Ask the Expert: I dread going back to work and leaving my baby
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Decisions about the balance between parenting and career bring up your deepest values about what way you want to be as a parent and what you value as a person. Photograph: Thinkstock
Q I am the mother of a gorgeous eight-month-old boy and am due to go back to work at the end of January. I am totally confused about whether to take extra parental leave. On the one hand, although it has been hard, overall I have really loved being at home with my son. The thought of going back to work full-time fills me with dread and I feel awful guilt about leaving him so young. I haven’t organised childcare yet and hate the idea of someone else looking after him.
On the other hand, I do feel drawn to just get it over with, return to work and develop a new routine. Another contributing factor is that my job is going through lots of changes at the moment and if I delay going back I might miss out on a promotion that’s coming up.
My husband, who has always worked long hours, worries about finances and, although he says it’s up to me to decide, I get the impression he would like me to go back to work as soon as possible. My mother and sister think I am mad to go back to work before my son is a year old.
I know no one can make this decision for me, but a few pointers would be helpful.
A I think a lot of parents in general, and first-time mothers in particular, will identify with your dilemma. Getting the right balance between parenting and your career is a delicate one to achieve. Such decisions bring up your deepest values about what way you want to be as a parent and what you value most as a person. In addition, there are so many strongly held but differing parenting opinions out there that it is hard to be clear about your own thoughts and decisions.
Under the pressure of these strong opinions, it is also easy to feel guilty about whatever decision you make.
Further, many parents are under great pressures, financial or otherwise, and sometimes have to compromise between what they really want to do and what they have to do to meet other demands, whether they relate to career or finance.
Recognise it is an individual decision
In trying to decide, the first thing to do is to realise that it is your own
decision as a parent and as a family about what you do. It is important to take a step back and tune into what is most important to you before you listen to all the opinions out there. Then it is important to consider the needs of the people closest to you, namely your son and your husband.
In my experience, the best family decisions are made collectively when the parents tune into everyone’s views and try to achieve a “win-win” or at least a workable balance between everyone’s individual needs: your own desires to care for your son and to have a career, and your husband’s desire for financial security, and so on.
It is also important to consider all the options you have. Frequently, parents approach these decisions in either/or mode: either I go back to work full-time or I stay at home full-time, when there are often many other options that have not been considered. For example, perhaps you could negotiate to go back part-time or to use your parental leave one day a week for an extended period. Or perhaps you could negotiate to do some of your work at home or in a more parent-friendly way. These options give you a chance to keep involved in your career and be there more often for your son.
Sometimes you also have to challenge some limits you impose on yourself. Many parents think they need to work full-time because of finances, given the costs of childcare and of commuting. Sometimes, with a small amount of downsizing, they can work less and be at home more, though I recognise this is not the case for everyone.
Involve your husband
In my opinion it is very important to encourage your husband to review his own working hours so he can help. For example, he may also be entitled to parental leave and/or could apply to reduce his hours for a period. At the time the mother’s maternity leave ends, I think there is a real opportunity for fathers to become much more involved as parents and this is good for them and good for their children.
Even if your husband could negotiate to be off early one or two days a week to look after your son this could be a transformational experience for them both.
Sadly, many fathers don’t consider the option of reducing hours and continue to be trapped in a “provider treadmill” and miss out on much of the parenting that they really would have liked to do if they had the time to consider this.
Identifying quality childcare
It is also important to take time to think through and explore childcare options in advance, as once you are reassured about this it is easier to make a more balanced decision.
At your son’s age, he will benefit most from consistent and warm childcare while you work. Because of his need to form attachments, the ideal is for him to be cared for by one or two carers who get to know him and who don’t change over time.
A childminder you trust or a childcare service that can provide consistent one-to-one “parental-type” care is best.
In addition, it does help if you can limit the amount of time he spends in formal childcare: for example rather than him spending long days in creche, it would be better if your husband and you could alternate coming home early or going into work later so he has shorter days and is cared for more by the two of you. Do some research on the types of childcare and childminding available in your area, as this will help you weigh up all your options and make a good decision.
Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering a course on parenting babies and toddlers (up to the age of two) on Saturday, November 14th, in Dublin. See solutiontalk.ie