How to know when to return to work after maternity leave

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Fleur East attends The National Lottery's Big Bash to celebrate 2023 at OVO Arena Wembley on December 06, 2023 in London, England. Coming to ITV1 and ITVX on 31st December  (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for The National Lottery)
Fleur East said she experienced 'mum guilt' as she returned to work just 3 weeks after giving birth. (Getty Images)

If having a baby wasn’t enough of a major life change, many women also grapple with the question of whether - and when - to go back to work after maternity leave.

For some, the decision to return to work is a no-brainer and these mums might even feel ready for it soon after the birth of their child.

This was the case for Strictly Come Dancing star Fleur East, who recently revealed she went back to performing onstage only three weeks after welcoming her daughter with husband Marcel Badiane-Robin.

East gave birth to her baby girl Nova in March. The baby’s arrival was eventful, as the X Factor singer revealed that her labour did not quite go to plan and Nova “entered the world via squat position into the arms of my husband and I on our living room floor!”

Over the weekend, the 36-year-old shared a photo of herself getting ready to perform in a glitzy outfit. She explained in the caption that she was asked to perform at a gig while she was still pregnant, and that it was "touch and go as to whether or not I would do it because it would be so soon after giving birth".

"But this weekend, three weeks after having Nova, I decided I was ready to get back on stage and see how I get on," East said. "I was anxious being without our baby girl for a bit and my body definitely doesn’t feel the same, but surprisingly the energy took over."

East also spoke out about her feelings of "mum guilt" and anxiety around returning to work. She added: "It’s nice to know I’m not alone, we all experience it in some way, I’m told that it will get easier and a happy Mama means a happy bubba."

While East is content with her decision to return to work so soon after giving birth, others have spoken about the other side of the coin. Scoop star Gillian Anderson recently opened up about returning to work 10 days after she gave birth to her first child in 1994.

Speaking on TODAY earlier this month, Anderson recalled welcoming her daughter Piper via C-section while starring in the first series of X-Files.

Asked how she felt about going back to work so quickly after the birth, Anderson replied: "I think if I didn’t feel so guilty that I got pregnant in the first season, that I might have taken better care of myself and been more thoughtful about what I needed.

"But I think I was so wrapped up in, ‘I almost got fired, I messed up, I’ll do whatever they say’."

US actor Gillian Anderson poses on the red carpet upon arrival to attend the World Premiere of the film
Gillian Anderson returned to the set of X-Files just 10 days after giving birth to her first daughter via C-section in 1994. (Getty Images)

How long do mothers need to recover after birth?

The amount of time needed to recover physically and mentally after giving birth is different for everyone.

There are many varying factors that will influence when and if a woman feels ready to go back to work, says Pip Davies, a practising midwife, pelvic health specialist and podcaster. This includes the "type of birth, navigating feeding, sleep disruption and bonding".

"Ultimately, there is no right or wrong and it’s important to honour that every new mum will have different circumstances and a unique timescale based on this," she tells Yahoo UK.

In the UK, statutory maternity leave can be up to 52 weeks. The first 26 weeks is known as ‘Ordinary Maternity Leave’, while the last 26 weeks is known as ‘Additional Maternity Leave’.

The earliest that leave can be taken is 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth. There are exemptions to this if the baby is born early.

Employees must take at least two weeks of leave after their birth. This goes up to four weeks if they are factory workers.

How can mothers ease themselves back into work?

Shot of a beautiful young mother having fun at home with her cute little baby son. Little boy being lifted up by mother in the living room at home.
For mothers who want to return to work after maternity leave, there are some resources they can turn to for support. (Getty Images)

Davies recommends speaking with your employer as soon as you can to work out what options are available to you. This can help ensure you’re able to work in a flexible way that accommodates your family and childcare needs.

"There are also lots of options for childcare, from nannies to childminders and nurseries, so explore what options are available so you know it feels right when the time comes."

She also advises mothers who want to explore their legal rights about being a working parents to reach out for support from Citizens Advice.

How can mothers cope with ‘mum guilt’?

East spoke of feeling ‘mum guilt’, something that many women go through during this period of early motherhood. Davies says: "The truth is, ‘mum guilt’ impacts so many mothers and is something we cannot escape entirely but instead need to think about managing and talking about.

"Recognising the pros from you being a working mum and not falling into any traps of comparison are important.

"‘Mum guilt’ crops up in so many different areas of motherhood, vocalising your feelings and thinking how you would compassionately respond to a friend in your shoes and granting yourself the same kindness can be really helpful."

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