top of page

Returning to Work; Too Much Work? The Experiences of Parents Returning to Work After Having a Child.


Introduction and Research Question

Increasingly, both parents are returning to the workforce after having a child (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.119). The literature has revealed that a healthy work-life balance predicts higher well-being and quality of life (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.3). However, it also reveals that the pressures and responsibilities of maintaining paid work and domestic work requires constant effort (Lucia-Casademunt et.al. 2018, p.2), and can lead to increased stress and anxiety (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.2). It is important to investigate the experiences of parents in this situation and understand the ways in which workplaces and individuals can work to achieve a healthy work-life balance. The literature around this topic is largely quantitative, focusing on what factors are influencing parents’ decisions regarding returning to work (Bunning 2020, Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018) and childcare arrangements (Nowak et. al. 2013). There is also a lack of research into the experiences of parents in the Hunter. For these reasons, I will be answering the following research question:


How do parents experience the return to work after having children?

- What do the parents experience when negotiating with their workplace?

- How do parents manage the increased responsibilities of paid work and domestic work?



Literature Review

The current literature around this topic has agreed that this transition can be highly stressful and anxiety-inducing however it has not focused on individual stories and experiences. It has largely focused on cause-and-effect relationships. In particular, navigating the often conflicting responsibilities of the home and the work has been identified as difficult. Nowak et. al. (2013) investigated how the return to work of mothers who had taken employer-provided maternity leave was influenced by childcare options and workplace flexibility. They employed a survey that included open-ended questions to try and get individual perspectives and situations (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.123). Through thematic analysis of the open-ended question responses, they found that mothers faced difficulties when trying to negotiate with their workplace (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.127) to achieve the flexibility they needed with their dual paid and domestic responsibilities (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.126). This is an area I have attempted to explore at greater depth by using interviews rather than set questions in a survey.


Lucia-Casademunt et. al. (2018) investigated how support from supervisors influence parents’ well-being using data collected from survey questions. They found that the attitudes and actions of the parents’ immediate supervisor can impact the well-being of the worker, even if there are workplace policies in place that provide alternative work options for parents (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.7, 8). I drew on these findings when asking about how the support, or lack thereof, of their workplaces impacted the participants both practically and emotionally.

The literature often includes a gender divide to investigate any differences between mothers and fathers. Bunning (2020) investigated if working part time would influence fathers to participate more in domestic work. They collected quantitative data during multiple interviews over 24 years (Bunning 2020, p.570). They found that while working part time the fathers were more involved, however, the mother would still do the majority of the work (Bunning 2020, p.573). They also found that once the fathers returned to full time work, they did more domestic work then they had prior to working part time (Bunning 2020, p.573). This was relevant to me when I asked my participants about how they manage and negotiate their domestic tasks.


Research Methodology and Method

This research project is investigating the experiences of working parents and therefore falls within the constructivist paradigm. Each of the participants have experienced returning to work and each of them will have different circumstances, workplaces and perspectives that will lead to them having unique experiences and feelings. This fits in with the constructivist idea of local, individual realities (Waller et. al. 2016, p.11).


I conducted four interviews, using the semi-structured interview format. I had a set of questions to serve as prompts and guides to encourage the participant to speak about their experiences with returning to work. This is appropriate as the research question has the aim to investigate the experience of individuals (Waller et. al. 2016, p.77). This allows the participants to explain in depth their thoughts and have a hand in guiding the conversation (Waller et. al. 2016, p.77). This is difficult to do in a group setting (Waller et. al. 2016, p.93) or a survey. Due to the nature of the convenience sampling in this study, discussed further below, I believed that private interviews would allow participants to discuss their emotions and reactions with more freedom, without fear of censure or fear their words could get back to their workplaces as it is likely that participants will know each other and may have access to each other’s workplaces.


The data collected was examined and interpreted using the process of thematic analysis. This method was chosen to allow the identification of the prominent and common themes that immerged from the participants’ retelling of their experiences (Norwell et. al. 2017, p.2). It is fitting as this data set includes varied experiences and it has allowed me to highlight and discuss the individual perspectives and how they differ (Norwell et. al. 2017, p.2).


Purposive sampling and data collection procedures

The inclusion criteria for this study are native English speakers that are 18 and older and are a parent that has returned to employment since having their child. I chose these criteria to select participants with experience in the area of interest. Based on these inclusion criteria, I employed purposive sampling to answer my research question (Waller et. al. 2016, p.67). Due to the ethical requirements of this study, I combined this with convenience sampling as I reached out to individuals within my social network (Waller et. al. 2016, p.68). I recruited participants by directly talking to colleagues at my workplace who I knew met the criteria.

My participants were 30 years old Lucy, 29 years old Hedi, 32 years old Ivy and 62 years old Michael. I conducted the interviews face-to-face as the participants felt comfortable doing so. They all occurred in domestic settings as nominated by the participants, something I was happy to accommodate (Waller et. al. 2016, p.83). This was also important for this study as we discussed their experiences with their workplace and so it was important that no one associated with the workplace could overhear (Waller et. al. 2016, p.83). After confirming the participant consents to being recorded, I recorded audio of the interview on my phone. I also had my laptop recording as a backup.


Ethics

I followed the guidelines in the Australian National Statement on Research Ethics (2018) to ensure the study was conducted ethically, with specific focus on the following areas: consent, confidentiality, and care. This ensured that I conducted the interviews and interacted with the data with respect and care for the participants, and that this study stayed focused on being of wider benefit to both the participants and the community (National Statement 2018, p.10)


Consent

A concern for this project is that the participants could feel pressured to participate as they have a preexisting social connection to me (National Statement 2018, p.17). I was very careful to assure them that there will be no consequences for saying no (National Statement 2018, p.18), that they are able to withdraw themselves and their data at any point (National Statement 2018, p.17) and that I did not pressure the to say yes as I spoke to them. When they expressed interest in participating, I sent them the Information Statement and asked them to reply to my email if they are interested or have any questions. When they did, I sent them the Consent Form and arranged a time and place to conduct the interview. This ensured that participation was voluntary (National Statement 2018, p.16), and they made an informed decision (National Statement 2018, p.16).


Confidentiality

I employed multiple strategies to ensure confidentiality (Waller et. al. 2016, p.48). Any identifying information in the data has been altered so that the participant is unable to be linked to it (Waller et. al. 2016, p.49). The consent forms have been kept securely and separately from the data (O’Leary 2009, p.42), and the audio recordings are being kept in a password protected folder (O’Leary 2009, p. 42) and have only been accessed by myself. The transcriptions were de-identified immediately and will only be viewed by the lecturers of the course (O’Leary 2009, p.42). The participants were informed that their data will be only used for this study (Waller et. al. 2016, p.46), that the recorded audio will be deleted upon the completion of the course (Waller et. al. 2016, p.46) and that the de-identified transcriptions will be kept by the lecturers for a minimum of five years in the university’s secure online storage (Waller et. al. 2016, p.46).


Care

This study required participants to recount their experiences and emotions involving a time known to be stressful and potentially anxiety inducing (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.2). They recounted difficulties they had negotiating with their workplaces (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.2) which could have involved feelings of anger and stress (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.2). They could also have had feelings of guilt and anxiety when explaining their decisions around childcare arrangements (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.126). I have taken care in creating the interview questions to address this and continuously reviewed them to ensure that I minimised the risk of them damaging or upsetting the participants (National Statement 2018, p.11). I also had ready the contact details of a number of relevant support services, such as Lifeline. None of my four participants become distressed, but we did speak about the interviews at a later date, and I confirmed they were okay after our interview.




Findings

Participant Characteristics

Name

Age

Field of work

Ivy

32

Mental Health Support


Hedi

29

Retail


Lucy

30

Teaching


Michael

62

Customer Service


Negotiating with the workplace

Three of the participants in this study, Lucy, Hedi and Ivy, took parental leave after having their child and have since returned to work. Lucy and Hedi had similar, positive experience when going through the process of negotiating their return with their manager, while Ivy had a difficult and stressful time.

Lucy had a positive, long-term relationship with her manager, saying:

“I get on really well with her, she's known me for many years … I think she understands and is pretty accepting … she's very accommodating and it was approved very quickly and stuff like that, which is very lucky. I'm grateful for.” (Lucy)


She expressed that she believes this relationship contributed to how accommodating the manager was. She felt nervous entering into the negotiation process and indicated her awareness that workplaces can make the transition difficult. However, her manager’s attitude and behaviour that calmed her done and made the transition easier.


“I was nervous. I was definitely nervous cause it's hard. As much as you're entitled to, it's still very tricky to, I don't know, even if I know her (the manager), you never know they could, I guess, turn around and you don't know what they're going to say. But I have been lucky. I was definitely nervous going into the conversation. But she made me feel at ease and it was completely fine. So that was good, that was really good.” (Lucy)


Lucy attributed this positive experience to the support she received from her manager, and due to it, she was able to have this negotiation with minimal stress, highlighting the great importance in receiving support from the workplace ((Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.120).

Hedi also spoke how easy her conversation with her manager was and that they were happy to give her the hours she wanted. She mentioned that she had a good relationship with her manager and had worked in the company for years and so felt like they wanted to work with her and keep her in the company.


“They wanted to keep me, so they were really accommodating to whatever I wanted really … Yeah, it was pretty easy going. I just met with my manager ... they just basically said what hours do I want to do and I said certain hours that I wanted and then they said the days that they had available and if that worked for me and it did. So just it was like a 5 minute conversation.” (Hedi)


On the other hand, Ivy had very difficult experience. During the time she was off, a new manager began work and they first met to negotiate her return.


“The meeting was bad because she was trying to force me to do different shifts … the things she was trying to force me to do was more risky” (Ivy)


Her workplace had changed her job without consulting her and when she protested, based on her right to return to the same position, the manager began personal attacks.


“Because I didn’t just say yes sir to whatever she was saying then she was questioning everything about what I was doing” (Ivy)


This involved questioning her work, her breastfeeding and even insulting her relationship with her husband, who also worked there. These comments and ’jokes’ were made to Ivy but the manager was also engaging in this behaviour to Ivy’s colleagues and other senior staff. Unsurprisingly, this caused Ivy increased stress and anxiety about the return to work both about the uncertainty of what work she would be doing on her return, but as it also influenced the attitudes in the workplace when she returned:


(On feeling like she was “unpopular”) “Oh, just the emails I got. And like they're just quite passive aggressive. And then I suppose it's just like talk around the office, but you like can tell their attitudes people have towards you. Like it's sort of like I had the reputation as a bit of a troublemaker.” (Ivy)


This manager and her actions reflect just how influential a manager’s opinions and behaviours are in effecting the support and attitudes of a worker’s colleagues and workplace (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.3).


In the end, Ivy did not have to work in the position the manager was insisting on, however it was not due to the manager adhering to workplace policies.


The only reason that I wasn't forced to have the change that she was proposing was because one of my friends worked there and was in a more senior role …and she worked really hard to work the roster so that it would fit my needs. Which was what I was entitled to anyway. But it was a work around the boss who was being unreasonable.” (Ivy)


Both the support and the lack thereof have a great impact on a mothers return to work (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.120). In Ivy’s case, the lack of support from the manager and from her colleagues affected her wellbeing, reflecting the trends identified in the literature (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.4).


Overall, the three women’s stories reflect Lucia-Casademunt et. al. (2018)‘s findings. All workplaces had policies in place that were aimed to support returning parents and yet a difficult and confrontational manager caused Ivy a great amount of stress and anxiety, compared to Hedi and Lucy who was able to have an easy and less stressful time negotiating with their workplace.


Returning to work

All three of the women went through different experiences and emotions during their negotiation with their work. However, they all had a commonality of being very aware of, and had a willingness to stand firm in, their entitlements and the legalities surrounding their return to work. Each woman expressed that they knew their rights and expressed the sentiment that “if there was any pushing I would push back” (Hedi). The fact that they all knew this in the first place and brought it up unprompted suggests that there is an awareness, or assumption, that workplaces are going to favour themselves over the rights of the returning parent. This is a common experience in the workplace (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.127) with mothers being pressured into working arrangements that prioritise the business over their family (Nowak et. al. 2013, pp.127-128).


Both Hedi and Ivy experienced having to push back against their companies. Hedi and her manager had agreed upon set shifts for her return, but she ended up having to fight for them with her regional manager and then with the HR department.


I came to work and was sent my base roster. And I noticed on there one of the shifts we'd agreed upon before returning to work wasn't there … she (the regional manager) began to tell me that they don't have enough money to keep me part time on that day … and I said, well, no, I’m coming back to work, we agreed upon the two days, one week, 3 days the next. So you have you have to give that to me that's just the way it goes ... They rang me back that day and she'd spoken to her boss and he said yes because we'd agreed upon that before returning to work that is my shift … but every contract since then for about 3 or 4 kept sending me the wrong contract and I had to follow it up and follow it up until they finally sent me the right contract almost 2-3 months later.” (Hedi)


Not only did she have to insist on the shifts that she was entitled to, but she also had to follow it up again to receive her contract to the point of being “hounded”.


(On being hounded) “I got probably 3 emails a day from the HR … saying that it needs to be signed within 24 hours, it needs to be signed within 24 hours and I never wrote back, I sent emails to my regional telling her to deal with it and then in the end, I had to call her again, and then they sent me the proper one.” (Hedi)


Ivy’s experience occurred before she left work for maternity leave, with her company trying to say she was entitled to less leave than she actually was. Ivy had to research their policies and the law herself to ensure they gave her the right time.


“So then I had to do all of that work to find all of that information and then send it all back to them and then they did give me the eight weeks of leave but I'd heard that their manager was annoyed that I had done that and HR was sort of like had told them off.” (Ivy)


In both situations the women had to proactively fight their workplaces. In these situations, they did end up getting their entitlements but it caused negative and stressful situations for them. Both expressed feeling annoyed and frustrated:


“Oh, it was just annoying. Like I knew what I was entitled to and I wasn't going to get anything less than what we had agreed upon. So I knew that I was gonna get it no matter what. It just was frustrating.” (Hedi)


“Very frustrated, but very thankful that I knew my rights and I was able to pull up the policies and send them things that they couldn't refuse. But I'm just annoyed overall that I was even in a position where I had to be doing that and it was certainly motivating to get out of that workplace.” (Ivy)


Ivy also experienced an ongoing negative response from the workplace, mentioning that “it did not make me a very popular worker” and that that opinion was evident in the attitude of the management toward her. These difficulties with their workplaces’ management and its consequences for the well-being of the women reflects the findings of Lucia-Casademunt et. al. (2018) of the importance of supportive management, not just policies, as it can have detrimental effects on the mental health and well-being of the workers.


These interviews have revealed the women’s repeated emphasis on their awareness of their rights and entitlements, highlighting just how much importance the women give to them, and as their stories show, just how important this knowledge is. This is not an area discussed in the literature.


Domestic work

The participants in this study and their spouses all had different arrangements in terms of household work and childcare. Both Hedi and Lucy, expressed that they share the household work and childcare with their husbands as Lucy explains:


“But just generally we've kind of either both help or he will most likely cook the dinner and I'll do sort of like the washing or something like that … I guess cause so often I feel like the mother is the one who's like feeding the children or, during that time, when dinner kind of has to be prepared so he just sort of stepped up into making it I guess.” (Lucy)


“Obviously we're pretty flexible that if one of them can't do it, one particular thing, we just adjust and pick up whatever the other one can't do, which is handy” (Lucy)


Lucy discussed how her and her husband naturally divided the work, even though they did not “necessarily sit down and talked about it”. This does reflect the trend identified in the literature that husbands who have paternity leave are more active in domestic work (Bunning 2020, p. 573). However, both Lucy and Hedi’s husbands have returned to full time work and yet are still actively contributing to household work and childcare at nearly equal amounts which does contradict Bunnings (2020) findings. Interestingly, Hedi expressed that her husband actually seems more concerned about completing the domestic work than she is:


He definitely gets more disappointed if he doesn't get the housework done … it's not realistic, but he always wants to get it done. So I just try and just say like no, it's all good like you don't need to get everything done if you just needed to sit down after a day of work and not do the washing up, we'll just do it when she (our daughter) goes to bed.” (Hedi)


Her husband seems to feel a strong sense of personal responsibility towards the domestic work, something that was not found in Bunnings (2020) study. The experiences of Ivy align more closely with the literature,


“Realistically, I do all the parenting … and same with the housework. But then that changed when I got the job I have now because I have to work the days that he has off to facilitate school runs. So he does some more parenting now … and he'll make dinner and he sometimes does some washing up of clothes and of dishes. … and on the weekends and things like that, even if we're both home I'm doing like 95% of the parenting, and same with the housework.” (Ivy)


Ivy explains that she does the majority of the domestic work except in situations where she is not present due to work during which her husband does the childcare and some of the house care. This aligns with the findings that mothers do the majority of domestic work (Bunning 2020, p. 566). It also follows the trend that the more work the mother does the more the father completes domestic work (Bunning 2020, p. 566, 574).

Michael presented a different model of the division of domestic work.


“I was just super happy that my children were being well looked after so and never worried about that. And, you know, felt that I was doing my bit by working and by taking children out.” (Michael)


The other participants were in dual income families whereas Michael was the sole income earner, and his wife completed all of the household work, with Michael “never (having) to cook a meal for myself or wash up through the whole of my married life”. However, Michael did participate in the childcare when not at work.


“I've never worked on weekends, which was very good for family life. Crucial for family life … it meant that every Saturday and Sunday I could take the kids out and we could do things as a family or just as me with the children to do more adventurous things. Like beaching, bush walking, and also seeing their cousins, so other children.” (Michael)


During the week he worked split shifts and was not working on weekends so he would either assist or take over the childcare at these times. As Michael is significantly older than the other participants it is not surprising to see a difference from them however it is an interesting division, that the childcare was divided equally when he was available. This is not reflected in the literature.


Conclusion

This study set out to investigate the experience of returning to work after having a child. It was concerned with a more in-depth understanding of this experience than has been evident in the literature, and has done this through four participant interviews. While there were some commonalities between the participants, there were vastly different interactions with workplaces, ranging from pleasant easy conversations to confrontational and personal attacks from management. The stories very much reflect how this transition can be stressful and anxiety inducing (Lucia-Casademunt et. al. 2018, p.2). The participants revealed the ways in which they organise and share domestic work. In some instances that align to previous literature (Bunning 2020) and in others they present new methods not explored in the literature. They have explained the ways they have coped with paid and unpaid responsibilities and their differences speak to the individuality of organising paid and domestic care. This study highlights the benefits of conducting more in-depth research through interviews and thematic analysis to fully unpack parents’ experiences and their reactions and emotional well-being.


Reflexive Comments

This area of research is one that I find highly important as it is something that every parent I know has had to face. It is an experience that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for parents to maintain a healthy work-life balance that requires constant negotiations with workplaces, family, and partners. In the process of designing the study and preparing for the interviews, I had had the idea that it is always a difficult and confrontational experience to negotiate with workplaces and organise domestic work. I was surprised that there was more variety in the experiences and attitudes of my participants than that and I realised I had more of a bias than I had thought. This was a good experience for me to step away from my previously formed ideas and listen to the actual experiences and opinions of the participants. It was also a learning experience to have to select the themes and quotes to discuss in this report, as I found the participants spoke about many topics I wanted to explore more, but I had to be conscious about the scope of this report. Overall, this was an enjoyable experience, and I was happy to see that my skills have improved from the start of this research till now.


References

Bunning, M 2020, ‘Paternal Part‐Time Employment and Fathers’ Long‐Term Involvement in Child Care and Housework’, Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 82, no.2, pp. 566–586. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12608

Lucia-Casademunt, A. M., García-Cabrera, A. M., Padilla-Angulo, L., and Cuéllar-Molina, D 2018, ‘Returning to Work after Childbirth in Europe: Well-Being, Work-Life Balance, and the Interplay of Supervisor Support’, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, pp. 1-10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00068

National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council and Universities Australia 2018, National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

Nowak, M.J, Naude, M., and Thomas, G 2013, ‘Returning to Work After Maternity Leave: Childcare and Workplace Flexibility’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 118-135

Nowell, L. S., Norris, J. M., White, D. E., & Moules, N. J. 2017, ‘Thematic Analysis: Striving to Meet the Trustworthiness Criteria’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406917733847

O’Leary, Z 2009, The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project, Sage Publications Ltd, London

Waller, V., Farquharson, K., and Dempsey, D 2016, Qualitative Social Research, Sage Publications Ltd, London.



Appendix

1. Can you tell me about your current situation?

a. Children – amount, age, childcare

b. Partner – married?

c. Work – field, duration, hours

2. Did you take time off work when you had your child?

a. How did you make the decision?

3. How did you feel your work and manager responded to your time off?

4. How did you decide to return to work?

a. Desire to return?

b. Pressure from work, partner, financial?

5. Did you return in the same capacity or different?

6. If different, can you tell me about how negotiating this with your boss/work was?

a. Alternative hours/arrangements

7. What factors did you think about when organising childcare?

a. Arrangements with partner/family, cost, informal vs formal?

8. Can you tell me about how you felt during that time?

a. Emotions, physically

9. Can you tell me about your first day back and how you felt?

10. Now that you are back, can you talk about what an average day is like for you at work and home?

11. How do you prioritise your different responsibilities?

12. How do you feel emotionally and physically as you juggle the demands on your time?

13. How do you find working now compared to prior?

14. Did you make any adjustments to your original arrangement?

a. If so, why?

15. How do you divide the domestic task like housework and childcare (with partner/family)?

16. Are there any strategies you use to help you manage your time?

17. Is there anything else you would like you add?



Recent Posts

See All

“I’m not challenging you, I just need help”

A Qualitative Study into how Transgender People Navigate the Barriers to Accessing Gender-Affirming Health Care. Introduction For many transgender individuals, their physical, mental, and social wellb

Comments


bottom of page