Returning to work after becoming a mum
Updated: May 8, 2019
Over the past few months, I have found myself in conversations with a number of women about the challenges of balancing priorities, including work, family time and self-care. There are so many pressures on mothers to return to the workforce (particularly self-imposed ones!) while maintaining a meaningful presence at home with their children and partner, but also finding time to enjoy doing things that they love. It can be a tricky juggling act to get the jigsaw pieces fitting together!
These conversations have prompted me to reflect on and share my own experience navigating these stormy seas of reintegrating work into my lifestyle after becoming a mother. I thought it might be a story that other mums might find interesting to hear and consider as they embark on, or continue to pilot, their own journeys.
I was fortunate to fall pregnant about 8 months before I was due to complete my GP registrar training. My husband and I were living in Broome, I was undertaking a 12 month Advance Skills Training post in Aboriginal Health. My husband was working as an electrician across towns in the Kimberley and our plan was to move to Perth when I was 34 weeks pregnant to have our baby as we would have the support of our families. Our longer term goal was to move back down to our house in Dunsborough within 12 months, I would return to work as a GP obstetrician at the practice where I had previously trained as a GP registrar and Brad would find work locally.
Brad wasn’t loving his work up north for a number of reasons, so he started looking for work elsewhere and successfully secured a job doing FIFO in the Goldfields. Before long, it was time to farewell Broome and move south to Perth. I had completed all of my GP training requirements and just needed to submit my paperwork to apply for my College Fellowship.
I absolutely loved being on maternity leave. It was a time where I could completely switch my brain off from work and focus on the next chapter of my life – becoming a mother. We had moved into my parents’ unit in Trigg, so I would take long walks along the beautiful coastline each day. I caught up with Perth friends for coffee dates, I hadn’t seen many of these friends for some time as I had been away working and travelling for the past six years. I was looking forward to spending time with my new baby and learning how to be a mum, so I read a number of books and soaked up as much as I could about breastfeeding and infant sleep.
Then, quite out of the blue, I received a call from a medical school friends’ husband who had a job proposition for me. The WA Country Health Service were setting up a new postgraduate medical education unit (PMEU) and they were looking for someone to take on the role of director. He thought I might be willing and interested in the challenge. It was a time of mixed emotions: on one hand, I was humbled and excited by this unique opportunity to broaden my career path, on the other I was uncertain about whether I wanted a new job to potentially impede this precious time of my life with my new baby.
I discussed how it might work with my husband and my mum. They were both encouraging and supportive and suggested I offer to work a small amount of time, just 1.5 days per week, with the option to work from home when possible. Mum said she would be happy to take care of our baby when I was required to go in to the office and Brad was away at work. Knowing I had the support of my family was critical, so with that confirmed, I met with my new boss and negotiated the terms of my new position. I agreed to start when the baby was 8 weeks old. When I think about that now, I must admit I cringe a bit and wonder how I actually did it!
I was very fortunate to have an uncomplicated Caesarean section. Alice (our baby girl) was breech presentation (bottom first) and quite small with minimal amniotic fluid, so external cephalic version (spinning her around to head first) wasn’t an option. Breastfeeding came naturally for us, and although Alice woke up fairly regularly through the night for many months, she was a settled baby who slept well between feeds, so the newborn period flowed with relative ease.
My work office was in the city, so I caught the train to work one day per week and worked from home for the other day. I had a small, battery powered breast pump and an insulated storage bag so I could pump and stash breastmilk, which Alice could drink when I was next away at work. I remember sitting in the changing room (aka toilet) at work, listening to the the pump croaking away like a frog, watching the bottles fill with liquid gold, then looking for a safe place to store them in the staff room fridge, hoping no one would find them and throw them away before I got to them at the end of the working day! Thankfully, this never happened.
I had a lovely team of work colleagues, most of them women, all of whom were very supportive of my flexible working arrangements. As it was a new unit, we were still figuring out what my role entailed, so a lot of my time was spent talking to various people, learning and networking. I also spent a lot of time reading important documents and researching other postgraduate medical education units’ resources on the internet. The one part of my job I found most challenging was the finances, so I dedicated a fair amount of time creating and editing Excel spreadsheets, which was quite a new skillset for me!
Working from home was quite simple. Alice would sleep for large chunks of the day, so I would make the most of this time to plough through my work. One of the traps of working from home is the ability to access your work at all times of the day. It is so easy to just open your laptop and continue that task until you get it finished! This can make it difficult to switch off and focus on other important things, like self-care and family time. I did find it easier to prioritise these when Brad was home from work, as he would suggest we get out of the house and go for a walk to the local café or visit friends, which I was very grateful for.
After a few months, though, we were starting to miss the South-West. Coincidentally, I received a call from a friend and colleague who had been coordinating the Rural Clinical School (a rural branch of the UWA and Notre Dame University medical schools) in Busselton. Sandra was pregnant and going on maternity leave at the end of the academic year, and wondered if I might like to cover her maternity leave for the following 12 months. The timing couldn’t have been better and this was a job opportunity I had been dreaming of for some time. Having been an RCS student myself back in 2002, and also being involved with teaching and research with the RCS while I was in Broome, I had a strong affinity for the RCS and was keen to reconnect. I ran the idea past Brad and my parents, and they agreed it was a fantastic prospect. As it was a non-clinical role, similar to my PMEU job, it would have flexibility and options to work from home.
The next step was to let my boss at the PMEU know my plans and negotiate working remotely from Dunsborough. Although I had warned my boss that we were likely to be moving back down south sometime in the next year or so, it was a bit sooner than we had anticipated. Nevertheless, my boss acknowledged our circumstances and gracefully agreed that I could continue in my role, working 1 day per week remotely, with occasional visits to Perth for meetings.
At this point, we needed to decide what Brad would do and whether he could continue working or become a stay-at-home-dad. After talking through the pros and cons of each scenario – me choosing not to work and staying home with Alice while Brad continued FIFO, both of us continuing to work and employing an au pair to take care of Alice, me continuing to work and Brad choosing to finish work to stay home with Alice – we came to the conclusion that for now the best option was for me to continue working and Brad to become the stay-at-home parent. This was made slightly easier by the fact that Brad had two strong role models in his brother-in-law and best friend who had successfully taken on the role of stay-at-home dad before him, so we felt confident that it was possible.
The next step was to negotiate my return to clinical work as a procedural GP obstetrician. I called my colleagues, Mostyn and Peter, and informed them of our plans to return to the South-West. They were both happy to hear from me and very supportive of my decision to transition back to clinical work slowly. They were already sharing the obstetrics on-call roster and were grateful for a third person to contribute, even if just one day per week on-call. I then contacted the practice manager and negotiated to work 2 sessions (8 hours) per week to compliment my RCS and PMEU work. The practice manager was supportive and welcomed me back with open arms.
Those first few weeks back at work are a bit of a blur. Alice was still breastfeeding and waking through the night, so we decided to try coaxing her into a better sleeping routine by sending Brad in to settle her at night rather than me. She was 8 months old at this point. It was a challenging few days of interrupted sleep, however we managed to get through it without too much trauma and an improved sleeping pattern, which made a positive difference to the wellbeing of our family.
It took time to build my confidence in both general practice and obstetrics, but within a month or so I was feeling more at ease with my clinical knowledge and skills, knowing I had a supportive team of colleagues who I could call on at any time. I enjoyed the teaching work a lot; the students were motivated and full of enthusiasm, which inspired me to be an energetic and innovative teacher. I was very grateful to the other RCS staff who were so generous with their teaching resources and words of advice on how to succeed as a medical coordinator, reassuring me that I had what it took and as much support as I needed.
Brad took a while to settle in to his new role. He enjoyed being with Alice and supporting me as I transitioned to an almost full-time working mum, but it was a challenge for him coming to terms with the reality that he wasn’t working and earning his own money, but rather my income was our income to be shared and managed as a family. I never made a big deal of this, we had a shared bank account and we weren’t spending money on expensive holidays or cars, we were just paying the mortgage and the bills. However I know he struggled to feel comfortable spending money on himself when he wasn’t working and earning his own money. I did understand this and I’m sure I would have felt the same if I was the parent without an income.
For me, the biggest challenge was the guilt of being away from Alice while I was working. Although I was consciously reminding myself that she was with her dad, having fun and being very well cared for, I also felt sad that I was missing out on spending this precious time with her as a baby. I missed seeing her crawl fo the first time because I was at work (Brad sent me a video!) and although I made the most of the time we did share together, I did feel there was a definite cost to our choice of me returning to work when Alice was so young. On the flip side, as a professional who is expected to maintain their knowledge and skills, I also felt there was limited scope for extended time off work as I would start to deskill and lose confidence if I didn’t return to the workforce within 12 months.
These were the lessons of parenthood that both Brad and I were learning: surrendering and accepting to the fact that it is an illusion that you can have it all.
Every choice has consequences: it is up to us to consider these and choose our path based on our values and opportunities.
When I fell pregnant with our second baby in August 2012, the opportunity arose to re-evaluate our situation. We discussed our options over the following months, and agreed that I would like to take at least 6 months of maternity leave to spend time with Alice and the new baby. I felt strongly that I didn’t want to rush back to work like I had with Alice, especially because I would now have two children to nurture. Brad started looking for jobs. Not long before I was due to start maternity leave, he was offered a 6 month contracted position with the Department of Finance in Perth. We told my parents about the offer, and they immediately suggested that we move in with them for 6 months. My mum had retired from teaching (a second time!) and was excited about the prospect of having her eldest daughter and two grandchildren staying with her. My dad was also looking forward to having us living in. Brad had lived with my parents early on in our relationship and felt very comfortable with the proposition, so the decision was made.
Our daughter Sascha was born in May 2013 via elective Caesarean section with no complications. We had a lovely few days in hospital before being discharged home to my parents’ home on 15 acres one hour east of Perth city. The 5 months of maternity leave that followed were some of the most beautiful times of my life. Having the time to be with my two little girls, supported by my generous mum who entertained Alice while I fed and settled Sascha then cooked, cleaned, washed and kept the home peaceful, was such a blessing. Brad would go out to work each week day and spend the evenings and weekends with us. It just felt right and I am so incredibly grateful that we could make this work for our family. That’s not to say there weren’t challenging times, and it was particularly difficult to find time to nurture my relationship with Brad, but overall I think it was a really positive experience for us all and set a strong foundation for us moving forward as a family.
When Brad’s contract came to an end, we decided to move home to Dunsborough. I contemplated my working arrangements, and decided that having three part-time jobs was going to be too much as a mum with two young children. I contacted my boss at the PMEU and handed in my resignation. They were very understanding and had managed to find a suitable replacement while I was on maternity leave, so the transition was quite smooth. I decided to return to my RCS job 1.5 days per week to begin with and work in GP 1 day per week but waited to join the obstetrics roster until a few months later when Sascha was 8 months old. Again, my colleagues and practice manager were incredibly supportive and happy to accommodate my requests. I stepped up my RCS hours to 2.5 days per week in February to coincide with the new intake of students, and also increased by GP hours to 1.5 days per week, mainly for financial reasons.
Brad was doing a great job at home with the kids, however he was getting itchy feet and wanting to return to the workforce. So he started looking for jobs and managed to find a FIFO position. We realised that with both of us working, we were going to need someone living-in to take care of the children, so we started searching for an au pair. Thankfully, we were successful in recruiting a lovely young German au pair who had been working for a family in Sydney for the previous 6 months. Jen arrived in June and spent two months with our family. She was so lovely with the girls and a wonderful support to me when Brad was away at work. She even did some volunteer work at the local kindy as it was her plan to become a kindergarten teacher when she returned home to Germany. After Jen, we had three more au pairs, Sarah, Laura and Alina. Each of them had different personalities and interests, but they were all attentive with the girls and good company for me, and we felt incredibly fortunate to have no major issues with any of them.
After 15 months of FIFO work, Brad decided it was enough, so finished up his job and returned home to be a stay-at-home dad again. Although I was supportive of his decision to go back to work, I was relieved when he announced he wanted to finish up. He knew, however, that he would need something to keep his mind stimulated while at home with the kids, so he decided to enrol in a business degree at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury. Thankfully, we had already engaged with an excellent family day-care when Alice was 18 months old, so we reconnected with Trish and both girls started attending two days per week so Brad could attend class and work on assignments. Alice and Sascha were very happy there and we all loved Trish, she was like family and we felt very fortunate that our children were in such good hands.
I was happy with my work, however I realised that going to work 5 days per week, even if some were only half days, was taking its toll, so I decided to drop half a day a fortnight so I could have every second Friday off. It was a blessing to have this day to run errands, go to the hairdresser or have a massage, and spend time with the kids and Brad. Although I had some concerns about whether reducing my working hours would put us under financial pressure, I knew that my mental and emotional wellbeing was more important.
Fast forward a few years and our children are now at school, Brad is working 3 days a fortnight running his farming business and I’m working 4 days a week, taking (almost) every Friday off. We’ve had an au pair living with us for the past 5 months as Brad returned to FIFO work last year, but he has recently finished this so he can be at home with us, and our au pair will fly home to Germany at the end of this month. It is likely that our family situation will continue to change and evolve as time goes by.
Given our experience to date, I feel confident that we will allow changes to happen with grace, honouring our values and keeping a big-picture perspective.
I have learnt that it is important to make decisions about work after carefully considering the impact on yourself, your family and your career, remembering that everyone’s circumstances are unique and often changing. I have been very fortunate to have a supportive husband who was open to the idea of being a stay-at-home dad, providing me with the opportunity to continue working as a medical professional after having children. I have also learnt that compromise is inevitable and it’s important to make time for yourself so you can maintain a healthy balance of work and home-life. Finally, I’ve learnt that there is no point comparing yourself to others, but rather I recommend using yourself as your comparison. Check in regularly to ensure you are on track, and if your feel yourself veering off, confide in your loved ones and trusted colleagues to seek assistance with finding balance again. This strategy has worked for me on countless occasions and I know I will continue utilising it for many years to come.