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The Reality Of Going Back To Work After Your First Baby

Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux
Before you have kids there are certain things you could never, ever, see yourself doing. Staying sober for the best part of a year and a half? That's one. Reading endless comment sections on Netmums? That's another. But how about changing your employment status on Facebook to 'stay at home mum'? Nope. No way, never going to happen.

For many mothers, this is the reality. And it's not necessarily out of choice. The cost of childcare rose by 4.3% last year, despite annual wages only increasing by around 2%. Since 2003, costs have jumped by 78%. This means that for those who aren't in highly paid jobs, or don't have a partner or grandparents who can help look after the kids, re-entering the work place can be very hard.

Jocelyn Lloyd is 33, and has two children Otis, three, and Bella, 18 months. She worked for five years as a designer at a fashion magazine before having kids. "Since my children were born, it became apparent that it’s not worth it financially to return to a full time job," she says. "This isn’t saying that I wouldn’t want to – I really enjoy work, I’ve always had a strong work ethic and I want my children to see that – but the childcare costs are crazy."

For many, like Jocelyn, it doesn't always pay to be in work. Gemma Payne, 31, who has a two-year-old called Isabel and a six-month-old called Bobby, agrees. She worked full-time as a beauty buyer for a top department store. She went back to work after a year on maternity leave and put her daughter in a nursery nearby to her office in London. The commute to work was around an hour each way and she found it difficult travelling on busy trains with a young child. "I had to commute with her as nurseries shut at about 6.30pm so I wouldn't have made it back in time to collect her, especially if the trains were bad," she explains. "Late fees are around £20, even if you're ten minutes over, so I was worried about that."

As is common for many women returning to work, Gemma ended up leaving her job after a couple of months. "It just wasn't worth it for me. It was too expensive. I wouldn't have been able to afford to have more than one child in nursery. Four days a week was around £1200 per month approximately, and I was earning £1600 per month after tax." Parents also have to treat childcare fees like rent. You pay for holidays and when your child is off sick – even though that means one parent can't go to work either.

Jocelyn, who now does freelance design projects and set up her own business 'The Family Outing’, to encourage travel and adventure with kids based on honest recommendations from parents, agrees, adding: "We send our son to nursery twice a week, and we have a childminder for both of them for two days a week. It has taken a while to get this balance right, and it is financially draining. Bella is desperate to go to nursery – each time we drop Otis off she sneaks off to the play corners and sandpits, but it’s just not financially possible. Once childcare is paid, my freelance day rate leaves me with not much profit."

I'm forever going to be in this situation, paying for childcare. It's impossible for me to save for a deposit, pay rent and pay nursery fees.

Shanae Dennis

The mothers I speak to who have gone back to work full-time say that life is a struggle and planning for the future is virtually impossible. Shanae Dennis is 23 and has a two-and-a-half-year-old son called Jayden. She's a single mum and she's returned to work full time as a cancer researcher for the NHS. She says it's difficult to make ends meet. "I'm forever going to be in this situation, paying for childcare. It's impossible for me to save for a deposit, pay rent and pay nursery fees,” she says.

When nursery hours are limiting and childminders are often even more expensive, Shanae isn't surprised that some women struggle to go back to work and to progress when they're there. "Jayden's nursery has a one pound a minute late fee and they're not lenient on that," she says. "It's shocking that it's 2016 and people's hours aren't 9-5, but after 5.30pm, you have to pay a higher rate."

According to Charlotte Faircloth, senior lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Roehampton, research suggests that the effect of becoming a parent on careers hits women a lot harder for a range of physiological, social and cultural reasons. However, she points out that progress has been made. New shared parental leave was introduced in April 2015 and mothers can now transfer their leave to their partners from two weeks after the birth of their child. "The changes to parental leave and our ideas about fatherhood have affected things," she says. "We have a much greater assumption about fathers being ‘involved’ these days. This might often be quite token but I think it’s definitely a very different picture to, say, 30 years ago."

She added: "I think there’s been a general inflation of the importance of the role of parenting in society. Employers are now being expected to make appropriate allowances not just to women but to men too."

Katherine Twamley from the UCL Department of Social Sciences thinks sharing leave, when it happens, helps mothers achieve in the workplace. "It can ease women's transition back to work. Women report to me that they feel less guilty and more at ease in work knowing their partner is taking care of their child. It's easier with one parent at home and it's more flexible than nurseries – there's no rushing in the mornings and so on," she says.

As well as financial concerns, and despite the progress in men taking paternity leave, some women, ultimately, worry about the impact of working less or from home might have on the way they are perceived, not just by society, but by their kids, too. "I work a lot, but I work around the hours that my children are awake or when I get the time," says Jocelyn. "My dad was a farmer and I like the fact that you could physically see hard work in that job. It’s hard to explain to my children that working on a laptop whilst hiding upstairs, is like going to work – it certainly doesn’t look like work to them, which is a bit sad."

Basically, for many women, the situation sucks. It's not necessarily that they don't want to go back to work, it's more that work has to be worth it. This isn't just in terms of financial rewards or leaving the kids, but thinking about the future, too. Is it as easy to succeed when you're the last to arrive and the first to leave? Who knows, but whatever the case, for now, many women are left with little option but to do something they never thought they would: become stay at home mums.