad however, they might continue to provide for the family and a lot of time spent with the children is seen as extra, or special in some way.
Policy changes like extending paternity leave at full pay have had significant effects on perceived equity between parents.
In addition to this, research conducted in Iceland, a country with the lowest pay gap globally, shows how having a policy offered equally to both co-parents in the first months after their baby’s birth drastically increased the amount of paternity leave taken.
Same sex co-parents have the same rights as all parents. This means that whilst the mother is entitled to maternity leave, the partner is entitled, in the same way as other couples, to take the option of shared parental leave. It allows the mother to transfer some of their leave to their partner. You can find more information about this at Maternity Action UK.
What can the dads do?
We recognise that this is not a situation that can apply for all new mums. However, whilst it is becoming more and more common globally for paternity policies to come into play, men still struggle with taking this time off.
Feeling like they will be mocked in the workplace, refused promotions, or treated unfairly are reasons why the percentage of fathers who take the parental leave offered to them remains so low.
It might be a good idea to ask your partner these questions if they apply to your situation. Acknowledging these feelings might help them to dissect them and talk to their employer, to share your burden, and make the return to your work smoother.
Remember: there is no right or wrong pace to return to your workplace.
Everyone has different timelines, and that is okay.
Ensuring you block out undistracted family time might help to ease the guilt associated with leaving your little one in those first few months returning to work.
At Kari Health, we hope that your transition is as easy and fluid as possible but remember that the ups and downs are what makes this process natural. We believe in you!
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