Combining Work and Family Life Post-Baby: Trying to find the Right Balance – By Dr Sofia Rallis

It’s the age-old dilemma that has faced women for decades: how do you balance having kids and a family with a career? To this day, many women still feel like one comes at the expense of the other which sadly has some truth behind it. Studies have shown that having children typically sets a woman’s career back by six years. Furthermore, almost half of working mums believe they would be in a more senior role if they didn’t have kids. Why? Well, because typically women tend to take a period of time off work when they have children to focus on their family, whether it be months or years. In addition to this ‘parental leave’ period, when a woman does re-enter the workforce the rules tend to change somewhat. For example, staying back late, or attending every work social function will probably come second best to making it to school pick up on time, attending children’s weekend activities/sporting games or carving some time out for her own self-care.

From a psychosocial perspective returning to work (RTW) after having a baby/children marks yet another period of adjustment in the context of parenthood. As with most things this will look differently for each family. For some this will involve the mother (who is most of often the primary caregiver) returning to work within the first 12 months or so after having a baby. In other families, women might return to work after having multiple children, which will usually mean returning to the workforce a few years down the track. Some women may return to their previous/existing role in the same capacity (e.g., Full-Time to Full-Time, Part-Time to Part-Time). Others may return to their previous role but in a different capacity (e.g., going from Full-Time to Part-Time). Some may return to work in a different role or possibly with a new employer/organisation. Others may seek out a new direction and explore a career change or possibly start their own business.

Recent statistics demonstrate that approximately 65% of two-parent families have both parents engaged in the workforce, with this number consistently rising over the years. Why is this important? Because more and more families are having to manage the juggling act of two working parents in a household with one or more young children. Various factors will play a role in what this RTW path ends up looking like, with the most common ones being financial pressures/considerations, childcare options, availability of a suitable role/workplace to return to, and one’s own personal desire to re-engage in the workforce in a meaningful and rewarding manner. For most families the financial considerations tend to dictate how soon and in what capacity mothers will return to work after having a child. Less frequently, women may return to work largely because of the important role this plays in their sense of identity, independence and wellbeing rather than a need for an additional income.

No matter what the primary motivation is when returning to work it is important to be aware that this is a time that is likely to be full of mixed emotions and experiences, particularly in the context of trying to ‘get the balance right’. Why mixed emotions? Well, because it is really common to have moments where you will delight in the ‘freedom’ of being at work and the relative peace and simple pleasures that this brings with it; a hot cup of coffee, clean clothes, no babies or children crying or hanging off your leg, and not a Wiggles song in earshot. You may feel stimulated and confident and enjoy being in something other than ‘parent mode’ where your day is largely centred around the demands of a little person. And then suddenly, you may feel guilty about enjoying the time away from your children and wonder if this makes you a bad parent. You will wonder what your son or daughter is doing in that moment, and how long it took them to settle after the tearful childcare drop-off. Then a wave of self-doubt may creep in make you wonder whether you’re doing ‘the right thing’ and if you’re getting any of it right.
What can I do to successfully combine work and family life?

After having a child, the demands on both your time and attention increase significantly. With this in mind, it is important to steer clear of any notions of perfection, or of attaining the ‘perfect balance’. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations on yourself as a parent, a partner, an employee, a manager/boss, or a business owner. Research tells us that there is a link between perfectionism and increased anxiety and depression, especially in new parents. It is simply not possible to ‘do it all’ so this should never be our aim. Instead think about creating your own template of what ‘balance’ looks like to you at this point in time, knowing that this will change over time.

Some suggestions are offered below regarding issues to consider when thinking or planning your return to work. Some tips that may be helpful are also included. Depending on your unique set of circumstances and when you decide to return to work, some points will be more relevant than others.

• Laying the groundwork for your return to work as early as possible before you leave is encouraged. Many roles following a maternity leave period, especially if they involve flexible work arrangements, are often created out of direct conversation with a supportive manager.

• Do your homework and research your entitlements as a parent and employee before returning to work under your workplace agreement. The law does allow you, as a parent of a young child, to request flexibility in your job. However, your employer does have the right to refuse on reasonable business grounds.

• Document relevant conversations and get any agreed upon arrangements in writing. Be mindful that you may change your mind about your intended return to work plan after you have your baby and depending on how you are managing at the time. Try to stay in contact and communicate with your employer while on leave about these matters.

• Leading up to your return to work write down a couple of different scenarios of what you want your working week to look like. Factor in your financial position in each scenario. Think about whether you could, and want to, increase your hours over time as you adjust to being back at work and as your parenting circumstances change (e.g., changes in childcare or schooling arrangements etc.).

• If working flexibly is on your wish list, be alert to the risk of doing your entire ‘old’ job in reduced hours (e.g., essentially doing a full-time role in 3 or 4 days).

• If working part-time be mindful of setting some boundaries for yourself on the days/hours you are not at work. Think about how you will manage the situation if these boundaries are not being respected by your colleagues/boss.

• Prior to returning to work discuss and work out a system between you and your partner for who will take days off when children get sick. This is especially important if your little one is starting formal childcare for the first time; a time that is usually associated with a few extra bugs and illnesses finding their way home!

• Divide jobs between you and your partner where possible so that everyone gets out the door on time in the morning, survives the evening chaos and everything in between.

• Consider doing a practice run before your start date. Sort clothes, drinks and food for the family. Try and get meals sorted ahead of time by pre-cooking meals or having meals ready to go in the freezer to lighten the load in the evenings.

• Take it easy on yourself for the first few weeks. Set realistic expectations about how much you will be able manage and achieve as you ease back into working life.

• Think about whether you need to update your wardrobe. Your body changes significantly after having a baby and some clothes you wore before pregnancy may not fit well. Buy a couple of pieces that will help you feel confident and comfortable. If you are still breastfeeding and planning on expressing while at work consider getting some breastfeeding friendly clothing.

• If expressing while at work have a conversation with your boss or manager about how this will work (e.g., factoring in issues such as the time required, having a safe and comfortable space to do so etc.). The Australian Breastfeeding Association has lots of useful information on its website which includes some guidelines on how women can breastfeed or express at work and how employers can support it.

• Create a personal and professional support network with some key people that you can talk to about how things are going and discuss any issues you may be having.

• Consider outsourcing some tasks if feasible, even for a short period of time. Having someone else help get the cleaning, ironing, and dinners sorted can make a huge difference.

• If it has been a while since you last worked in a certain role, think about how you can brush up on your core skills and refresh your knowledge base. Get back in touch with some key contacts. This might involve completing a short online course, reading through some recent industry publications or simply catching up for a coffee with relevant people/colleagues.

• Be mindful to ‘check-in’ with yourself, your partner and your manager every so often about how things are travelling. If you feel that things are going well, great, keep doing what’s working well. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you’re not getting any of it right, think about what is making you feel this way. Have you taken on too much? Do you need to re-think your working days/hours, childcare arrangements? Do you need to draw on some additional support? Assess where you are at so that you can work on making some adjustments to what your days look like.

If you find yourself having a particularly tough time adjusting to being back at work or feeling constantly guilty about leaving your child in someone else’s care, try and talk to a supportive friend about how you’re feeling (bonus points if it’s a fellow mum who’s been through this process!). Consider speaking to a health professional if any of the above is impacting on your emotional wellbeing.

Summary
Combining work and family life is no easy task. Even with a supportive partner, you will need to work on building a support network that you can turn to for both practical and emotional support. The challenge for most women is to actually put their hand up and ask for help when needed. Always remember that asking for help doesn’t make you flawed, weak or incompetent, instead it makes you a wonderfully real and resourceful parent.
So, in this day and age where so many of us seem to try and ‘have and it’ or find a way to ‘do it all’, ultimately the message is simple. There is no way to do it all; instead our best option is to try and find a balance between our various roles and commitments at any given point in time. Understand and accept this does not need to be a fixed plan; instead it is a dynamic process that changes over time. Some weeks will be better than others. Some nights you will eat frozen meals or take-out instead of a home cooked meal. That’s OK. Be kind to yourself. There is no one right way to do things, no right or wrong way to feel. On those tough days when you think you ‘can’t do it’, remember you already are doing it. You can’t do it all but you can do it. Everything will feel out of sync at some point. Focus on where you need to be at that moment and forget about trying to balance everything. A career and family will rarely work in perfect harmony. Balancing the demands of your family, your work and your own needs is possible, but not all in the same instance. Create your own version of what works and what doesn’t and do just that; nothing more, nothing less. If you can work on this then chances are will you have achieved the right balance after all.

References and sources for additional information:
• Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
• beyondblue. (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
• Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
• Parents at Work: https://parentsandcarersatwork.com/
• Supporting Working Parents: https://supportingworkingparents.humanrights.gov.au/
• Australian Breastfeeding Association: https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/breastfeeding-and-work

Disclaimer:
Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

Crisis and Support Services
National Services:
Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au
Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

Centre for Perinatal Psychology
1300 852 660

Dedicated to Parent & Infant Wellbeing

MensLine
1300 78 99 78
www.mensline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052
ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178

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