This question from my colleague left me full of shame and guilt (2024)

I was in a pub socialising with my new colleagues – it was a much needed retreat from changing nappies and watching repeats of Bluey.

Then, one of my colleagues turned to me with a question that made my heart sink.

‘Why did you choose to return to work full-time? Didn’t you think about going part-time?’ She said, but I immediately knew what she was implying…

That I shouldn’t be here. I should be at home with my baby.

It was my first work networking event after being on maternity leave for eight months and I’d been excited to get back on my professional feet.

But at that moment, I felt like I was being judged – not necessarily for coming back to work ‘early’ but just for coming back at all. It just made me feel awful and then angry knowing that no one would say the same thing to my daughter’s dad.

Here’s the thing though, I love my job and I want to progress my career, and I’m sick of being shamed for that.

My partner and I spoke about trying for a baby for a long time before we made the decision to have one. We spoke about finances, space and even childcare options but one thing we didn’t really speak about was maternity leave or returning to work.

We fell pregnant within the first month of trying, and throughout my pregnancy I felt physically well but was rife with anxiety.

That was only made worse when I found out the baby had a single umbilical artery – which is where the umbilical cord only has one artery instead of two. This increased my chances of developing preeclampsia as well as impacting foetal growth and development.

Then, in August 2022 my daughter was born.

It was a difficult birth – my daughter and I had to be monitored over the next two days, as her heart rate dropped quickly during labour.

Finally, she arrived. I have never felt anything like I did in that moment ever again. Overwhelmed with love and pride and without fear.

Unfortunately, I only received statutory maternity leave and pay, which meant we knew our finances were going to be tight. I was going to be surviving off around £155 a week so I knew taking a year off was unrealistic – I was going to have to work.

For the first few months I tried to get out of the house at least once a day.

I didn’t necessarily miss working; I missed socialising, and the routine that comes along with it.

Before I’d gone on maternity leave I had been casually looking for a new job, so after giving birth I continued the job hunt. Eventually, I accepted a new job offer. It was not only more flexible, but also paid more, I just couldn’t pass it up.

There was one catch though. I’d have to go back to work slightly earlier than expected, when my daughter was eight months old.

Although I knew I wasn’t entirely ready to leave my eight-month-old, I also knew this chance wouldn’t come along again. So, I decided to go back to work even if it was slightly earlier than I had planned or wanted to.

The first month was difficult.

I was nervous about starting a new role and juggling my family, especially as I was still breastfeeding so I was also attempting to pump in the office, on trains, and everywhere in between to make sure my partner and family could feed her while I worked.

One day I came home at 6pm crying, rocking her to sleep – I had felt so guilty for leaving her.

And then came that networking event. I had been back at work for about two months and it had just begun to feel like things were getting easier. Both me and my daughter were settling into our new found life.

I had to take a minute before I replied to my colleague. While I felt settled in my decision to work, that moment took me straight back to feeling guilty for leaving my child in the first place. I became upset, and then angry.

I gently explained that I’m fortunate to have a partner and family to help with childcare.

But that was not the last time I had to defend my decision.

A few months later, I took my then one-year-old to a toddler playgroup – a rare opportunity for us both to socialise with people the same age.

Quickly the other mums and I got talking about returning to work when one of them asked: ‘Didn’t you want to take the full year off to be with her?’

Again, I explained that my job offered more inclusive, family-friendly working policies that would benefit me long-term. And while that is true, it was also the more ‘socially acceptable’ response.

In reality, I have to work to survive.

My partner and I both work full-time and it would not be possible to pay our mortgage, bills and feed our kid if one of us didn’t work – or even if one of us worked part-time.

That’s very normal for families across the country, yet research from Pregnant then Screwed finds that one in five parents have or are considering leaving their jobs or reducing their hours due to childcare costs. And that’s despite a further uplift in Government childcare funding for children over the age of nine months old.

Further research also shows that a third of mothers in England stated childcare costs and availability as a reason hindering their return to work, compared to just 11.9% of fathers.

So while a lack of inclusive workplace policies or expensive childcare costs may not seem to adversely impact women from advancing their careers – we can see it does.

Then, just a few weeks ago, parenting influencer Tiffany Chesson posted a video on TikTok criticising parents who ‘abuse’ flexible, working-from-home policies by looking after their kids at the same time.

She said that parents subsidising working from home with paid childcare are giving other home workers a bad reputation.

Hearing this was frustrating for two reasons.

One because it just isn’t true – I can assure you that working parents do much more while they ‘work from home’ than play with their children all day.

And two, because it feels like it’s coming from a place of privilege – especially with the financial challenges families are facing today.

The bottom line is, I could not afford to work full-time and pay for five days of childcare a week. My wage wouldn’t even cover the cost of five days of care at £100 a day.

I’m fortunate that I love my job, but even so, my daughter comes before anything and that would be true regardless of my job.

Even if my job didn’t allow me to work from home, she would still be my priority. But what inclusive working policies do give me is an opportunity to work.

These kinds of comments, both from Chesson and my colleagues and the mums at the playgroup, seriously shame working mothers who have no other option but to work and look after their kids.

Instead of judging or asking why we come back to work ‘early’, we should support women who want to advance their careers and families simultaneously.

This includes advocating for inclusive policies that allow flexible working hours and addressing the rising childcare costs that make it difficult for women to return to work.

We also need to champion positive culture in workplaces to ensure all women have the support they need to thrive professionally and personally.

It frustrates me that working mums are still judged for wanting to provide for their children, and theirselves.

While I plan to advance my career, I also plan to grow my family. And that is fine. It is my decision and if people want to judge me for it then they will.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.

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This question from my colleague left me full of shame and guilt (2024)
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