What Makes Returning to Work After Maternity Leave a Happy Experience
In a study that feels beyond overdue — and yet extraordinarily timely, given the recent, rampant conversations (including our own Women & Work panel last year) around India’s leaking pipeline of professional women — researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium have looked into what makes the experience of starting work after maternity leave a happy one for working moms.
Brenning’s study was tiny (the team analyzed only five days of diary entries by 126 mothers during the stressful period immediately after their maternity leave ended, when they re-started work and left their babies at daycare facilities for the first time) and her findings feel a little like common sense — unfortunately, common sense tends to be in short supply when it comes to supporting parents, especially mothers.
Happy working moms, the team found, feel competent in interacting with their children, experience a sense of freedom and choice in their actions, while having a warm and affectionate relationship with their babies. They are also not too hard on themselves about how they are faring as a mother. So says Katrijn Brenning of the University of Ghent in Belgium who led research that investigated what affects a working mother’s sense of well-being.
Brenning and her colleagues showed that a mother’s sense of well-being drops when she feels inadequate, under pressure, and is alienated from her social circle by her efforts to get to work and be a good parent all at once.
“Need frustration relates to daily distress and to more cold and intrusive parent-child interactions,” she says.
Parsing happiness around motherhood is important. We’ve written before, many times, about the subtle and complex factors pulling Indian women out of the workforce, and most relate to two of Brenning’s findings: freedom of choice, and expectations. Too often both are curtailed or defined by external forces: Quality child care is still scarce and expensive. Family mindsets on the role of women have yet to evolve in many homes. Both factors can severely limit a mother’s ability to maintain a professional life and a personal one — let alone a happy one. (For women whose personalities naturally tend toward the depressive and the self-critical, happy working motherhood can be even more elusive, Brenning’s team found.)
It would be easy to pin the blame on businesses — and it’s true there is much to be done to make HR policies supportive of mothers’ re-entry and retention (flexi time is only one part of the full puzzle). But such changes would have to be built on the basic premise that working mothers should be able to be happy — a premise at odds with society’s deeply ingrained veneration of maternal sacrifice at the altar of children’s well-being.
The irony is, as Brenning’s research shows, that happier moms are better moms — proving in order to ‘Think of the children!’ we have to start with thinking of the moms.