Guilt and shame: just another day at the office

06 December 2019

Leaving a new baby to return to work is, for many, the toughest part of becoming a parent. Journalist Helen Bird asks how you can help parents to deal with the emotional toll and face the fear of separation.

It’s a paradox that cannot be truly understood until you’re a parent: the excitement and build-up ahead of the birth of your baby – an utterly life-changing event – followed all too swiftly by the expectation that you go back to work and pretend nothing has happened. At least, that’s how it can feel.

And the experience is becoming more and more familiar, it seems: the latest figures show that more than three-quarters of UK mothers with dependent children are in employment; a record high (ONS, 2019).

Many women do not feel good about going back to work. One survey showed just 18% of maternity returners felt happy and confident about work (MMB, 2018), while in another, nine in 10 mothers admitted feeling anxious about returning while around half were very anxious (PACEY, 2016). The same survey found the mothers worried about missing their child, incompatible working arrangements and finding suitable childcare.

Mix of emotions

Anxiety is only one part of a complex set of emotions that surround the prospect of going back to work after having a baby. ‘Guilt is a big one, feeling selfish or worrying about the impact on the child,’ says Sarah Wheatley, a psychotherapist and maternal mental health advocate. ‘Feeling like you’re not quite getting any of it right can be a huge feeling for mums.

‘Some really don’t want to go back to work and it’s a financial thing entirely, so they feel that they’re being torn away from their baby and that can be a real grief, because it’s not necessarily a choice that they feel they have,’ Sarah adds.

Mothers rather than fathers continue to be the main focus here, since primary caregiving duties continue to fall to women. The ONS data (2019) shows 92.6% of fathers with dependent children are in work, while take-up of shared parental leave, which came into effect in 2015, is thought to be as low as 2%.

With statutory maternity leave set at a maximum of 52 weeks, most mothers will be expected to return to work within that timeframe. But the fact that the decision is often based on finances rather than emotions or even what might be best for the baby can be a hard cross to bear, says Sarah. ‘We now have more knowledge of attachment and how building a secure bond with our child is so important, and then suddenly we have to pick this arbitrary time to go back to work and it might not feel like it’s the best time for us or our child. It’s a time that’s been set and it’s not based on what is known to promote attachment or not.’

But a certain amount of trepidation is natural, says Jessica Chivers, author of Mothers work! and chief executive of the Talent Keeper Specialists. ‘That anxiety is going to be there whether you go back at seven months, 10 months or 12 months. Because it’s like everyone has got to a party before you and you’ve got to walk in by yourself feeling like you don’t know anyone. And couple that with the emotions around leaving a child 
– it’s going to be hard.’

Considering many women are at their most vulnerable in the first year after giving birth – with depression and anxiety affecting 15% to 20% (NICE, 2018) – additional support is surely needed in the weeks and months leading up to a return to work.

A reassuring voice

Can community practitioners play a role? Sarah suggests that health visitors who see mothers when they are starting to think about, or approaching, a return to work might be well placed to start a conversation. ‘For those in contact with women at that stage it might be because they’ve had a bit of extra support for various reasons, so it might be worth asking the question: “How are you feeling about going back to work?” And maybe introducing the idea that it’s okay to have a range of emotions about it,’ she says.

Ciara, an HV based in London, frequently encounters new mothers who are fearful of going back to work and agrees that reassurance is key: ‘I find they are very anxious as many dread spending less time with their babies, but also the practicalities of finances, childcare and breastfeeding. So I offer lots of advice regarding benefits, free childcare, breastfeeding rights… Then we discuss routines and juggling responsibilities, and I reassure them that there’ll be lots of time for interaction during bedtime routines, and reinforce that it’s quality not quantity of time together.’

Jessica makes the suggestion that, in addition to signposting local Facebook parent groups and similar, practitioners could even help to facilitate introductions between clients who may share the same feelings about going back to work.

‘Many mothers dread spending less time with their babies, but also the practicalities of finances, childcare and breastfeeding’

Family friendly?

The severe cutbacks that health visiting services in England have suffered mean practitioners are all too often starved of the time they would need to have lengthy conversations with parents about returning to work or to offer additional advice and information. But, as Ciara points out: ‘It’s often just reassurance – acknowledging fears.’

Helping clients to understand that they have rights when returning to work could also be a source of comfort, although any further conversations should be between the parent and their employer. Matt Creagh, TUC employment rights officer, says: ‘All employees have a right to request flexible working. They could ask their employer to go part-time or work a different working pattern, for example.’ But he adds: ‘It’s a very weak right as an employer has a pretty much unfettered right to reject any request.’

Tips for parents returning to work

CPs could offer the following advice to parents who are dreading the return to work:

  • If possible, arrange to return during the spring or summer months, when there is more daylight, or during a quieter period at your workplace.
  • Build up childcare and separation gradually ahead of your return to allow you and your child a chance to get used to it. Make sure you do something enjoyable in the time that you’re away from your child. 
  • Communicate with your employer and ask them in good time whether they would consider flexible working, a phased return, shorter hours, and so on.
  • Join local parent-and-baby groups to meet others who may share the same feelings.
  • Remember the initial feelings of fear and anxiety will pass and that enjoying your work does not make you a bad parent.

Emotional loss

Progress is perhaps being made in this area, as around six in 10 parents say it’s possible to vary their working day to look after children (ONS, 2019). But Matt says that, generally, employers and parental leave policies are not sympathetic enough to the emotional toll on parents returning to work. ‘TUC research shows half of young parents working in low-paid jobs like retail, social care and childcare have a boss who’s never spoken to them about their workplace policies to take time off to look after their kids,’ he says. ‘Employers should work with unions to make sure policies are developed which help parents manage their childcare and work responsibilities.’

Breastfeeding mothers also have rights at work, including a place to rest and a private place to express and store milk. But what about their emotional needs? And what is the impact on those who have had to wean their baby off the breast before either was ready in order to go back to work? ‘Some women are more susceptible to the hormonal aspect of breastfeeding,’ says Sarah. ‘I think some mothers miss the closeness and contact. And it’s not terribly PC to talk about what the mother gets out of breastfeeding and how good it makes her feel, so this can be a big loss for her emotionally.’

A new chapter?

Ultimately, whatever the reason behind a mother’s decision to return to work, it’s surely unhealthy to dwell on the dread of the initial separation and emotional trauma, says Jessica. ‘HVs could drive a different conversation about the positives.

‘They could say things like: “Tell me something that you’re looking forward to about going back to work.” And they can remind mothers that if you return to work, give it three to six months, because it’s hard and if you still feel the same you can look at your options. Help them see that it’s not forever – give it a go.’

Will the onus always be on mothers or could more be done to encourage more fathers or same-sex partners to take up shared parental leave? Matt believes a financial incentive is certainly needed. ‘At the moment, dads are put off because they would have to forgo their regular income and support their new family on a paltry £145 per week,’ he says. And Jessica launched a petition calling for the government to introduce a ‘DADB1’ form that informs employers when fathers or partners are expecting. ‘Employers could find more ways to talk about and normalise men taking shared parental leave,’ she adds.

Meanwhile it’s important not to overlook how new fathers feel, whether they take an extended period of leave to be with their baby or not. More than one in three new fathers are concerned about their mental health (NCT, 2015). ‘We don’t often acknowledge that it can be really hard for partners to leave their kids and partners and return to work,’ agrees Sarah. ‘They might feel left out or worried about their family. And there can be a pressure on partners returning to work to behave as they did before, despite coping with possible reduced sleep and a chaotic household.’

This pressure on parents to remain exactly the same in their professional capacity is something that employers should perhaps be more mindful of. ‘In a lot of workplaces people expect you to go back in exactly as you were before,’ says Sarah. ‘They will not be realising all the changes that have happened at your work while you’ve been away, but they’ll also find it difficult to realise that you don’t have as much time and that your mind is more preoccupied with other things.’

‘We don’t often acknowledge that it can be really hard for partners to leave their kids and partners and return to work’

Rights after maternity leave

  • If an employee takes maternity leave for six months or less, they have the right to return to their job on the same terms and conditions as before they left, if the job still exists and depending on how their employment contract defines ‘the job’.
  • If an employee takes maternity leave for more than six months, they still have the right to return to their old job – however, if it is not reasonably practicable to do so, they can be offered a similar job where terms and conditions must be as good.
  • If an employee wants to return to work before taking their full maternity entitlement, they should inform their employer of their intentions at least eight weeks before the date they intend to return. Employers should consider this when employing someone on a fixed-term work contract to cover a period of maternity.
  • If an employee wants to amend their hours or duties on their return from maternity leave, they have the right to make a flexible working request. ACAS, 2019

Career ladder shame

The initial and inevitable period of illnesses when children start in childcare can be one such source of preoccupation, but Jessica advises parents to forewarn their employer about the potential for further absences as early as possible and to share the responsibility with the other parent or family members. ‘Employers want solutions and not problems,’ she adds.

Of course, not all parents approach their return to work with a sense of dread, and some even look forward to it 
– although this feeling can also be seen as shameful, Sarah adds. ‘Sometimes people are relieved to go back to work and they feel guilty about feeling relieved, because they realise that parenthood doesn’t satisfy them the way they thought it would and they feel really isolated or bored, so that can also feel really hard to be able to talk about.’

But it’s important that all parents are reminded that the initial feelings of guilt, loss, sadness and fear that surround leaving your child for the first time will eventually pass, Sarah adds. And in the meantime there are ways to find comfort amid the changes. ‘You might need to go to the toilet for a cry, or take one of the baby’s blankets for a sniff every so often. There’s no shame in trying to soften that separation if you can.

‘Going back to work is not an easy option at all. But it’s one of those things where the rewards pay off a bit later. If you know you want to get back to work, it’s hard to do but it can pay dividends.’



ACAS. (2019) Maternity rights. See: https://www.acas.org.uk/maternity (accessed 19 November 2019).

MMB Magazine. (2018) MMB maternity returner results released. See: https://mmbmagazine.co.uk/both-sites/mmb-maternity-returner-results-released/ (accessed 18 November 2019).

National Childbirth Trust. (2015) Dads in distress: many new fathers are worried about their mental health. See: https://www.nct.org.uk/about-us/media/news/dads-distress-many-new-fathers-are-worried-about-their-mental-health (accessed 18 November 2019).

NICE. (2018) Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance. See: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg192/chapter/Introduction (accessed 18 November 2019).

Office for National Statistics. (2019) Families and the labour market UK: 2019. See: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/familiesandthelabourmarketengland/2019 (accessed 18 November 2019).

PACEY. (2016) Back to work blues. See: https://www.pacey.org.uk/Pacey/media/Website-files/PACEY%20general/Return-to-Work-Press-Release.pdf (accessed 13 November 2019).


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