Working motherhood is still one of the biggest challenges a woman faces. In fact, research suggests that no matter how much we prepare ourselves practically – by taking parenting classes, investigating childcare options early and meticulously planning our return to work while pregnant – once baby arrives, the juggling act is harder than it has ever been.
The New York Times summed up the pressures perfectly. “Motherhood became more demanding [in the last 20 years],” they wrote. “Parents now spend more time and money on child care. They feel more pressure to breastfeed, to do enriching activities with their children and to provide close supervision.” And, while shared parental leave is aiming to make responsibilities more equal, and fathers are playing a bigger and more active role than ever before, in reality the majority of this burden still falls on mothers. They’re often the ones who take unpaid leave when their child is ill, or dash out the door to get to pick-up on time.
The old narrative of ‘having it all’ is not helping. There are too few honest and realistic portrayals of working motherhood that shine a light on the good days – and the bad.
So, what does this juggling act actually look like? And how could businesses and politicians better support women with children who have to, or choose to, go back to work? Here, seven working mums from around the world get candid about everything from negotiating maternity leave to the true cost of childcare – plus the little wins that make it all worthwhile.
“I don’t worry as much about work now”
Lucy, 34, London: Mum to two-year-old Nina
“I was working full-time at [private member’s club] Soho House as European Editor when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t tell them until I was five months pregnant as at the time there were no other working mums in my immediate team, and I was worried about the reaction. They were supportive when I told them and happy for me to go to appointments.
“Initially I thought I’d only need six months maternity leave, but I ended up taking nine months which was fairly easy to negotiate as legally you can take up to a year in the UK. In my role at Soho House I had to travel a lot to all the European houses, so I was worried about being away from my daughter. I looked into flexible working and luckily a role came up at Soho House’s new venture at the time, The Ned. There I was allowed to work four days a week, finishing at 5pm so I could collect my daughter as my husband works too far away to do pick up or drop off. The move to The Ned was fantastic because they are so supportive and don’t make me feel guilty for being a mum.
“We get the Child Support Allowance of £80 a month that every person in the UK receives. We don’t get any other help, but I do use childcare vouchers through work which act as a tax break for working parents.
“I feel guilty for leaving Nina, even though she loves her nursery and has learnt so much and made so many friends there. Juggling the nursery drop off and getting to work for 9am is a struggle, legging it on the dot at 5pm to pick up from nursery is impossible and relies on everything going just right – if there’s a tube delay it’s a nightmare. And finally the cost is crippling. The cost of childcare is appalling in the UK (£330 ($611 AUD) per week is the average London nursery cost for a child under two). It genuinely makes me angry that some women literally cannot afford to go back to work. But, when it comes to work, I don’t worry as much now – I feel like having a kid puts everything in perspective and means that unless you’re a surgeon or a soldier, work will be fine and it’s not worth losing sleep over.”
“I’ve never felt guilty for going to work”
Claire*, 47, Queensland: Mum to a teenage daughter
“I was 34 when I had my child, living in a regional town. I owned my own business with a business partner. Due to circumstance after the birth of my daughter, I lost my share in the business so was unemployed. That meant maternity leave wasn’t relevant.
“I parent my child on my own, and have done since she was born, as her father left. I’m grateful for the help the government has provided in the way of family tax benefits as it’s fair and equitable to all. The challenges have been finding work that was suitable during daycare hours, as I’m in an industry that typically provides services before and after traditional working hours. But in saying that this it provided me with an opportunity to find 9am-5pm work, which I’ve done successfully. It also motivated me to further my education and complete my degree
“I never felt that work has been a struggle, or ever felt guilty going to work, as I want my child to see an independent, strong and confident parent. That when issues arise you find solutions. For me the hardest part of being a working parent is spending minimal time with her during the holidays. I’m self-employed so I don’t get holiday pay.”
“I took seven weeks unpaid maternity leave”
Danielle, 33, New York: Mum to six-year-old Ava
“I was 27 when I found out I was pregnant. I worked full-time as a hairdresser and was at school part-time. I still work part-time and school has been on hold. My boss was not thrilled but my co-workers were happy. I took seven weeks unpaid maternity with no government support. I’ve since cut back some hours, but work whenever I can while she is at school. The biggest struggle is it’s exhausting working five days a week, doing school work with her and keeping up with the house. Usually money is a big factor, so maternity leave would have been great but in my profession it’s not common since it’s mostly cash business.”
“I was singled out for being pregnant”
Chrissy*, 29, London: Mum to four-year-old Grace
“I was working in a PR agency when I discovered I was pregnant. Initially my boss was very supportive and kind, but it wasn’t long before I was constantly singled out for the slightest thing. My job was to keep the big clients happy, so I feel I bore the brunt of their worries about what would happen when I went on maternity leave. I was even told I couldn’t take a month’s holiday I was owed as I was on maternity leave. I now know this was totally illegal, but at the time I just didn’t know my rights.
“I took as much maternity leave as I could take [a year in the UK]. I just didn’t want to go back, but I was keen to get on with my career, too. To me it was important to show my daughter that mummies earn money too! And I needed to use my brain again after being off with a baby for a year.
“You might wonder why I went back there, but it was so hard to find a job on maternity leave, as there just aren’t that many part-time roles around. I had a plan to get out as soon as possible when the next role came up. While the culture had deteriorated further while I was off with Grace, I did have some amazingly supportive and talented colleagues and we worked really hard to achieve amazing results. However, being in such a small team really took its toll. I ended up working five days a week when I was contracted, and paid, for just three. My boss would often call me on my days with Grace, or send me urgent emails that I would get into trouble for not responding to immediately. I couldn’t cope anymore, I was exhausted and felt like I was being the worst employee and mother. On top of that, I was spending 95 percent of my salary on childcare. I lasted seven months and then quit.
“It was a really horrible time in my life. It’s taken me a long time to get over it and ruined my pregnancy experience.”
“It has gone from very difficult to very easy”
Kate, 37, Saigon: Mum to two girls, one and three
“I was 34 and living in the UK when I had my first child. I was working full-time as a child protection social worker on a 37 hour contract, but I regularly worked unpaid overtime due to the unpredictable nature of the work. I can’t fault my managers who were always supportive and understanding but I always got home after the girls had gone to bed, so Monday to Thursday they never saw me in the evening. We were both working ridiculously hard, had no money left at the end of the month and were exhausted whenever we had time left to see our children. We were sure life wasn’t supposed to be like this, so we decided to leave the UK.
“We had opened one of our bedrooms on Airbnb to make some extra cash. A Taiwanese couple came to stay with us and pointed out how hard we had to work to make ends meet. They suggested that we should look for packages overseas, as my husband is a teacher.
“We moved to Saigon when the girls were one and three. They both now have free full-time nursery in an excellent provision, if we want it, and we can all afford to live on my husband’s wage. My husband gets home from work now at 4:30pm, so we are all together every evening as a family. We have a housekeeper who babysits the girls when needed, so that my husband and I can actually hang out together – something that was really hard to do in the UK. I teach English to make some extra cash, and am now looking to start work with an NGO, but there is no pressure for me to take any job. It has gone from very difficult to very easy and stress free. The Vietnamese people greatly value family life and children.
“The only guilt we have now we live in Vietnam is the children not seeing their grandparents. We get paid to fly home for six weeks over the summer, so this helps, but it’s not the same as seeing friends and family regularly. We will likely return to the UK once the children are old enough to receive free education.”
“Childcare options are still so limited if you’re self-employed”
Gina, 33, Sydney: Mum to a five-month-old boy
“I am a freelance commercial photographer, so my work weeks are always changing. I continued working as normal when I found out I was expecting – some of my clients were unaware I was actually pregnant. Luckily I did not have any morning sickness and managed with a fairly uncomplicated pregnancy, so I was able to work right up until I was 38 weeks. I made sure to listen to my body if I was pushing myself too hard, and utilised help when offered. It was great to have the support of my agency and partner throughout this time. I continued to fly to Melbourne for one of my regular clients, until I was 36 weeks and unable to fly. I could have kept working right up until ‘D-day’, but I wanted to at least have some downtime before bub arrived and try to get things sorted.
“I knew I didn’t want to have a year off, or even take six months maternity leave, it just wasn’t me. I decided to see how I was feeling in the months postpartum. You just can’t control what happens, would my baby be a good sleeper? Would he eat? The mums at the agency were amazingly supportive. I did my first shoot after four weeks. It was just a small half day for one of my regular clients, just me and the product, which was a good way to ease back in. After that I did a few jobs here and there. My biggest job was a seven day shoot in Melbourne when he was 11 weeks old. I was fortunate enough to have my mum with me and my sister to also help look after him, it was a huge joint effort with lots of logistics, but I am really glad I did it.
“My biggest concern returning to work was who would take care of our baby. My partner and I both didn’t have any family here, so our options were limited. I had looked at child care options, but couldn’t bring myself to put him in when he was so young. Also being locked into paying for set days was hard to work into a freelancer’s schedule. What if clients couldn’t shoot on those specific days? I’d be paying for the care, but probably not using it.
“I also forgot that my body isn’t what it used to be. After a long labour I started seeing a womens physio, and this made a huge difference. I was seeing results week by week as I was strict about doing my pelvic floor exercises. Because I am very active when I shoot, especially on campaigns, kneeing, crouching, lunging, lying…. I was worried that I’d have an episode of bladder leakage. Fortunately, it never did happen, but it was still there at the back of my mind.
“There have definitely been times of mum guilt: trying to find that balance between being a (good) mum and wanting to work. I am one of the lucky ones, in that I can truly say I love my job and what I have chosen as my vocation. I have always considered myself to be an independent woman, making my own money – and spending it. So once our son came it was an unusual feeling not working, or not thinking about work and having someone else provide for you. We have also been trying to buy a house these last two years. I want to be able to provide for my family. Childcare options are limited for people who are self employed or have a flexible calendar, and I just can’t seem to work out the most cost effective way to do it. Is it really worth going back to work, to be spending all that money earned on care?”
“We need to talk more about accommodating fathers in the workforce, not just mothers”
Brooke, 36, Sydney: Mum to two girls, six months and three years
“Before kids I was working full time, and now I am on maternity leave after my second child, but went back to part-time work after the birth of my first child. My first maternity leave was around 10 months, and this time I plan to take the same.
“Both times I told my company I was pregnant they took the news very well and were extremely supportive. I didn’t have the easiest pregnancies and felt very supported during what was often a challenging time. However, I still feel most workplaces have a way to come in order to be truly ‘flexible’.
“The juggle was my biggest concern returning to work. How will I make it all work? How many balls will I drop each day? It’s not always easy to be the one at work who has to leave on time to make the daycare/school pick up, and leave uncompleted work behind, but it has to be done – and you have to be comfortable to do it and know you can pick it up later in the evening. It’s also a concern to make sure your family adapts to you returning, and the kids don’t suffer or feel like they’re not getting enough attention or time from you. I want to be present when I do get to my kids at the end of the working day and not glued to my phone or emails.
“The types of roles I would strive for pre-kids aren’t the roles I am working towards now. The goal posts have shifted; the roles I look for depend on what works for my family. I can’t take on the roles I would like to – and the roles the ‘me before kids’ would have thrown herself into. It won’t always be like this, but while my kids are little this is a sacrifice I have to make.
“The mum guilt is a big one, but often it’s feeling like I’m not nailing anything the way I’d like to be – like I am not giving my all at work, and also not giving my all to my little ones.
The cost of childcare also makes it hard for mothers to return to work, often the mother’s paycheque goes completely to childcare and the family then has to weigh up the value of the mother returning to work. This is a huge injustice.
“I think one major thing is to be more considerate of dads in the workplace. This isn’t spoken about enough. They are forgotten about and therefore the burden falls on the mother. We need to talk more about accommodating fathers in the workforce, not just mothers.”
Best Of Future Women
Your inbox just got smarter
If you’re not a member, sign up to our newsletter to get the best of Future Women in your inbox.