Should you return to work after the baby is born? If you can even ask this question, consider yourself lucky. Many parents have no choice about whether to go back to work. Among parents of children under the age of one, more than 25 percent of mothers and about 90 percent of fathers work (in addition to housework and childcare). Not all of these do so by choice. Whether single parents or dual-earning couples, many parents find that they have to go out and make some money just to make ends meet.
Of course, just because you're lucky to have a choice doesn't make that choice any easier. Whether you decide to make a full-time commitment to one or the other or split your time between childcare and other work, you'll be forced to sacrifice something important. Any choice you make may involve a sense of loss.
In making your decision, you'll need to try to find a balance between your baby's needs and your own (whether financial or personal). This choice is very personal, but here are some issues you may want to consider:
- Money. For many parents, the question of money proves decisive. Can you afford to take time off? If you would prefer to stay home, can you economize to compensate for lost earnings? If you go back to work, how much extra money will you really be bringing into the household budget? Will the added costs of childcare, house cleaning, and business-related expenses (commuting, clothing, lunches, and so on) eat away at your earnings?
- Priorities. What are the most important things in your life? So many possibilities suggest themselves: family, the ability to be creative, living comfortably, your baby's well-being and healthy development, independence, your relationship with your spouse, career progress, self-confidence, adequate health care benefits, the opportunity for personal growth, and many others. Rank your priorities and consider which decision best serves those at the top of the list.
- Emotional issues. Don't dismiss these issues as unimportant. You, your partner, and your baby will all suffer if you make a decision that leaves you feeling miserable. In which role, parent or wage-earner, do you feel most confident? In which does your partner? Which is most stressful?
Will you feel guilty for "neglecting" your baby if you go back to work? Will you feel dissatisfied with your life if you don't work outside of the home? Will you feel pressed to provide "quality time" in the hours you spend with your child if you're away working 20 or more hours a week? How will you feel if you miss special firsts: first laughs, first steps, first words? Will you feel jealous of your day-care provider?
- Trust. Do you have someone you can trust to care for your baby? If not, are you confident you'll find someone trustworthy? Will anyone ever be able to earn your trust as your baby's caregiver?
- Shared care. Will your partner share in childcare and household chores? Can you depend on your partner to ease your burden? Or will you not only be working outside the home, but doing all the work inside as well?
- Career goals. Will more time off significantly retard your job advancement? Can your employer offer you assurance that you'll have a job if you take more than its standard parental leave?
- Employer flexibility. How understanding is your employer? Will your employer allow you time off when your baby or baby sitter is sick? Can you leave early or come in late? How much time will your job really require? Can you work at home?
In making your decision, keep in mind that unless you're financially strapped, any choice you make is reversible. If things don't work out the way you had hoped, you can always change your mind. If you work full- or part-time and find it unbearable to be away from your baby, take an extended leave or quit your job. If you decide to stay at home and find that you miss the money, the camaraderie, the status, or the sense of accomplishment that you once got at work, then try to find some work outside the home.