Back to work after childbirth – when or whether?

pregnant_womenIn the interviews I’ve done for the Confident4Work project, some mothers have told me how they struggle to decide when or even whether they should go back to work after staying home to care for a child or children.

All sorts of factors come into play, not the least of which is the need to supplement the family income, but that often needs to be balanced against the costs of child care.

Other considerations include the need for the parent’s intellectual stimulation, and simply maintaining contact with the world of work. That link with the workplace can be vital if you’re concerned about maintaining your professional status and entitlements.

On the other hand, some mothers feel guilty about returning to work while their children are still young, and feel anxious about placing them in childcare. Others choose not to return to work until the children are older.

It’s a dilemma for which there are no easy answers, because there is often a clash between personal values and pragmatic considerations, not to mention societal pressures.

Here are a couple of studies from the middle of the last decade that provide some international views on the topic:

5000 UK mothers said …

In the UK, Deborah Smeaton, from the Policy Studies Institute, compared two cohorts of women returning to work after childbirth: women who were 30 years of age in 1988 and 2000 respectively. There were roughly 2400 women in each of the two samples, and the average age at which they had given birth to their first child was 24.

Smeaton found that mothers with young children were returning to work increasingly quickly after childbirth, in both cohorts, but that this employment tended to be part time.Mother child The result was that women still took primary responsibility for domestic duties as well as child rearing.

Maintaining professional status and entitlements was seen as one reason for this relatively rapid return to work, although it can also be attributed to an increase in the number of part-time positions available as the services sector expanded, typically a female-dominated workforce.

Of those in the year 2000 group, 57% were back in the workforce within a year of giving birth, compared with 37% in the 1988 cohort.

Smeaton observed that speedier returns to work among the younger cohort ‘were associated with evolving attitudes in terms of the morality of working while children are young’.

In other words, Gen Y mothers were less concerned about leaving their children in care to return to work than were late baby boomer mothers [and perhaps in Gen X].

Or are there other pressures on modern mothers?

10,000 US mothers said…

In another northern hemisphere study, four US researchers, Wen-Jui Han, Christopher Ruhm, Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook, analysed data collected from 10,000 mothers nine months after they had given birth.

7% were working within a month of the birth, 26% within two months, 41% within three months, and just under 60% were in employment six months after the birth.

Han et al said a ‘striking result’ was that women who were married, had more than a bachelor’s degree and were aged 30 or older, were generally less likely to be working two months after their babies’ births.  The authors attributed this to those women having greater resources available to them to sustain them for longer in the home [presumably assuming they wanted to return to work].

Not unexpectedly, they noted that single mothers may feel a greater urgency to return to mom-and-kidswork because they could not rely on a partner’s income for support while child-rearing.

On the other hand, women with low level educational qualifications who may want to return to work often do not do so because the sorts of jobs available do not provide sufficient income after childcare costs.

Other findings were that highly educated women returned to work relatively slowly, and that women aged less than 24 were significantly more likely to be working nine months after the birth than 25-29-year-old mothers, and particularly more likely than those aged 35 plus.

The authors cited this example from Canada in 2008, when that country offered six months’ paid maternity leave:  at that time, 60% of mothers were in the workforce within nine months of their babies’ births; when the paid leave  was later increased to one year, the percentage of mothers returning to work within nine months fell to 20%.

This suggests that, in general, mothers (and in some cases, fathers) would prefer to stay home longer with their children before returning to work, and would mostly do so if they were subsidised.

Of course, the studies above were with mothers returning to work within 12 months of childbirth. Some mothers (and fathers) choose to stay home longer with their children, so that the gap between their last employment and rejoining the workforce is extended, which brings its own anxieties, as well as the struggles cited above.

What do you think about the findings in those two studies? Is the situation similar in Australia? If you’re a parent who has struggled with these issues, how have you responded? Please feel free to reply in the ‘Comments’ section.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

Confident4Work Project Director



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