Expectations of Working Mums Are Outdated: We Need A Change

Expectations of Working Mums Are Outdated: We Need A Change

This article is sponsored by MALTESERS, a supporter of Peanut and women alike.

We need to change the way we see working mums.

As a society, we take for granted that working mums can often do all the things: keeping a tidy house, maintaining family schedules, feeding the kids, keeping them happy and healthy, all while maintaining a career that might have reached its peak (thanks, glass ceiling).

It’s time for a change.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with MALTESERS® to shed light on the way we see working mums. LET’S LIGHTEN THE LOAD!

For more information, resources and support please visit maltesers.co.uk/lighten-the-load

In this article: 📝

  • What do working mums struggle with the most?
  • Why should we help working mums?
  • How can I make working mums’ lives easier?
  • How do I overcome my burnout as a working mum?

What do working mums struggle with the most?

Let’s be real ‒ being a working mum can be a struggle.

Some days, you’re hot on the whole work-life balance thing, and others… it all goes up in flames.

And if you’re feeling the pressure, you’re certainly not alone.

According to the LET’S LIGHTEN THE LOAD White Paper, these are some of the more common struggles of working mums in the UK today:

  • Discrimination in the workplace: 69% of working mums feel they’ve experienced some sort of “discrimination or negative treatment in the workplace” because they’re mothers.
  • Value in the workplace: 24% feel “less valued” since becoming a mum.
  • Misunderstood in the workplace and at home: 30% don’t feel they’re understood by others ‒ colleagues and bosses ‒ in the workplace. And 43% feel their family don’t understand what it’s like as a working mum.
  • Fear of losing their jobs: 8% feel their job loss or redundancy is linked to them becoming a mum.
  • Working mum guilt: 79% “feel guilty for not spending enough time with their children”. At the same time, 56% feel guilty about not working enough.
  • Changing job responsibilities: 73% found they had to “sacrifice elements of the job they previously enjoyed” since becoming a mum.
  • Managing all the schedules: 81% feel they’re always re-arranging work and life schedules to keep the balance.
  • Chores and childcare: 72% say they do “most or all” chores and childcare outside in addition to their work responsibilities.
  • Still the default parent: 78% of working dads in the UK feel they have to prioritise work over their family. And it starts early, too ‒ according to EMW, only 32% of “eligible fathers” even took paternity leave in the last year.
  • The glass ceiling: 30% of working mums in the UK “have had fewer opportunities for promotion” since motherhood.
  • The ‘sticky floor’: The aptly-named sibling of the glass ceiling. Essentially, it’s when you’ve managed to negotiate flexible or more suitable working conditions to work with your family life, so you feel like you can’t move from that employer, or even that role.
  • Pulling an extra load: 67% of working mums in the UK end up working hours outside of their employer agreement.

As for what working mums struggle with most… well, that depends ‒ different mums have different circumstances, backgrounds, careers, and priorities.

Stories from real working mums

Statistics are great, but what about experiences from individual, real-world working mums?

These are great examples of how businesses can lift working mums up and benefit at the same time.

Content warning: mention of domestic violence. If you’re looking for support or are experiencing domestic abuse, there are places that can help.

If you need urgent help, please call 999. Otherwise, you should speak to your GP or call the Samaritans on 116 123 as they have people at the end of the line who can help.

“I rushed my return to work as I knew there would be support there, I felt so isolated at home.”

Olivia, working mum of 2, London

“I work with the NHS to support young first-time mums. You’d think with my knowledge and experience as a qualified midwife and health visitor that I’d have the perfect toolkit to transition to motherhood… I was in for a huge shock.

I gave birth in the first lockdown in 2020 with minimal support and barely any access to services. It was a lonely and isolating time, as my partner was a keyworker, too.
For me, my manager at work played a huge role in stabilising my mental health, as she knew firsthand how the lack of services were affecting our clients, despite wanting to help.

Well-being messages were greatly received and sometimes the only contact I could have with someone else all day ‒ friends thought I’d be coping well, given my job.
I rushed my return to work (during the lockdown) as I knew there would be support there, and I felt so isolated at home.

For my second pregnancy, I was petrified. I told my manager early on in the pregnancy, and she helped me navigate through each appointment, checking in on our well-being, making me feel like I was valued.

Now, I know that I can return to work knowing I wasn’t an inconvenience for staffing, etc, and I know every effort will be made for me to reintegrate me back to the team again.”

“There were times I just wanted to give up, but I kept fighting. And I’m still fighting.”

Lilian, working mum of 1, Peckham

“Back in 2021, studying full-time at university and working while trying to keep up with the demands of motherhood has been a challenge. I needed to make sure my son was well looked after while I’m building a better future for both of us.

It’s been ridiculously challenging trying to keep up with lectures, assignments, exams, work, and making sure my son get to and from school on time and has something whole and healthy to eat once he gets home.

There were times I just wanted to give up, but I kept fighting. And I’m still fighting.
It started to get even more difficult when I had to miss work because my son wasn’t well, which would make me fall behind on work and getting to lectures. I missed bill payments and found myself in situations it felt impossible to get out of.

Then I started asking for help, expressing my struggles to my mentor, who spoke some words of wisdom that have stuck with me ever since: ‘Problems are not your enemy, nor are they here to destroy you. You have to embrace your problems and allow them to build you into the warrior you are. The life you’ve dreamed of is just beyond the doors of your fight.’

The journey is still difficult, but I’m speaking up more, asking for help and talking about what I’m going through, taking time to reflect when I’m overwhelmed. It’s hard, but it helps.”

“Work offered me day shifts, a location closer to my home, up-to-date training, and even the option of returning as a casual member of staff.”

Miah, working mum of 2, Birmingham

“At 21, I was having my first baby, in an abusive relationship. I was so worried about how I would manage shifts, pregnancy, or maternity leave, and I didn’t really know much about the whole maternity process at work.

I worked 10am to 10am sleep-in shifts at children’s care homes. When I informed them I was pregnant, my employer moved me to a low-risk house, and when filling the rota, they worked around my scans and appointments so I wouldn’t miss any time off work.
I was given a run-down by HR about risks and maternity leave, and my colleagues even used to bring me boxes of MALTESERS to keep me going through shifts!

I worked up until 7 and a half months of my pregnancy, then, when maternity leave started, I stayed in contact with a few of my colleagues, who sent me gifts, cards, and well wishes.

I had finally left my abusive relationship and was due to return to work a year after having my beautiful baby girl. I was a single parent, so doing shifts would be difficult, but my work offered me day shifts, a location closer to my home, up-to-date training, and even the option of returning as a casual member of staff.

I’m so grateful that I had such a good pregnancy and maternity experience, it really helped.”

Why should we help working mums?

Aside from the obvious mental health impact on working mums individually, there are some serious benefits to businesses in not only encouraging working mums to return to work but also putting in place support systems that work with their new motherhood role.

  • Helping to close the gender pay gap: According to PWC, enabling mums to return to work after having children can help lessen the ‘motherhood penalty’ (“the loss in lifetime earnings experienced by women raising children”), which could have a significant impact on closing the gender pay gap.
  • Boost the economy: We’re going to get a bit technical here, so bear with. The PWC has created a ‘Women in Work’ index score, and the UK ranks #14. Ouch. But if we were to improve our index ranking to, Sweden (number 4, not even in the top 3), we could see an increase in GDP of 6% per year. A higher GDP is generally considered a sign of a boosted economy.
  • Company kudos = bigger bucks: According to this study (although admittedly way back in 1996), companies being named as “best for women” or specifically “best company for working mothers” saw an increase in share prices and a “positive return” (i.e. more sales).
  • Once you pop, you can’t stop: Women hire women, according to Raconteur. So once we start encouraging working mums, promoting and hiring female CEOs, we’ll have a ‘virtuous cycle’ to help balance things out.
  • The beautiful balance: For many working mums, they’ll see a sharp fall in their earnings once they become mothers, according to this report by the House of Commons. But, interestingly, working dads don’t tend to see a decline in their earnings once they have kids. This isn’t just until mums return to work, either ‒ even seven years after their first child, “women’s earnings are on average less than half of men’s”. If we make changes to help working mums return to work, we can help reduce this wage gap.

How can I make working mums’ lives easier?

The good news is that there are lots of ways we can make working mums’ lives easier ‒ as employers, colleagues, partners, friends, family, and generally as a society.

Of course, every working mum’s journey is different ‒ different roles in different industries and different backgrounds.

So these suggestions on how to be a ‘MotherLover’ and LET’S LIGHTEN THE LOAD are by no means a one-size-fits-all approach, but starting points to get you thinking about how you can make working mums’ lives easier.

How can I help working mums as an employer?

  • Talk to working mums. Ask them what support they would want, check in with them regularly, and make suggestions of the sort of support you can offer.
  • Set clear, realistic expectations. Changing the goalposts regularly can make it hard for any employees to adapt, let alone working mums. They should understand what you want from them, and you should understand what they want from you ‒ for work responsibilities, working hours, locations, conduct, and work environments.
  • Make private pumping spaces. No, not in the toilet ‒ it’s often cramped and pretty unhygienic. Ideally a private room with a door where a working mum can pump at work without prying eyes.
  • Offer shared parental leave. It’s a statutory right for eligible parents. Talk about what you offer as a company before you’re explicitly asked ‒ if you’re having a discussion about maternity leave, this is the time to mention it. Many working parents don’t even know what’s available to them.
  • Have the same talks with working mums and working dads. Oftentimes, the discussions you’re having with working mums or pregnant employees can be the same discussions you’re having with working dads or employees who have a partner who’s expecting.
  • Anticipate the needs of different types of employees. Things like a ‘term-time contract’ for working parents with children in school or nursery or primary caregiver contracts for single working parents can help set boundaries and expectations. While it can help to draw on your own experiences if you’re a parent, it’s also worth talking with other employees or even friends and family with different backgrounds and circumstances to see what you can do for different types of employees.
  • Make information about your parenting policies easy to find. This goes for potential jobseekers as well as employees. This should include their rights, any benefits you can offer, and information about flexible working hours ‒ this isn’t an exhaustive list, if you have other parenting policies, make it easily accessible.
  • Encourage flexible working employees. Celebrate their successes, regardless of whether they’re a working parent.

How can I help working mums as a colleague?

  • Encourage the conversations. Even if you’re not a parent yourself, talk with working mums about what’s going on with them, how things may have changed, and how they’re feeling. Just being there to listen can really help.
  • Share your triumphs and challenges as a parent. Not necessarily for all colleagues, but if you are a parent, talk about it. You don’t have to keep all things family at home ‒ we’re rounded people, not just defined by our work. Talking about being a working parent helps destigmatise and normalise all sorts of parenting experiences.
  • Offer help (when you can). Don’t overexert yourself or overstep your own boundaries, just offer help whenever and however you can.
  • Understand that your words have power. It’s easy to accidentally use dismissive or even belittling language when talking about working parents. You’ve heard that being a parent is a full-time job? Well, according to a study by Welch’s, mothers spend an average of 98 hours doing parent-related activities. That’s the equivalent of 2.5 full-time jobs. So calling time off with their kids a ‘holiday’ might not be the best term.

How can I help working mums as a partner?

  • Parent loudly. Don’t put all of the responsibility on your partner ‒ LET’S LIGHTEN THE LOAD and talk about it to whoever will listen. Normalise. Destigmatise.
  • Talk with other parents. Colleagues, friends, family… parents are everywhere! Share your stories, struggles, and successes, and hear theirs, too. You might even get some decent tips!
  • Dish up the chores. Make a list of what needs doing as chores in the house, including childcare and mental tasks, sit down together, and split it as equally as you can. It’s not just about doing the tasks, it’s about knowing to do the tasks ‒ it’s easy to take some people for granted if they’re keeping things afloat without recognition. As MALTESERS say, “make the invisible work visible through these conversations”.
  • Know your rights. Many dads don’t even know they are even eligible for parental leave. Do the research and ask the questions.

How can I help working mums as a friend or family member?

  • Offer help. Ask what you can do to help. If they’re not sure (it can be hard to pinpoint stress), make some suggestions that you can follow through with. Helping prepare meals, babysitting, grocery shopping, household chores, even shopping for birthday presents for other people. It all helps.
  • Accept the change. They may not be the same person with the same priorities as they did before having children. They might not have as much time to spend with you. Or they might want to spend more time with you. It’s not about forcing the relationship to stay the same way or taking on the pressure of maintaining it yourself, but instead acknowledging that change happens.
  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice. Seriously. This goes for all parts of motherhood ‒ pregnancy, newborn, baby, toddler, children, and teens. Keep advice to yourself unless asked.

How do I overcome my burnout as a working mum?

So working mums, is there anything you can do to handle the burnout and stress of keeping the (relative) balance between work and family?

Well, here are some more tips to help lighten the load:

  • Talk about what it’s like as a working mum. Your wins and vulnerabilities ‒ warts and all. Let’s normalise talking about motherhood, together.
  • Do your research. You might be entitled to more support than you think.
  • If you want or need support, ask for it. There’s no shame in asking for help or delegating tasks, at work or at home.
  • Set boundaries and expectations. For yourself, work, and family ‒ realistically, not the ideal, but the norm.
  • Take time for yourself. We know, it’s so much easier said than done. But even a minute or two here and there is better than nothing. Set a timer on your phone to do nothing, just breathe and focus on you. You don’t have to be all the things all of the time.

How do I stop feeling guilty about being a working mum?

We can’t tell you to simply stop feeling guilty, that you shouldn’t feel bad about spending time with your family or with work.

It just doesn’t work that way, it’s not something you can just switch off.

And we wish we could offer some magical cure to mum guilt, but there just isn’t one.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing you can do about feeling guilty as a working mum ‒ there are ways you can quiet that judgemental voice in your head, so give these a try and see what works for you:

  • Be kind to yourself. There’s no such thing as the perfect mum, let alone the perfect working mum.
  • Remember that comparison is the thief of joy. And even the ‘best’ working mums might not be showing you the full story.
  • Shout about your successes. Even the ones that seem small to you. If you managed to get your kid to eat their veggies today, that’s a win. Had a successful meeting at work? That’s a win. Had time for date-night? Win.
  • Quality time over quantity of time. This goes for both with your children and at work. It’s not about spending a set amount of time with your kids each week, it’s about how you spend that time.
  • Share your work with your kids. That’s right, even babies. Talk about what your role is, why you do it, and what you’ve been working on recently. Help them understand that your work is not a reflection of your love for them but a necessary part of your life. Encourage their curiosity and involve them in discussions about your job, so they can appreciate the value of your work.

Working mums are an essential part of our society.

So it’s about time we treated them with the respect they deserve.


MALTESERS, in partnership with Comic Relief, is working towards a future where women no longer face injustice. Together, we’re working to lighten the load for working mums and help women thrive.

Find out more about this: www.maltesers.co.uk/lighten-the-load

Mars Wrigley is donating £500,000 in 2023 to Comic Relief, operating name of Charity Projects, registered charity in England & Wales (326568) and Scotland (SC039730)

This article was paid for by MALTESERS.

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