Many mums who return to work after having a baby feel guilty and find being a working parent tough. Employment experts discuss return-to-work problems - and solutions - with Lisa Salmon.
Parenting is hard enough, but it appears many mums are making it even harder on themselves - by succumbing to 'work guilt'.
While new figures show 64% of mums are now in employment, research suggests more than three-quarters (80%) of these feel guilty about going back to work after having a baby, worrying about leaving their child in the care of others.
But, as Mandy Garner, editor of workingmums.co.uk, rightly argues: "Guilt is a bit of a useless emotion if you can't do anything to change things.
"Finding the right childcare to fit around your work patterns, negotiating flexible working or finding a new flexible job, and planning ahead for emergencies, like who takes time off when a child's sick - these are all things you can do to help reduce the guilt."
Such thorny issues are among those that will be tackled at the Work and Family Show (ExCel London, February 21-22), where working parents will be offered advice and information from employment experts and employers.
Garner will be speaking at the show about the best ways for parents to find a job.
She says: "It's very hard to go from an extended period of doing something entirely different from your day job to returning to work.
"Many women find their confidence is affected, but once they're back at work they usually pick up the reins pretty quickly. After all, it's often something they've done for many years.
"What is new is coping with the dual role of working and being a parent. Guilt gets a lot of press and it's definitely an emotionally turbulent time."
She says many women rethink their values and priorities after having a baby, and find it hard to move from being at home with the baby for months and then leaving them for up to 10 hours a day.
"For many women though, there's no choice," she points out.
Indeed, the 2013 annual survey of working mums by workingmums.co.uk found the main reason for mums returning to work after having children is money (94%) - although 75% want to work to boost their self-esteem, and 75% enjoy their job.
So if you can't avoid the need to return to work, the only answer is to try and reduce the stresses that go with it - Garner stresses that being happy about childcare, making sure it's right for you as well as your child, is crucial in this.
"Anything that can reduce your stress levels helps make the return easier and more sustainable in the long-term," she says.
Tweaking things a little at work if necessary, such as reducing working hours, or cutting commuting by requesting a couple of days working from home, are also steps which can be of huge benefit.
From the employment perspective, part of the problem with returning to work after having children can be the length of time a woman has been off. The workingmums.co.uk survey found 32% of mums took between one and six months off, 30% took seven to 12 months, and 23% had more than two years away from work.
Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching at Myfamilycare, which provides work and family solutions for both employers and employees, says: "If a woman's taken a long period off work, she has to show she's got up-to-date skills - there's a very definite confidence hurdle.
"She may be questioning whether it'll work for her and can she balance it all, and the world is looking at her and asking if she can do it, has she got up-to-date skills?"
She says leading employers see the benefit of being family-friendly and having mothers return to work, explaining: "They know parents are likely to have developed more perspective, responsibility and loyalty.
"They quite like to employ parents because they tend to be good at prioritising and multi-tasking, and will probably be motivated and loyal if the employer can help them make it work."
She says that issues such as the gender pay gap suggest "on the face of it, it would appear it's harder for women", but she points out that many women who've taken time off to have children and returned to work are very proactive and make it work well.
Working and being a parent means, of course, that parents have two roles, and Liston-Smith stresses: "A lot of people feel they're happier as parents if they've got their own identity and are able to use their talents and training at work."
Women thinking of returning to work need to consider their long-term vision and where they want to be in 10-15 years. If they're not ready to return to paid work, they might consider doing voluntary work to maintain their abilities. They also need to think about the skills they possess, including those gained from being a parent.
Trying a Keeping-in-Touch Day, where a parent on maternity or additional paternity leave is paid to work for the odd day during the leave, can also make the final return to work easier. Parents also have the right to request flexible working, although employers don't have to agree to it.
Getting the work-life balance right is also vital, says Liston-Smith, and it can really help for mums to share chores with their partner if possible - that said, last year's workingmums.co.uk survey found only 27% of parents shared housework and childcare evenly with their partner.
"If you have a partner at home, it's sensible to have constructive conversations about how you share the domestic workload," she says.
"While you're on maternity leave you're probably more involved with housework than ever, but when you go back to work that has to be managed as a household - it can't really stay as just being your job.
"But it's important to be level-headed about it, and use your best delegation skills with your partner!"
:: For more information about the Work and Family Show, visit www.theworkandfamilyshow.co.uk
Ask the expert
Q: "There are so many old warnings around about children's eyes, like how reading in bad light or sitting too close to the TV will damage their eyes, or eating carrots will improve their vision. Are these sort of tales true, or just myths?"
A: Optometrist Sarah Townsend, a council member for the College of Optometrists, says: "It's surprising how many eye health myths still seem to be widely believed.
"Parents shouldn't worry about their children sitting close to the TV - children may find it more comfortable to read or watch TV close-up as they have very good focusing ability, but it won't do them any harm.
"Similarly, reading in bad light is also highly unlikely to cause any permanent damage because your eyes adjust and your pupils enlarge in order to collect the most light. It could, however, cause eye strain, which can be uncomfortable.
"Another common myth is that wearing glasses or contact lenses will make your eyes weaker, but this is also false.
"However, some so-called 'myths' are partly true - for example carrots are a source of vitamin A, which is important for the eyes, although the College recommends a balanced diet to maintain good eye health.
"It's important to monitor your child's eye sight, for example if you notice that your child is holding things up close to see, this could indicate that your child is short sighted, and they may need glasses.
"If you are ever unsure about a myth you've heard, or you have any worries about your or your child's eyesight, make an appointment with your local optometrist."
:: For more information on keeping children's eyes healthy, visit www.lookafteryoureyes.org
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