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How to Return to Paid Work After Becoming a Mum

Latest Stories
Latest Stories

The secret is in the support.

Lucinda McKimm is the host of the podcast Ready or Not and a Freelance producer who is passionate about opening the conversation about how mothers make work, work — whatever that looks like for you. Here, she talks about her own journey navigating this space, where she feels like the system is failing us, and most importantly, how to get the support you need.

On how it started and how the system fails us in most ways

I was researching how mothers make work, work, years before I even considered having my own baby. Historically, I think mothers have been perceived to be one or the other: career hungry or devoted to channelling everything into parenthood — there was no middle ground.

But many of us exist in that middle ground, and I couldn’t understand how mothers returning to paid work actually did it. I had always wanted to become a mother but I also knew that I would never be able to close the door on my professional career. I wanted to talk about this, and understand how everyone else did it, which is how the podcast Ready or Not came about.

I started asking guests if they were interested in sharing their thoughts and stories about work and motherhood and was met with ceaseless enthusiasm. I quickly learned that mothers want to talk about it because it’s a topic that really affects us all — we’re all jostling with finding the right balance to some extent. That includes those who’ve decided not to return to full time paid work — it really does impact all primary caregivers. Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way:

Childcare is cost prohibitive for many, parental leave is only just starting to become more progressive and supportive, and society still looks at the mother as the primary caregiver, even in situations where she’s the breadwinner.

As Executive Director of The Parenthood, Georgie Dent says in episode 5 of Ready or Not, “there’s a lot of research that shows the caring pattern that is set in the first year of a child’s life persists over the course of their life.”

As a result, what we need is more equal parental leave policies and more affordable childcare, and if we see this realised, I think we’ll slowly start to see the third point I touched on above: that society’s expectations and perceptions of what it is to be a mother or father will begin to shift, too.

On our need to acknowledge our own part in the problem

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how the argument for needing things to be done “our way” is further perpetuating gender roles in the home.

For example: My husband unstacks the dishwasher, cleans the kitchen, and makes me a coffee before he leaves for work every morning. If our son has woken during that time, he also gets him up, changes him and brings him to me for his morning breastfeed.

I used to think that if he really cared about me, he would organise our home exactly the way I like it. Pots stacked to the right, sieves and strainers to the left; none of this unhinged, mix and match stacking in our cupboards and drawers. But now, I’m not so sure. If a household relies on both of us to be a team, why should I get to call the shots on how the pots are stacked? Would I prefer that he leaves it all for me to do? Absolutely not.

It’s exactly the same with parenting. We tend to spend more time at home if we’re breastfeeding and therefore are the ones taking the parental leave so we learn on the job quicker. It’s not because we’re more in tune with parenting, it’s simply, because we spend more time with the baby.

"So, if we don’t let them navigate parenting their way and expect them to do everything our way, no one is going to learn and the load will continue to pile on our already tired shoulders. What I’ve learned is that if I don’t want to be the director of our house and our baby, I need to stop acting like I am."

I believe one of our greatest challenges is learning how to let go in order to share the load. I think this in turn helps to rid ourselves of the unofficial house manager role that society has placed on us for centuries.


On returning to work needing equal support to postpartum care

I see an opportunity for us to be treating the return to paid work in the same way we are starting to treat early postpartum care. It’s a monumental shift and we need support as we switch gears.

And I say “starting to treat” because I also think we need to continue to place an importance on healing, recovery and support in the postpartum period. Countless mothers have told me how much a traumatic birth or intense postpartum period impacted their maternity leave, not to mention the state of depletion and emotion so many mothers and parents have before they return to work

Finding the support that you can afford is key. If you can’t afford a cleaner but you can make room in the budget while you transition back to work, do it. If the idea of navigating food shopping and cooking is overwhelming you, sign up for one of the more cost effective meal delivery services. If you think some pampering is what you need, use up one of those birthday massage vouchers (or ask for one next birthday!) and book something that will rejuvenate and reset you.

Additionally, having a conversation with your manager about the realities of returning to work is a great way to alleviate those nerves. Daycare sickness is a real thing, so make your manager aware of the realities of this. And finally, if you have a partner, have the conversation about who will take which caring days when your child is sick.


On the need to verbalise the load

I never used to understand the advice that you need to name all the jobs that are to be shared in your household. Some recommended a weekly household meeting, or a chore chart divider. For many new parents, including me, this now makes sense. With my partner (of 13 years) I used to carry more of the mental load, until I verbalised how it needed to be shared. Now we do equal chores and equal thinking. Does it annoy me that I have to name the chores in the first place for him to understand and contribute to taking them on? Absolutely. But, this conditioning of historical gender norms runs so deep, and if we really want to move beyond them, we have to do the work.

This is especially important if you’re the parent who spends more time at home with the baby while your partner potentially leaves for the office for the entire day. Even if they are incredibly hands-on with housework and parenting, there’s still many hours in the day where jobs that need to keep moving might fall on you.

In the lead up to returning to work, I recommend introducing a family meeting where you go through the jobs and commitments of the week ahead. Make your partner aware of the invisible load of work you’re taking on and start working on a plan to make it more even. Have a big presentation on a Wednesday? Name that as your non-negotiable work day, and if your child gets sick, that’s your partner's responsibility.

If you’re thinking of returning to paid work, while balancing the significant responsibility of raising a child, these conversations plus a dose of empathy will help you all support each other better.


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