Experiences of paid work and childcare

Many parents discussed their own and/or their partner's experiences of paid employment during pregnancy and after the birth of their baby. Most parents had worked before having children and returned to work afterwards. A few parents stayed at home with their children for several years and had not returned to work at the time of the interview. A couple of mothers resumed university or TAFE courses after maternity leave. Some parents who had never worked before having a baby had started studying in the hope that this would enable them to find future employment and support their children.

Luke, a young father of one, described his employment and study experiences and aspirations for the future.

For most parents who had worked before having a baby, and had then become the primary carer, decisions surrounding whether or not to return to work, when, and in what capacity were often challenging. For parents in relationships, there were a number of factors to consider when deciding who would be the main income earner and who would have primary responsibility for caring for children and domestic chores (see Negotiating housework and caring for children in early parenthood). For most parents, decisions about returning to work were based on the family's financial situation. Although she had looked forward to returning to work after her first baby, Louise felt less positive returning to work after her second baby, partly because she 'needed to go back for the money, rather than the love of it'.

When told her daughter might not be able to attend childcare due to asthma, Georgia was very concerned about the financial and career implications of not being able to work.

Some parents who had pre-arranged how they would share earning and caring duties with their partner either changed their minds, or were forced to modify their plans as a result of their situation changing after their baby was born. When Maree was pregnant she thought she would return to work after having her daughter and booked a place in a childcare centre for her. However, she was made redundant from her job towards the end of her pregnancy and said: '[it] was actually a really good thing because now I'm really into being a stay-at-home mum'. During pregnancy Josie had felt 'driven' to return to work within less than a year after having her baby. When she became a parent she realised her baby needed her 'more than work'.

Josie said she had noticed her priorities changed after having children, and was pleased she had the option of working part-time until her children were ready to start school.

When Kirsty's partner's business did not go as well as hoped in the first year of parenthood, Kirsty had to confront her expectation that her partner would earn 'the bulk of the income'.

Rumer, a mother of two, also assumed her husband would be working after they had their first child, however when he was made redundant she returned to work instead. She described feeling 'quite stressed' by their financial situation and 'very worried about the future' because her hopes of pursuing study were now jeopardised.

Many mothers who returned to work after maternity leave felt it was positive for their own emotional wellbeing. They described it as helping them to regain their 'identity' or achieve a sense of 'balance'. Sarah M said that work helped her to be a more 'well-rounded' person, rather than focussing on her three children all of the time. Cecilia, a single mother of one, felt that returning to work contributed to her 'sense of confidence' after this had been damaged by the breakdown of her relationship.

Elly said that it helped her 'enormously' to return to work in terms of the undiagnosed postnatal depression she experienced after her first child's birth.

While Kate admired stay-at-home mothers, she loved going to work and described feeling 'very much defined' by it.

A couple of parents or their partners described feeling a lack of confidence looking for work or returning to the workforce after being at home with their children. Mishi, a migrant mother from Pakistan, became a single parent following a divorce. Although she was relieved to have left her violent marriage she was worried she wouldn't be able to get a job in Australia due to her difficulties with English. After two years at home with their twins, Daniel said his partner lacked 'self-esteem' in applying for new jobs.

A few parents experienced flexible and supportive work arrangements from their employers, enabling them to 'juggle' work and caring for their children. When Tony's ex-partner was in hospital, he said: 'At this stage I had a very young baby at home so I was trying to look after her and it was very difficult at the time. So we lived at the hospital. My work gave me a month off, so I was at hospital every day'.

Others had more challenging experiences finding balance between caring for children and doing work. Matthew, a single parent, couldn't access paid parental leave after he had his daughter via surrogacy, causing him considerable stress and financial strain. While Ajay's employer was supportive of his situation as a new parent, his wife's employer often asked her to complete work outside of hours, which Ajay described as a 'terrible experience'.

Beth struggled with working at home while her partner and mother cared for her baby.

Nellie described her employer's expectation that she was 'always available', even on days she wasn't working. She felt guilty towards both her job and her children.

Most parents who had been the primary carer for their children and wanted to resume working had to put their children. A small number of parents asked family members to look after their children while they worked. Parents who used centre-based childcare described mixed emotions about this. Some parents felt 'guilty' for putting their children in childcare, while others also thought that childcare enabled their children to 'socialise' as well as experience and learn things they wouldn't at home.

When Jane decided to continue studying after having twins she had 'a few sleepless nights' worrying about sending them to childcare, but now feels she made the right decision.

A few parents chose not to put their children in childcare because they believed that it was their responsibility as parents to care for their children, or because as Erin, a qualified teacher, said, 'career was not as important to me as my family was'. Some had family members available to help care for their children.

Andrew had decided to be a stay-at-home father as he was not a 'believer' in putting children in childcare, but said the experience had made him realise that paid work was easier than caring for children full-time.

Ajay explained that in his country of origin, India, it was not common to put children in childcare. When his daughter tried childcare but couldn't 'cope', he and his wife arranged for their parents to come from India to care for her.