Gemma Lloyd
Gemma Lloyd

Why I returned to work two weeks after giving birth

A few months ago I gave birth to my first child. Two weeks later, I was back at work.

For many, this is a very unsettling scenario. How can a mother return to work only two weeks after she has given birth? Doesn't her newborn need her attention? What about breastfeeding and quality bonding time?

For the most part, I agree with all of the above.

What I don't prescribe to, however, is the notion that it's solely the woman's role to look after her child. It takes two to make a baby, and it takes two to raise them.

So why do we insist that only women get that privilege?

Before we had our son, my partner and I decided that we would both take time out post-birth to look after him. As all parents can attest, that immediate period after birth when you arrive home with a newborn is possibly one of the most wonderful, strange and difficult times of your life.

Having heard some horror stories, I was fully expecting this time to be hard and took 12 weeks off in preparation.

Gemma Lloyd with husband Jared and son Charlie. Picture: Supplied
Gemma Lloyd with husband Jared and son Charlie. Picture: Supplied

What I didn't account for was the relief I would feel having my partner stay at home with me.

Instead of finding myself constantly run off my feet and sleep-deprived, I realised after two weeks that I had a bit of time on my hands while my Charlie slept or my partner looked after him.

So I decided to do a little bit of work. Not much at first - I just wanted to ease myself in. Before I knew it another two weeks had gone by, and I was feeling okay enough to increase my hours.

During this time, my partner would also work sporadically. In both our cases, when one had work to finish, the other parent would take over the care of the baby.

And you know what? It works.

While I know this is a privileged position, it's struck me recently that it shouldn't be - and wouldn't have to be, if only workplaces, and more broadly, the government would make some much needed adjustments across workplace policies and laws.

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We know that workers, especially Millennials, want flexibility, and many businesses are also aware of this.

Unfortunately, as the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey shows, access to flexible work hasn't changed much since 2001, with one in two respondents disagreeing with the statement "I have a lot of freedom to decide when I do my work".

Access to flex work continues to be an issue despite the fact that all employees have the legal right to request it, and businesses to listen to them - and provide a legitimate reason if rejecting the request.

It's difficult to shake the years of conditioning that tells us that to be a good employee means working full time.

Expecting women to stay at home only perpetuates outdated gender roles. Picture: iStock
Expecting women to stay at home only perpetuates outdated gender roles. Picture: iStock

At WORK180, we speak to all sorts of businesses all the time about their family-friendly and flexible workplace policies, and while there are many companies doing the right thing, ultimately it's about changing Australia's collective psyche that work doesn't have to be done at the same place and the same time each day.

Workplaces have to do better when it comes to listening to - and trusting - their employees.

Being able to work from home has enabled me to take care of my baby and work around his schedule, without the added stress of a long commute.

Paid parental leave in Australia also needs a refresh. Traditional norms of the male breadwinner model have long underpinned policies towards family support and childcare, and continue to reflect our current parental leave provisions.

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The government divides parents into "primary" and "secondary" caregivers. Categorising parents as such creates a parental hierarchy, where the mother is elevated above the father when it comes child rearing.

This has extensive ramifications for both women and men.

By expecting women to leave the workplace and stay at home, we are not only limiting their potential but also perpetuating outdated gender roles.

A recent KPMG report found that expecting women to take on all of the caring responsibilities and to be out of the workforce for an extended period of time has become one of the primary drivers of the gender pay gap.

Working from home cuts out the stress of commuting for parents. Picture: iStock
Working from home cuts out the stress of commuting for parents. Picture: iStock

And while these effects on women have been well documented, and should continue to be discussed, there is also increased interest in the father's role and their feelings about having to always be at work, and away from their children.

Annabel Crabb captured this issue in her latest Quarterly Essay, which focuses on how our culture around parental leave is trapping fathers.

Men who want to be active and present fathers have a different problem: they are forced to

find ways to cope and compensate for their absence from home.

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Unfortunately it's still the case that when workplaces do offer flexibility, women tend to have greater access to it than men.

For the father to do that is still seen as unusual at best - career-suicide at worst.

This is despite so much evidence to the contrary, which not only shows that sharing caring responsibilities can boost gender equality in the workplace, with flow-on gains to the economy. It is also beneficial to the child's mental, emotional and physical development.

Flexible working arrangements and a shared understanding that we are co-parents, and that the responsibility for our child rests on both our shoulders - not just the mother's - will go a long way into making the new parenthood period not only manageable, but enjoyable, for both parents.

Gemma Lloyd is CEO of WORK180.