Up Close & Personal: To work or not to work?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 3:53pm

A big question for mums, especially new ones, is whether to return to work. If the answer is yes, then another question quickly follows: when should you go back?

Many factors contribute to this decision. Mums have to decide what is best for the child, and whether the family needs the extra income. For some, there's also the guilt associated with leaving a newborn with a family member or a helper.

The decision was an easy one for me - I decided to return to work. Not only would it have been a huge struggle to raise a child on my husband's salary, I had a job that I enjoyed. I had never envisioned myself being a stay-at-home mum.

My parents both worked while my sister and I were growing up, and much of their parental role was taken on by my grandparents. It was my grandmother who picked us up from school, and we waited at her house until my mum had finished work. We spent most the school holidays there, too.

I don't feel I missed out on anything, or was second-best to my mum's job. Quite the opposite. Christmas and two weeks' holiday every summer had a special meaning for me, as I got to spend time with my parents. Spending time with them every day during the annual holiday made me appreciate their company even more.

One lasting memory is that, although she worked, my mum always managed to attend every school event. Coming after work, she always arrived looking very smart, too. It's funny what you remember as a child.

So while some of my friends struggled with the decision, I did not. I don't have any family living in Hong Kong, so I hired a domestic helper to look after my firstborn and returned to work. I now have three children, but I still work.

Balancing work, devoting time to the children, and meeting the demands of homework, and the culture of parental involvement in children's education, is not always an easy task. I was educated in England in the 1960s and '70s, when parental involvement was viewed as a hindrance and not a help. "Have you done your homework?" was the extent of my parents' involvement.

The amount of expected involvement here, especially with homework, took some coming to terms with. So, instead of putting my feet up at the weekends, I am usually helping with three lots of homework.

I spend many a late night doing research to try to understand it, especially my daughter's maths which, as she is now in Year Eight, is beginning to get beyond me!

Do I regret my decision? No. Is it easy being a working mum? Yes and no. Yes, because I have never been capable of completely switching off and devoting every waking hour to my children. (In fact, I envy mums who can do this.) And no, because there are times when being busy at work and having school functions coincide, and I feel that I need a couple of clones of myself to attend all the meetings and other school activities.

It is not easy being a working mum - you definitely need a sense of humour, the support of your boss, and an understanding husband who is prepared to help. Organisational skills are a must.

Meeting work commitments, and ensuring that children go to school with the right books and forms, takes a lot of organisation. I sort things like this out as soon as I get in from work, rather than sinking into the sofa with a cup of tea.

I do sometimes feel things would be better if I didn't work, and there are some weekends when my professional life would be easier if I was at work. But I don't regret my decision. My children have never complained about me not being at home when they are on holiday, and they even obliged me by taking their first steps and saying their first words when I was at home.

They are always pleased to see me when I get in from work, excited when I take time off during the school holidays, and they still come to me when they are sick.

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to the question of whether or not to be a working mum. It is up to each family to decide what would best work for it.

As a daughter of a working mum, I don't feel I missed out. In fact, at the age of 51, I only just discovered that, contrary to what I thought, she didn't work full time until I was five. And, remembering how proud I was of my mum at school events, I always make an extra special effort to look smart myself.

Fiona Bishop is a working mother of three