The Juggle Is Real: What It's Like To Be A Working Mum

"It’s not possible to work a million hours a week and be ever present for your child," says one mother. "You can’t be those things and I find it dissatisfying that you have to choose."
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Any mum who’s tried to keep their career in tact after having children will tell you it’s no mean feat.

Between the extra long days, the worries people think you’re not taking your job seriously and the guilt that comes from working overtime and not feeling present enough for your child, it’s A Lot.

A new piece of research has seen mums open up about the difficulties – and sometimes impossibilities – of juggling work and motherhood.

The report, by WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) and Hult International Business School, found many women felt forced to choose between being a mother over having a successful career.

Some mums had to choose lower-paid roles or less appealing organisations because they offered flexibility or were closer to home or childcare, while others spoke of having to limit their career development and work in roles that didn’t allow them to use their skills or achieve their full potential.

One interviewee was forced to quit their job after contractual conditions stipulated their only option was to return to work full-time after maternity leave.

This time last year, a survey of almost 27,000 parents with young children found the cost of childcare had driven 43% of mums to consider leaving their jobs.

The sad reality is that women are not just considering this – many do leave. A staggering 84% of the 1.75 million people who’ve given up work to care for their family are women, according to ONS data.

Childcare costs have risen by 16% in the last four years while access to part time working and flexible hours has decreased since 2020, according to the charity Pregnant Then Screwed.

It’s led some mums – like Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka – to try and tackle the issue themselves. Whitehouse and flexible work activist Tim Grimes recently launched WorkYourWay to match workers with flexible work.

Helen Sachdev, director of WOMBA, said: “Too often, working mums are forced to make the tough choice between career and caring because they’ve been denied flexible working, decent parental leave and affordable childcare.

“The barriers facing mums and dads as they transition from worker to working parent are ones that threaten decades of progress on gender equality.”

Two of the biggest themes from WOMBA’s research were the struggle some mothers faced in balancing their roles as a worker and parent, as well as feeling the need to conceal their parental identity at work through fear of judgement.

For many mothers, balance is simply not something they feel they have in their lives. One mum described how when she returned to work after maternity leave, she went from spending 24 hours a day with her child to less than an hour per day in some cases, due to having to fly between Scotland and London for meetings.

“It’s quite hard for a person to go from being off and spending literally 24 hours a day with your baby to, on some days, half an hour a day,” she said. The day before she took part in the interview she had to leave the house at 5am and was back home by 9pm, so she didn’t see her baby at all.

The report revealed it wasn’t unheard of for mums to start their day at 5am and finish at 11pm to squeeze it all in.

Another mum, whose child attends nursery full-time, described a sense of guilt as she spends less time with her child than she would like – something many parents will relate to.

Some mothers felt the need to restrict their identity at work to minimise the negative impact on their career, because they feared being judged as incompetent or incapable.

One mum said: “There’s a perception that I’ve gone from being someone who really cared and was good at work to someone who doesn’t care. And that’s really not true. I love my job.”

Another described how it was important to her that her colleagues still thought of her as a reliable and competent colleague. She felt she’d always been able to manage that but it had become “trickier” since having a child.

This mum felt her colleagues didn’t necessarily see her in the same way now she was a parent. “I think that I’ve just always imagined that you could be all these things,” she said.

“It’s become clear to me that it’s not possible to work a million hours a week and be ever present for your child… you can’t be those things and I find it dissatisfying that you have to choose.”

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While there are many challenges mums face when it comes to heading back to work, that’s not to say it’s always a negative experience.

One mum said: “I wanted to believe that it was possible to be a working mum at a high level in an organisation, and be a really amazing, excellent mum. And I still believe that that’s possible.”

Other mums chose roles that, whilst less ambitious, involved less stress, more support, and greater flexibility. One mother was happy to make the choice of working as a technician, rather than a postdoctoral researcher with demanding targets, in order to focus on her family.

While some were disappointed at having to change jobs for greater flexibility, others were proud of the choices they’d made and felt confident they wouldn’t regret them in the future.

“I think what I’m doing is the right thing in the long term,” said one of the study participants. “I think I’ll never regret spending time with my children. And I might regret it if I chose to go back to work five days a week now.

“What I’m telling myself is that I am in this period of my life now where I am going to have to devote quite a lot to children. And that’s just the way it is. And hopefully, that’s something that I’ll be really proud of down the track.”