Writer and broadcaster

Should I go back to work or stay home and look after my toddler?

Dear Annalisa

I’m on a career break from my job, looking after my two-year-old son – it is due to end in late March. I’m 34 and would like a second child without too much of a gap between them. I’m going round in circles trying to decide whether to go back part-time or extend my career break to the extent that I am now in a state of analysis paralysis.

On the one hand, being at home is enjoyable and I’m conscious my son won’t be little for ever. I’m lucky to work for an organisation that allows career breaks of up to five years (which can be split into more than one break).

The organisation has been restructured while I’ve been off. That means I don’t know where I will be working and I haven’t been able to get an answer about my request for part-time hours, which leaves me feeling uncertain about my return to work.

I only want to work two or three days a week and only four hours a day. Working a full day, plus the commute will result in my son being in nursery for 10 hours and I don’t like this idea. If I work a half day it will mean a much shorter five-hour day at nursery. On the other hand, being a stay-at-home mother can be mind-numbing on occasion. I’m concerned that if I extend my career break, then have a second baby, by the time I go back to work I will have been off for about five years making it hard for me to get back into work in terms of confidence.

We don’t have other family around us, and we lean towards attachment-style parenting: I still nurse my son at night, we co-sleep and he still frequently wakes at night. I’ve not had an evening out on my own since he was born, and my husband and I have not had any time out together either, therefore I’m conscious that staying off and having another child means a continuation of having zero time to myself. I’ve read about the effects of group care on children and it seems that a few hours after two years of age is beneficial. However, every time I think I’ve come to a decision, I change my mind again. I don’t know what to do for the best.


You are dealing with too many variables. When there are too many variables it’s easy to disappear into a “mind map” of options that may never occur. You need to work with facts, not fantasy, and stop looking too far ahead: that way madness lies.

The most important thing is working out what your part-time arrangement would be – where, hours etc – and if it’s viable. Only then can you make an informed decision. But, I wonder if this is less about work and more about what sort of mother you want to be, or think you should be (an important distinction), mixed with your own (understandable) needs.

What you read and what other people do is of interest but cannot dictate your decisions. I think you need to try to tune in to what you really want – it’s in there somewhere but has simply got lost in the whole should-I/can-I dilema.

To give you realistic advice: in your shoes I would consider going back to work part-time. I don’t like labels but I too favour the more attached parenting style. And it is perfectly possible to do both. The great thing about breastfeeding an older child is that your milk supply is established and you can – if you so wish – be away from your child and feed him when you come home again. You can still co-sleep until such time as that no longer works for any of you. None of that has to change because you go back to work.

The problem with taking more time off, as I see it, is that you may not be able to conceive a second child within the time frame you give yourself. And then you might become stressed because you are eating into your time off. Better, I think, to return to work if you can get a timetable that fits your needs, then take more time off when you have your second child.

I do have personal baggage to declare: I’ve seen too many women sacrifice everything for motherhood and be left with very little when the children leave home. My in-tray is full of stories at the other end of this phase of life, when the children have left home. And, not least, it is a heavy burden for a child to carry. Think how you would feel if your role was to be a substitute for all those things a woman has to sacrifice to be a mother.

I believe motherhood is a really important job but it needn’t be to the exclusion of all else. Remember, nothing is for ever. If you go back to work and it doesn’t go well, you can still take that career break. There are, still, many variables – and opportunities – ahead.


First published in The Guardian on 31 January 2014.