Working mums: to work or not to work? That isn’t the question…

Working mums often ask me “What’s the ideal number of hours to work if you want to be a good parent?” It is, of course, an impossible question and – like most coaches – I usually counter it with a question of my own working mums(such as “How do you feel about the number of hours you work at the moment?” or “How would you define a good parent?“). The truth is that there is very little hard evidence with which to tackle that question objectively.

There’s definitely research that demonstrates that working mums are good for their children in certain regards (particularly daughters and particularly where lack of money would otherwise tip the family into poverty). Comparisons between the children of working mums and stay at home mums show no consistent evidence that one is better for children than the other overall – though there is emerging evidence that part-time working mums can bestow some benefits above either of the full time extremes. But, of course, all of these studies look at slightly different things and none can fully take into account all the other varied elements that influence a child’s outcomes.

In my fifteen years of parenting, I have experienced a lot of different work-family constellations, some by choice and some forced upon me. I’ve tried (in no particular order):

  • heading back to work almost as soon as the baby was born (expressing breast milk in the toilets)
  • being the main breadwinner while dad stayed at home
  • being a stay at home mum with two small children (lurching from one toddler group to another)
  • cramming a full time job into a four-day week (minus the pay for that fifth day, of course)
  • being a single working mum reliant on a live-in au pair to keep everything together (or not, depending on the au pair)
  • being part of a high-flying couple who both had big jobs, big workloads and pay packets that were spent on ensuring other people kept everything ticking along at home
  • running my own business based on part-time flexible working hours

Each of these lifestyles had stresses. Some of them worked well for a time, while others were always difficult. But what I learned is that it is not the exact number of hours you do or don’t work that makes the difference, it is how you manage the associated stress.

Work can contribute both positively and negatively to stress. It can be a source of support and self-esteem and an anchor into the adult world which provides much-needed perspective and connectedness for working mums. But work can also create pressure to succeed and build stress which negatively affects our levels of energy, patience, empathy and consistency – elements that we desperately need in order to provide calm, nurturing parenting. Of the times when I have been my most distraught and tetchy as a parent, one was when I wasn’t working at all (being a stay at home mum with a baby and a toddler left me exhausted and frazzled and sometimes unable to face the day!) and one was when I was working part time (in a child protection role where I never quite succeeded in letting go of the fear and responsibility of the day job). 

So, rather than focusing on the number of hours worked (or not) as a defining factor in work-life balance, shifting our perspective towards how we process and manage stress successfully opens up a different way of thinking. And when it comes to working mums’ stress, there is clear evidence of what works:

Looking after yourself

Parenting is much easier when your own needs are being met – physical and emotional. Have a healthy lifestyle and set time aside for spending with your partner and your friends and pursuing interests and hobbies. It makes you a better parent.

Having realistic expectations (of yourself and your children)

Children misbehave. They make mistakes. And none of them are good at everything. Learning to overcome setbacks and obstacles is an essential ingredient in becoming a resilient adult. Having impossibly high standards will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy. So be realistic and prioritise ruthlessly.

Positive parenting strategies

Set a few simple ground rules (e.g. “be gentle”). Praise, reward and encourage the behaviour you want to see. And follow through with fair, consistent consequences when you have to. Sometimes, being a parent involves dealing with our own difficult feelings but having a simple realistic plan makes things much easier when the going gets tough. (See The secret of calm parenting)

Good transition routines between work and home

Find a way to step between your different roles in a way that sheds the stress of work and frees you to be a calm, nurturing parent. Whatever works for you – changing clothes, deep breathing, aerobics, or an episode of ‘Just a Minute’ on the train home – find a way to ease work stress before you step through the front door for the evening shift.

Regular problem-solving sessions

Hitting your head against a brick wall will always give you a bruise and never move the wall. If something isn’t working, do some problem-solving. Sit down with your partner, or have a family meeting with the kids, to work out exactly what the problem is and come up with some new ideas. (See How my preschoolers designed a stress-free morning routine)

A family-friendly employer

Not always easy to find but, if you can, look for a job where working mums are acknowledged and supported. Check out this list of family-friendly employers for ideas. If you think your current employer could improve their policies or you want to know more about your rights as a working parent, head to the Working Families website.

And don’t forget, life moves on. What works for you and your family will change over time!

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©Anita Cleare 2015
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22 thoughts on “Working mums: to work or not to work? That isn’t the question…

  1. Amy @ Mum's The Law

    I’ve not long come back to work full time, but my baby was only 8 weeks old. It wasn’t an easy decision but one that was basically made for us due to financial constraints (not at all helped by an upcoming wedding). We’ve found getting into a routine fairly easy and if anything, our baby is better for it as well as the pair of us. Totally resonated with this post. #bestandworst

  2. Robyn

    Such a comprehensive post, you really have experienced and considered every aspect of balancing parenting and working. I’m off work and not in a big hurry to go back, if I’m honest. We’ve moved cities since I went on maternity leave so returning to work will involve the added stress of finding and starting at a new job as well as adjusting to the change in our routines. Food for thought here, thanks! #coolmumclub

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way – what suits you now suits you now and there is no need to do anything differently until that changes! Good luck!

  3. Min

    Some very sensible advice here. I work full time, and at the moment feel as though my mum sees Piglet more than I do, which is hard. What makes this worse though is that I’m living with her at the moment so have to live by her rules and feel like a teenager again, which to be honest is the most stressful thing about the whole situation.

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      I used to have exactly the same feelings when I was a single parent and we would go and stay at my mum’s and despite being a professional working mum holding everything together I would instantly feel like a teenager again in my mum’s house! Life has so many ups and downs and we can’t always see how we are going to move forward – but then something unexpected happens and everything changes in a way we could never have anticipated. Hang on in there (and keep hold of your sanity!).

  4. helen gandy

    Thanks so much for linking this up…I went back to work full time with my first, biggest mistake I made but then I had my 2nd and I’ve said I’m not going back full time,looks like it will only be a day less but maybe in time I can go to 3 days a week. I’m worrying about as I really wanted 3 days a week but I don’t have a great deal of choice at the moment. You have offered some great advice so thanks for linking up to the #bestandworst xx

  5. El

    I’ve tried and dappled a few work-home arrangements as well and I am always “the grass is greener on the other side” perspective which I should stop. When I work, I miss being a SAHM mum. When I was a SAHM mum, I missed work. But like you said, it is a balance and knowing what works best for you and your family. #coolmumclub

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      I agree. I think we also have to recognise that the balance we are looking for may only be temporary and that a different arrangement might be needed at a different time in our (and our children’s) lives. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Mumma McD

    I’m currently trying to squeeze a full time job into 3 days a week and it is KILLING me! I really need to reassess and try and find a better balance.

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      That’s the problem with working part-time – sometimes it actually means squeezing full-time into impossible hours (and getting paid less, to boot!). Good luck with finding the right balance to suit you!

  7. This Mum's Life

    Great, comprehensive post, full of logic!! I am a SAHM because I wanted to be, and also because we would’ve been out of pocket if I went to work, as the wages wouldn’t cover childcare. ‘Drifting from toddler group to toddler group’ totally resonates with me!! And being a SAHM mum is not what I thought it’d be!! I’m finding myself needing more stimulation, wanting more uninterrupted adult company, more time for myself… The list goes on!! So now I’m starting to think I’d be a better mum to my children if I went to work and felt a bit more fulfilled! So yes, it’s a really personal decision, that has to be right for yourself and the whole families needs!

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. Being a mum isn’t easy and sometimes I suspect (in my case at least) that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence….!

  8. Adventures of a Novice Mum

    “Hitting your head against a brick wall will always give you a bruise and never move the wall”, so good to remember this. My word, what a wealth of parenting experience you have.

    So vital to find ways to leave work and life stresses behind when dealing with children, if one is to remain gentle; I’m finding this to be a steep learning curve. #CommentLuv

  9. Lucy

    I just read a post on another site about whether we should encourage young girls to think they can ‘have it all’. I’ve long thought that it’s not possible to have it all – you’ve got to choose the bits that you want and work best for you. I think your advice about problem solving is very sensible. My current problem is working on how to build more fun into my life as a parent and WAHM mum.

    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      Recognising the problem is the first step to solving it! Working at home brings unique challenges in terms of separating the work you and the relaxing you – but they are both essential. How about brainstorming a list of fun things to do (big and small) and setting a goal to do one every fortnight to get you started?


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