return to work

Identity and The Decision to Return to Work

21 August, 2017

Parenthood requires a huge self-transition. From your first child's birth, you carry the identifier of "mother" or "father". Your role now encompasses an important and non-negotiable addition: caregiving for, nurturing, and parenting your child. It is not surprising that this shift in self-identity should have ramifications for your professional identity. This contributes to the mixed emotions and experience of returning to work as a new parent. You are most certainly not the same person you were before, and you are now negotiating new priorities and responsibilities in your life. What is it like returning to work when the "professional part" of yourself feels like it belongs to who you used to be, or has changed alongside your new parental identity? How does this impact how you define yourself in relation to the work you do, your career, and the relationships you have with your coworkers and organisation?

In a study entitled, "The experience of women returning to work following the birth of their first child", Wendy Hall explores the role redefinition process. Published in 1987 in the Midwifery Journal, Hall's insights are no less relevant today than they were then. In fact, they resonate a lot more accurately with some of the feelings, decision-making processes, and experiences our clients talk about than do more modern treatments of parenthood and work life.

We take a summary look at the impact of the role-redefinition process on a parent's decision of whether or not returning to work is the right thing for them. We use the 5 factors Hall identifies in her study of mothers. We believe there are some useful perspectives here for fathers working out what to do too.

  1. Societal expectations
  2. Expectations of the work role
  3. Perceptions of their husbands' responses to their work role
  4. Adequate child care arrangements
  5. Finances

Societal Expectations

Women receive what Hall refers to as "conflicting messages" about the mother's role in society: "'Good' mothers stay at home with their baby", and "mothers who stay at home and just look after their baby are inferior". These messages are not only present in media, advertising, and literature, but are also voiced by family and friends. Often new mothers feel like they are on the receiving end of multiple opinions about how to take care of their child; the question of whether or not they should return to work does not escape this. Consequently, returning to work may well mean coping with pressure or disagreement from different parts of our social circles, as well as society more broadly.

Expectations of the work role

The change in perspective that motherhood provides means that priorities for work roles often change. Flexible hours may become more important than office perks or job titles, and women have to be clear about what they need from a role before returning to work.

Perceptions of their partner's responses to their work role

New mothers who share parental responsibilities with a partner are impacted by their counterpart's view on, and responses to, their return to work. There is also the great question of equality: how will our parenting and our relationship change if I cease to work and contribute financially?

Adequate childcare arrangements

Whether it is in the form of a nanny or a day care service, arrangements for the child are obviously of the utmost importance. It must not be forgotten that returning to work is a huge step in the relationship of mother and baby. Mothers will often spend the most time on this step, focusing on how to make the transition as smooth as possible, especially in relation to coming to terms with the inevitable separation.


Hall found that women who were considering a return to work were split into two groups: those who wanted a greater disposable income, and those who were working towards more "essential" goals, such as buying a house. In both cases, working can bring much-needed financial independence, and a personal focus for their wants, needs, or aspirations (where personal means "not related to the child or family unit").

The decision to return to work is a complex one, even more so for the fact that it involves parents navigating a new and evolving identity - one that typically transcends the importance of prior conceptions of self and priorities in one's life. In the end, we have found that those clients who are most satisfied (or least dissatisfied) with the decision they make, have been able to satisfy essential requirements for their family, closely followed by essential requirements for themselves. With respect to meeting essential financial requirements, this is regardless of whether it involves returning to work or not; some are supported by a partner or other family members. With respect to satisfying essential requirements for themselves, this varies considerably from client to client. The leading considerations, however, seem to be maintaining some degree of financial independence, and having the opportunity to engage with something that is meaningful to them personally (here, again, "not related to the child or family unit"). The nature, frequency, and intensity of the "personal factor" depends on each client's unique situation, and usually involves retaining some highly-valued aspect of their "pre-parental selves".

Hall, W. A. (1987). The experience of women returning to work following the birth of their first child. Midwifery, Volume 3, Issue 4 187-195.

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