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6 Mums on Returning to Paid Work

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Latest Stories

Recessions in the 1970s brought more mothers into the workforce, something that prior to that, wasn't done. Before then women worked until they got married, and then they stopped paid work to take care of the house and children. In the '80s, when many of us were kids, majority of mums were at home. Now we're the parents, and majority of us work. We spend 6 times more on childcare and generally, are the ones working part-time and flexible hours so that we can still manage 30 hours of housework and 30 hours of childcare a week. We're the first generation to be doing it like this. It’s a brave new world, with moments of exhaustion, frustration, pure joy, and satisfaction (rare, but real good). We asked six mums in various industries to tell us how they make work, well, work.

Sarah, Freelance Journalist and Digital Marketer

Before baby: I was a digital nomad (remember when that was a thing) travelling around the world and working as a freelance beauty, lifestyle and wellness journalist (for both mags and websites here, and in the US) and also running a small digital marketing agency with my partner for two years before I fell pregnant. I was lucky in that I had established a flexible freelance career beforehand, and had a couple of years to get used to the flow and (often) inconsistent pace of freelance life so I’d had all my meltdowns/ freakouts/ identity crises prior to the two blue lines.

Returning to work: I hit pause on the editorial work I’d been doing for a few months, but was back on the tools for our clients from about week two. My partner works alongside me, which also meant we had two sets of hands, so I was delusional enough to think that it would be fine to be back doing small bits of work so soon. Ha! I had not factored in the brain fog, the nomina asphasia (difficulty recalling nouns - it’s a real thing!) or the fact that I was so damn tired the words swam on the screen. Or even the fact that simply, especially in those early days my son just needed his mum more so I was going to do more of the work. I had headed into it an absolute rookie with all the confidence of someone who’d never had kids before. With my second, I got to makeup for that and worked ahead, giving myself three months off – and thank God I did because that entire time I was a hot mess.

Being a working mum: I think the ambition of making it “to the top” diffused. My priorities changed, but more importantly my idea of success changed too. I had been at the top before (I was the Editor of a magazine for 5 years), I had earned great money and none of that had made me happy. What success now looks like is being able to pursue my passions (which incidentally is what I get to do for work), while we both work to support our family, and also be there to watch them grow up. Now, with two boys, the challenge is the daily chaos! Whereas when I just had Yuki I would work a lot in nap times, but when Miko (now one) was born they weren’t on the same nap schedule so I was just working for a couple hours after bedtime. I fought it at first, and it would give me so much anxiety that I couldn’t get it done, but now I’ve accepted that this is my new normal. I might get 3-4 hours a day of work (if I’m lucky) but I also work on weekends, because I’m not in the standard 9-5. And my god do I make those hours count! I can’t believe I used to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day - what did I do with my time?! I’m so much more productive because I don’t have time for procrastination, I just need to get the shit done before I hear the first cry. Now that the boys are older, my partner and I will give each other work time during the day while the other looks after the kids, especially if either is on deadline so that definitely helps having another working parent there to share the load. I’m grateful to work with incredible clients (most, working mums themselves) who are cool with zooms interrupted by breastfeeding or little faces photobombing meetings. I also launched another business a couple weeks before Miko was born (It sounds crazy but I get super creative when pregnant) – a beauty newsletter called gloss etc, which I launched with another ex-Marie Claire beauty editor, and honestly my co-founder, Sherine is the most incredibly understanding and supportive human. She never blinks at the 3am WhatsApps or after-after hours, or the fact I often can’t string a sentence together. I couldn’t have done it without her. I guess the moral here is: surround yourself with good people. I don’t have time for those who don’t or won’t understand.

Working mum mantra: Find your new normal – whatever that looks like for you, and be ok with that. That includes your workload, how many hours you can work in a day, how much energy you can output, and even the type of work you take on. I now consciously only work with clients or projects that I feel aligned with, because if it’s going to take time away from my sons, it needs to be worth it. It may take time (it did for me) but you’ll get there. Things aren’t the same, and they never will be again, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a change. Don’t try and fit your old life into your new one – that’s like trying on your pre-preg jeans (why would you do it do yourself?!). Buy some new jeans, get them tailored to this life. Ten years ago if you told me this would be the way I was “doing it” I would’ve told you to get off the crack. But this version of my life works for our family. It was unexpected, but in the best way possible.

Natalie, High School English Teacher

Before baby: “I graduated with honours from my Masters in Education and landed a full-time position at the best performing public highschool in our area. Normally new teachers have single year or term contracts, or spend time substitute teaching, so this was a big thing. I was there a few years before I went on mat leave.”

Returning to work: When I returned I job-shared with another teacher and worked part time with my little girl going to daycare twice a week and with grandparents another. For a while, a friend and I tried to do this thing where we worked different days and take care of each other’s babies on our alternate days off, but it only sometimes worked out and also meant that we never got to see each other, so we put that down to one of our less smart ideas and promised to never do it again. 

Being a working mum: I stopped being given any senior classes when I returned to work. A good and bad thing. Good because it’s way less stressful when you don’t have to deal with students (and parents) going through the HSC (final year exams in NSW), but I’ve also felt like my career has been put on hold and I’m no longer growing as a teacher like I was before. I’m also way more pragmatic about my time and more focused on getting things done while I’m at work so I can take less home with me. The biggest positive of becoming a mum to my job is my increased empathy for parents and students. Teaching is all about fostering relationships so that made such an impact. The challenges are of course, lack of time and trying to juggle the load of work and child. 

Working mum mantra: The important thing to remember is to not lose sight of the big picture. A child isn’t an obstacle to your work, they are the reason you go to work (well, one of them). There’s no point working really hard if you can’t enjoy the life you’re creating with your family.


Katie, Head of PR for an International Software Company

Before baby: I worked (and still do) for a global software company running public relations across Asia Pacific with a team based in Sydney, Singapore and India. It is long hours, hard work but super rewarding and it was, and is, a job I love. I've always placed a lot of my worth and value in the work I was able to do, and the success I was able to drive, for the company.

Returning to work: I was pretty lucky in that our company offers paid parental leave up to 26 weeks for primary caregivers. I was able to take six months off (paid) and then, when I went back, my husband, who works for the same company, took his six month’s primary caregiver leave to look after our son. We had our son in 2020, so while I returned to work, I was doing it mostly from home so I could sneak in cuddles (and keep an eye on dad) during the day. I still found it hard to go back when he was still so little but that six months with his dad was a game changer. They formed a very close bond and we became a better team because we each understood how hard the other one was working. I came back four days a week doing what we call a condensed week - so five days in four. It meant long days but it also meant I got one day that was just mine to spend with my son.

Being a working mum: I really struggled returning to work. All the things I thought I used to be: "get it done", "work hard", "go the extra mile" Katie, I couldn't do or I didn't want to as much as it meant time away from my son. I felt my identity had fundamentally shifted and it took me a while to find my groove again. I do think I am much more empathetic now and a better people manager, I have a greater understanding of life and family and that work does not define you. I also think I am super productive in my four days of working and I really don't sweat the little things. Lastly, I feel like I empower my team more to represent me when I can't be there and that has opened up whole new career moments for them. One particular challenge of my job is that I am reporting into the UK and there aren't a lot of hours in the day that cross over. I regularly have calls in the evening that mean dinner, bath, bed is a constant juggle between my husband and I. We also rely heavily on long daycare (are daycare workers not the unsung heroes of working women's lives?!) so COVID continues to make that difficult. I am definitely more productive, more selective and hopefully a more empowering boss. Being a working mum isn’t what I expected, but that's not the kids or the jobs fault — I think it is that we fundamentally change when we become a parent and I am not sure you can really prepare for that in any area of your life. Just jump in and start swimming!

Working mum mantra: I have two things I try to remember. One, it really does take a village. So find your village at work — women who have gone through this, women who will champion you when you can't be in the room. Find your village at home, whether it's your partner, your mum and dad or the daycare workers so you can do the job you want. And second, I feel privileged to have a baby and to have a job and both are important. I try to practice gratitude that I am able to have and do both and that some days, one will win over the other.

Holly, Marketing for a Government Department

Before baby: I worked full-time before I was a Mum, in marketing and communications for a government department.

Returning to work: I returned to work part-time. After my first daughter, I had 12 months leave and returned to working three days a week. After my second daughter, I returned to work after nine months off, working two days a week. We were in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown and I went back to work earlier than planned because I just needed something else to think about, and knew we all needed a bit more structure to our weeks. I negotiated going back two days with the view to increase days in January. However, I’ve decided to stay at two days for a few more months as it feels right for me and my family. In terms of childcare, I’m really lucky to have both grandmas who are nearby and keen to help out. My oldest (2.5 years old) also attends daycare, which she loves.

Being a working mum: My relationship with work definitely changed. The two main changes were time and perspective. Physically working part-time means I really need to watch the clock and be conscious of every hour at work. For example, before I would always offer help to people towards the end of the day if they needed to meet deadlines and I’d stay until I finished work. Now with kids I can’t always give that support and time to others and I have to leave work unfinished. When it hits 5pm I need to get going — get my daughter from daycare and get home for the dinner, bath, book, bed routine. The second change is perspective. My priorities have changed, which helps me to keep a better perspective at work. I don’t have time to get caught up in gossip or waste energy on things I can’t change at work. I get in, do what I can in the time I have and then I’m out. Some days I’ll log back in after the kids are asleep, but I’m definitely better at thinking twice before I do this, whereas before I wouldn't have thought about it. And wow, do I enjoy the coffee break even more now. Just grabbing my wallet and chatting with colleagues, no pram to negotiate between tables and chairs, not waiting until morning naps finished — freedom! I’d seen enough colleagues return to work after having a baby to know the deal. I knew I would have other priorities once I came back. The struggle to be good at your job while also not being able to put in the same time and energy as before is tough most of the time.

Working mum mantra: Find the balance that works for us. Some days the balance of work and spending time with family is perfect, I feel like I’m contributing to my team, using my skills and getting results at work. Then when I see my kids I feel energised and present with them. Win! Some weeks are harder, (sickness, teething, sleep regressions etc.), but you need to be honest with yourself and your partner about how you’re feeling about the work/family balance. It’s important, if you can (if you're fortunate enough to), try to find a fit that’s good for you. It will probably change as kids get older and work opportunities arise, but remember to check in every few months to see how you and your family are feeling. Is the balance right? What can change if it’s not?

Katya, Editorial Director at Broadsheet

Before baby: I worked full-time. I'm the editorial director at Broadsheet, a cultural and lifestyle publication that covers food, fashion, art, travel and more across Australia.

Returning to work: The first few weeks were great. I'd been on maternity leave for a year, and it was so satisfying to be back with a team and using parts of my brain I hadn't used – at least in a consistent way – in 12 months; the creative, strategic, problem solving parts. I'd done some project work on a new book and app at Broadsheet during mat leave, so I didn't feel totally disconnected when I started again. I think starting cold after a year away would have been hard. And I scaled back up slowly, which made it less of a baptism by fire. But about a month in I was struggling. Work could not have been more supportive of my return, but it took me time to understand and appreciate that I couldn't work the way I used to and manage things at home. So I made some changes at that point. I'd anticipated that I'd have to get back to full-time hours pretty much as soon as I returned. But when I spoke to work, there was no pressure on me to do so. In fact my manager, a working mother herself, encouraged me to scale up my days even more slowly than I'd planned. Thank goodness – her timeline was much more realistic, and gentle! I started off working three days a week for a month. Then I moved to four days. Now, after five months, I've moved to a nine-day fortnight. As for childcare, our daughter was the first grandchild for both mine and my partner's family, so we were lucky to have two grandmothers who were thrilled to take on childcare duties for those first couple of months I went back to work – and who, because of the pandemic lockdowns, had more time on their hands than usual. We also got a nanny one day a week. Now, the week's childcare is split between the grandmothers, daycare and the nanny. I like the mix, and appreciate how lucky we are to have it.

Being a working mum: I had to sit down and reassess after my first month back. When I returned, initially, I went back to my old ways. Working early mornings and nights, and on days off. This isn't something work expects – rather that's me and the way I've always worked. I haven't, historically, been good at setting boundaries (without feeling like I'm letting someone down). I'm a Type A personality and I have the kind of job where there's always more to do. But I realised pretty quickly that that style of working wasn't sustainable anymore – especially if I wanted to be actively engaged and present with my daughter Monday to Friday. So it's meant setting clear boundaries for myself (and trying to adhere to them) and trying not to let my perfectionist streak, desire to please and guilt, get in the way of that. The challenges of being a working mum are consistent – trying to be the best colleague, manager and leader at work, and simultaneously the best mum, partner, friend and housekeeper outside the office. The state of my house – and the height of the unwashed clothing pile – has a direct correlation to how busy work is and how attentive a mum I've been that week. I certainly haven't found a way to master all three at the same time. Let alone carving out time for myself. Exercising. The benefits of being a working mum – Intellectual satisfaction. Feelings of accomplishment and purpose unrelated to raising a child. Spending time with smart, wonderful people who inspire and energise me. A better ability to distinguish the important from the trivial. Financial independence and the freedom that brings. Time away from being a mum. And being a more present, involved and engaged mum when I am at home.

Working mum mantra: Don't let perfect get in the way of good. Good is actually great (and perfect isn't sustainable). The pressure and stress of balancing work and children, two huge things, simultaneously – I'd been warned about that by my friends... the media... society broadly! But what I didn't anticipate was the almost immediate effect it would have on the way I related to my daughter and she to me. I quickly found that on the mornings I was working, and some I wasn't, I barely interacted with her as I replied to emails, planned out my day and did other work admin. At night I was the same – either I was too spent at the end of the day to make an effort with her, or I was on my phone or laptop. And about a month or so into working, she had – understandably – really disconnected from me. My partner became the one she sought comfort and solace from, and my mum. They were the ones she was excited to see when they arrived at the front door, or the ones she asked for when she woke from a nap. I kind of became invisible to her, which was heartbreaking after spending every day with her for a year. It felt, rightly or wrongly, like that bond had been erased overnight. But it was also totally understandable – I was barely engaged when I was with her. So I committed to making a concerted effort to be present in the morning before I went to work, and present when I got home. I put down my phone (mostly), I don't open my laptop and I actually interact with her. Sounds basic, but for me it requires dedication and resolve. And the pay-off is absolutely worth it.

Grace, Banker

Before baby: I had gone back to uni to study accounting and business law while I was hairdressing when I fell pregnant. I was lucky to be able to focus just on my studies for the last few months I was pregnant and not work. I had another year of uni to finish once Alfie was born so I took a semester off while he was new and then went back for the final year.

Returning to work: When I went back to work, it was as a graduate in an accounting firm, when Alfie was about 20 months. It was hard. While I was studying I could be flexible and study and do my work while Alfie slept (in the day or at night), so full time work in an office that expected long hours, was a real adjustment. I was away from Alfie five days and sometimes would leave before Alfie was up and be home really late. Lucky when I first started as a grad I was living with my parents, so I always had a backup plan and someone to get alfie if I was stuck at work. Then moved closer to the city to cut out the travel and Alfie went to daycare near my office so that I could drop and pick up on my way to work and minimise the time we were apart. I was really ‘other’ to my work colleagues, almost none of them were parents, especially not the grads, and a lot of them still lived with their parents, so we had very different levels of responsibilities outside of work, and I was really aware that this affected our capacities at work.

Being a working mum: I’ve really struggled. In the beginning I always felt like I was letting someone down, either my work or Alfie. It would often really stress me out and I think it still does, but not as much anymore. I can be busy and tired and still need to make sure that everyone is getting enough of my time. Sometimes it feels like either work life is good, or home life is good, and it’s hard to always get the balance right. I think now I’m much more productive when I am at work because I don’t have time not to be and also I’ve learned to be better at setting realistic expectations with myself and also work which is hard when you have a lot of pressure but I can’t do everything so need to prioritise and somethings can just wait until tomorrow. An upside of being a working mum is being able to retain an identity and independence outside of being a mum. I’ve been able to progress my career whilst mum-ing and I’m really proud of that. Recently Alfie wrote about why his mum is special for a school project, and one of his points was that I work hard. I’m really proud that he sees that in me and appreciates it.

Working mum mantra: When it’s all a lot, make a cup of tea and write out a plan.

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