Note: At the bottom of this post, I’ll be linking to other mums who’ve written on this topic. So if this post pops up incessantly in your Reader, that’s why.
Indimommy surveyed readers on going back to work after having a baby and did a nice article summing up the responses. Since I responded to their initial questions, I got emailed in a few more and while answering those I realised I had a fair bit to say on the subject. So I decided to do a post here.
Why did I decide to go back to work?
Before my baby was born, I don’t think it really occurred to me that not going to work was something that I might do. Because although I wasn’t passionate about my job, I liked working and I liked drawing a paycheck and I was fairly sure I wouldn’t like being around a baby 24/7 and all the allied chores that get thrown your way when you’re ‘not working’.
At some point, V made his preference clear which was that I continue to work. He has never cherished being the only breadwinner, and all the women he knows well worked outside the home after giving birth. I did once sharply tell him that had I wanted to stay home, he should support that (since he could financially, though it would mean saving less) but since I myself didn’t really want to stay home, I didn’t pursue that.
In Hong Kong, most middle-class women go back to work. There is a large number of highly educated women and if the choice was between their jobs or having a baby, they’d choose the former. Hell, many couples forgo having kids anyway because they believe a baby is a cost they cannot afford, even if they can drum up the interest. To push along the declining birth rate and keep women in the workforce, the Government instituted the foreign domestic helper policy, allowing Hongkongers to employ women from other countries at a set minimum wage. This did enable large numbers of middle-class women to go to work, though the birth rate is still on the low side. Basically, it’s the norm for women in Hong Kong to go back to work after having a baby, because few can afford not to.
This makes it easier to decide to go back to work. In the office, I had three other women on my floor who had just given birth and we traded stories. All of us felt we were better off back at work.
If I had any twinges of doubt, they were when interviewing a helper. This was when I was in my second trimester so the baby was a reality and the 10 weeks maternity leave seemed to be incredibly paltry once I met the strangers I was supposed to be leaving my infant with. I just could not figure out how to pick one for the task. If I had to pick a helper for just the husband and me, easy peasy. But a not-quite-three-month-old baby is a bit different.
Thankfully, our part-time helper who we loved and trusted offered to come on board if we could pay her for the gap period when she was between employers waiting for her visa. We decided the extra expense was worth it, and in the end, immigration came through with the visa quicker than expected so we didn’t pay as much as we had thought. Several people who I’ve told we paid this amount are surprised, but for us it was money well spent.
Then Benji had reflux and I began to worry about going to work again. When I voiced these doubts to my mother, she said she would look after him but I must go back to work. When my sister had doubts after her baby, my mom told her the same. My mother is a stay-at-home mom who has completely changed her views on being one. She believes in the security of a paycheck now.
When I went back to work, it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Immediately, the haze of anxiety that had enveloped me after Benji’s birth dissipated as I was forced to think about other things than whether his milk was coming up and burning his throat or how he was napping. My helper seemed perfectly capable of managing him and the household chores (though we told her she could skip the latter if it was getting too much) and she did so without the excessive worry that characterised me as a caregiver.
Did having a good domestic help sway your decision in continuing working after the baby?
Yes and no. It was never that much of a decision to make. I just assumed I’d go back to work. But having a good helper gave me immense peace of mind.
There’s a small chance that the helper wouldn’t have worked out. Most people I know in Hong Kong do find satisfactory help to look after their children. But if I really couldn’t find someone I was comfortable with, then I would have had to stay at home at least initially. Although my husband would have naturally been a better caretaker, I have the smaller paycheck coupled with the fact that I was trying to breastfeed. This is the sad truth for most households and a reason why its mostly the woman that gives up her job (though also, most people just don’t consider dad staying home as an option, even though bottle feeding exists). Honestly, I don’t see how I could have continued that indefinitely because I would have struggled mentally and emotionally.
The availability of help swayed my decision to have another child. I would not have done it without because after the first child I knew what a child would demand of me.
My second helper also showed me what it would be like to have a helper you don’t trust implicitly. While she loves my child, she can’t be trusted to make decisions. I would have had to micromanage a lot more and I can imagine a lot of stress.
Right now, I have two helpers who work well together in looking after our children and our when we’re at work and I feel super blessed.
I don’t have flexible hours but I have reasonable and fixed hours. I also have understanding bosses who would understand if I needed to take a bit time off for something family-related. But it’s not the norm, so I’ve only done this once so far.
My husband also makes it a point to leave on time. We’re fortunate that we have jobs that allow this, but I think we’re also the kind of people who seek out these jobs even at the expense of money/career advancement. Thankfully, we do have enough money/reasonable career advancement anyway.
In cases of crisis, both of us are willing to work overtime (hell, I’ve edited stuff for my office a week after my baby was born, typing with one hand and holding my baby and breastfeeding on the other, because they called me in a crisis). I used to have to work the odd Saturday and the husband would back me up, I backed him up when he’s on business travel.
I think the reasonable working hours do help in keeping me from feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. I can switch off from work when at home and just spend time with my kids. Even so, as they grew older, I’ve felt the need to be there for them more, and hence the choice to do a PhD now (it was always on the cards, just a question of timing) which I think will give me more flexibility.
In Hong Kong, because of the helper situation, workplaces generally assume that parents don’t need to take time off for most kids’ stuff. Helpers serve the function that stay-at-home moms do in other places. Hence people are usually expected to work long hours, which kind of sucks.
Maternity leave in Hong Kong is 10 weeks which is far from ideal because babies are very vulnerable and need a lot of care in the first three to six months and it’s logical that parents would want to be involved at this delicate stage. Not to mention that it’s hard to sustain breastfeeding remotely, especially breastfeeding rooms are pretty much non-existent and one is reduced to pumping in the toilet or what you hope are deserted areas. I have a colleague whose child has severe allergies and she found with her second one that breastfeeding helped, but she couldn’t sustain it when she returned to work and her child is suffering but she has just accepted it. It pisses me off that such an affluent society that claims to want to tackle the birth rate cannot invest in the wellbeing of newborns by giving mums at least four months off. Paternity leave was instituted only last year and is all of FIVE days and that’s supposed to be some great thing. While I have a stellar helper, not everyone does or feels up to trusting someone else with such a small child. So at the policy level, much needs to be done.
Anna’s Mom’s take on her experience.