Return to work hostility

Returning to work can mean running the gauntlet of the judgmental attitudes of others.

Business woman at a business center outdoors


Have you encountered judgmental remarks or looks on your return to work from maternity leave? Have you been made to feel that you have come back too early or shouldn’t have come back at all? When you look at social attitudes surveys over the years, you’d think that people’s attitudes to mums working had changed, but we put out a call for case studies for a BBC film recently and quite a few mums came back saying their return had been made more difficult by this kind of judgmentalism.

One woman said she changed job and returned when her son was four and a half months old which other people found hard to get their heads around. Another spoke of ‘interesting comments’ made both on her return after her first and second child. She had also experienced a late miscarriage and said there were also some comments on her return to work ‘that would make you shudder’.

When I went back to work after my first daughter was born, it was fairly unusual to be working with small children at all. I recall in the mid-2000s being asked to go on radio programmes where I would be invariably pitted against a stay-at-home mum and asked to justify going back to work. Often the questions were very personal and usually put by a man who had probably never had to negotiate any of this territory.

The assumption was that you were putting your career and yourself before your child. In my case, I was the main breadwinner. We could not afford for me not to work or even to work part time so I tried to find other forms of flexibility. I resented the us and them approach – I have nothing against stay-at-home mums. Everyone’s circumstances are different and Lord knows the whole parenting thing is difficult enough without all the judgement that tends to come with it.

I have to confess that when I saw the BBC request I thought surely things have moved on by now, given most mums with young children now work, many of them full time. Indeed, the British Attitudes Survey found that in 1989, 46% agreed that ‘a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his/her mother works’, compared to just 21% now.

That’s still one in five, though. There have been lots of changes since the 2000s, often as a result of technological advances.  Political leadership matters too and there hasn’t been much that has been progressive on the working family front in the last years since Shared Parental Leave – and even that was a compromise from the offset. People have used it, however, to press for better, more equal parenting policies even if we are still a long way off those policies being available to all.

Mothers are very much policed and are encouraged to police each other. We hold ourselves and are held to often unreachable standards when most of us are just trying to do the best we can in the circumstances.  There are a lot of challenges [and emotions] to face when returning to work after maternity leave. Other people’s hostility is an unnecessary additional one.

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