Work and parenting
Mothers in the UK are now more likely to work than not to work. So for the majority of parents, juggling paid work and parental responsibilities forms the bulk of their waking (and would-like-to-be sleeping) hours.
Planning your working life up to the birth of your baby is relatively easy: you announce your pregnancy, get larger and larger while colleagues bring you tea, and leave in a blaze of pregnant glory with thoughtful gifts, and good intentions to return when your maternity pay runs out.
After the birth is a different story for a lot of mothers - everything is different, including your attitude to work. You start maternity leave convinced you'll make one decision regarding work, but then find you've changed your mind. It turns out your entire universe revolves around what was just a bump in the tummy (and, anyway, you can barely shoehorn your work trousers over your thighs).
So why work? There are many reasons, but the overriding one for most people is the need to earn a wage.
Financial constraints are perhaps the most significant in deciding whether or not (and when) you'll return to work. Most people don't have the luxury of choice and many families have mortgages that rely on two incomes.
"I desperately want to be at home with my son and we have tried every which way to balance the books – but no, I can't." PanicPants
But before you make the decision to return to work purely on financial grounds, take the time to do the maths. Weighing up the costs of childcare and the cost of annual or unpaid leave to look after poorly children (or step in for poorly nannies/childminders) can make for a complicated financial picture.
There is help available, though, and you may be entitled to financial support if the care you use is provided by a registered person or childcare setting. Support includes:
For a number of women, financial independence is crucial. "I feel really uncomfortable depending on a man," says one Mumsnetter. "I am the product of divorced parents and of course I very much hope that my husband and I last the course. But I need to be sure that I can support myself if I ever need to stand alone."
Returning to work after maternity leave
Choosing a childminder
Choosing a nursery
Finding a nanny
Childcare by a relative
Settling your child at nursery
Thinking about returning to work
Mumsnetters' returning-to-work tips
Working from home
Parents' employment rights
Finding a job
Mumsnetters' job-hunting tips
Benefits and tax credits
And going out to work also means that one partner doesn't shoulder all the family's financial pressure.
Stimulation and job satisfaction
The treadmill of laundry, housework and constant attention required by a baby can be physically and mentally exhausting, and the idea of sitting down at a desk talking to real live grown-ups - perhaps even with a hot drink - may seem like a vision of paradise after months of maternity leave.
"I went back to work when my daughter was four months because I didn't much like the baby stage. I needed the stimulation, I needed the validation of being good at something again. We didn't particularly need the money but I wanted to be more than 'just' a mother. I also didn't want to give up my career having worked damn hard to get where I was." prufrock
Other women don't want their role as a mother to take over their whole lives, and they feel that participating in paid work is a positive part of their identity.
"I know some mothers who gave up their working lives and then when their kids were teens their lives were empty. I will keep my career going somehow so that my kids are not my only reason for being." Artichokes
For some there's nothing like the satisfaction of doing a (paid) job well and being recognised and rewarded for it.
"I work for two reasons: to maintain my financial independence and to contribute to society (I work in the health service)." scoobysnax
• Going to the toilet without spectators
• People making you cups of tea
• Adult company and conversation
• Family isn't dependent on one income
• Your pension payments can continue
• No 'career break' so long-term job prospects are better and there are no worries about getting back into the job market once children are at school
• Having a life/identity outside of your children
• You'll need childcare
• Nursery runs can be exhausting
• Days off for children's illnesses or childcare crises are stressful and may use up your annual leave
• Once children are school-aged, taking leave to cover school holidays can be difficult to organise
And some jobs, on a basic level, just don't accommodate career breaks, particularly vocational jobs.
So the decision about whether or not you return to work after children has lots of elements and can be tricky.
It's important to make the decision that's best for you and your family - and that decision is different for each family, depending on its financial position, the dynamic of the parental relationship and the satisfaction you may or may not obtain from working in paid employment.
The stay-at-home mother (SAHM) versus the work-out-of-the-home (WOHM) mother debate is one of the most contentious topics on the Mumsnet Talk boards (and that's saying something).
As one Mumsnetter explains: "This is a highly emotive subject because every parent wants to feel they are doing the best for their child."
But as another says: "There isn't a definitive Golden Way in which families best work, but many different solutions depending on the individuals and circumstances involved."
Of course, it's not just mothers who choose to stay at home and the issues that arise for working parents apply to either parent staying at home or returning to paid work.
"I am a stay-at-home dad. The wife is now concentrating on her career and is progressing really well. She enjoys the fact that she can relax knowing that one of us is with the kids and taking care of the house stuff rather than a nanny or childminder. My mates will rib me occasionally about it – but they also tell me that they wish they could do what I do." EricL
And finally, a word of warning from one battle-scarred Mumsnetter: "Take great care when passing judgement on the choices other families make."