It has been over a decade since the emergence of maternity coaching, and the years since have seen a growing body of research influencing and shaping coaching practice.1–4 The past two to three years have also seen an increasing number of employer5 and government6 initiatives aimed at attracting and supporting women returners back to employment . Known as ‘returner programmes’, such initiatives often involve coaching interventions, yet little academic research has been undertaken around this significant transition from being a stay-at-home mother (SAHM) to paid employment.

While there are many parallels between the experiences of women returning to work following maternity leave and those returning following a longer career break, I believe there are significant differences that warrant special attention.

My personal experience of being a ‘returner’ (twice), combined with the stories of friends, colleagues and clients, have led me to have an enduring interest in this topic, culminating in several research projects, the most recent of which being my final project undertaken in part completion of a professional doctorate in psychotherapy.

Back in 2018, I set out to gain a deep understanding of how women feel as they make the transformative leap from home to paid employment. My aim has been to increase our understanding of how this transition impacts women, particularly from a psychological perspective, including their relationships with partners, children and other family members. The purpose has been to inform my own coaching and counselling practice, and potentially the wider community of practitioners working with this population.

Today, I find myself reflecting on the parallels between my research findings and the experiences of working mothers during months of lockdown. A key factor accounting for the many parallels between my research and that which examines working mothers’ experiences during the pandemic, are the entrenched and dominant cultural norms and expectations surrounding gendered roles and responsibilities. Research carried out by BritainThinks and Mumsnet, looking at the impact of the pandemic on working mothers, found that 49% of mothers reported taking on more childcare, compared with 23% of fathers.7 Another recent study, conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found that in households with children under 18, on average, women carried out two-thirds more of the childcare duties than men, while in households with children under the age of five, women carried out 78% more of the childcare duties than men.8 LinkedIn UK conducted a survey of 2,000 participants who were compelled to work from home due to the pandemic. This survey found that on average home-workers were putting in an extra 28 hours per month, attributed largely to a blurring of boundaries between home and work, and the pressure to be available.9

Given these pressures, it is little wonder that 71% of working mothers express concern for their mental wellbeing.7

Earlier this year, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, publicly thanked mothers for juggling work and childcare responsibilities during the pandemic. His comments are indicative of the cultural expectations and norms that influence and impact upon women’s experiences of being a stay-at-home mother and of working motherhood. These cultural norms and expectations transcend context and have played a large part in contributing to women’s experiences of juggling parenting and working responsibilities. Most prominent is the implied expectation and reality that women will carry the majority share of childcare, eldercare and household responsibilities.

As coaches, we have the opportunity to help clients identify, challenge and redefine their expectations of themselves and others and in so doing, contribute in some small way towards gender equality at home and in the workplace.

Research design

I turn now to my study, which explored the experiences of women’s transition from stay-at-home mother to paid employment. I wanted to gain an in-depth understanding of my participants’ experiences and as such chose to focus on a limited number of participants. My choice of methodology was in part influenced by my own experience. As a researcher-practitioner who has also experienced the transition from being a SAHM to paid employee, it seemed important that I acknowledge the impact of this on the research. The methodology I chose, interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), is one where the researcher adopts an interpretative role, in which they make sense of participants’ sense-making of their experiences.

A total of seven participants were recruited via schools local to where I live, making it convenient to conduct interviews face to face. All the participants had experienced a career break of at least two years, had been in a partner relationship at the time of their transition to work, and had returned to work within six–18 months of their interview. Women’s professional backgrounds were diverse in terms of industry and public/private sectors and ranged from teaching and nursing to sales/marketing and finance, at varying levels of seniority.

Interviews were guided by a handful of open questions, designed to elicit participant stories that held meaning for them rather than directed by a list of questions that might limit participants’ narratives.

Multiple transitions

While I set out to explore the transition from being a SAHM to paid employee, without exception, all of the participants spoke at length about their experience of transitioning from full-time paid employment to motherhood, and the impact this had upon their sense of self. While we as coaches are very familiar with the concept of transition necessitating loss, the depth of loss and associated feelings women experienced were far more impactful than I had anticipated.

Central to women’s experiences of the transition from being a SAHM to paid employee were identity loss, recovery and transformation, as described powerfully by Libby:

‘I read my CV and [remember] I used to have a really high-powered job. And it’s like an out-of-body experience; you just don’t feel you’re that person anymore.’

Women who had an unintended career break – which was the majority of the participants – seemed to experience amplified feelings of identity loss, which impacted on their ability to visualise and construct their future working parent identity.

Women’s experience of transitioning to motherhood and being a SAHM, as well as their experience of being a SAHM, had a significant impact on their experiences of returning to paid employment.

Where women had planned their transition to becoming a SAHM, they experienced reduced levels of psychological turbulence, such as internal conflict or feelings of loss, guilt and shame. It appears that this planned transition gave women time to integrate their new motherhood and SAHM identities. Importantly, it also enabled them to plan or at least envision their future selves at a point after their period as a SAHM.

In contrast, women who had an unintended transition to being a SAHM described finding what Stern and Bruschweiler-Stern10 describe as a period of ‘adjustment’ to be particularly challenging, due to their having little or no sense of what comes next.

Kate, who had studied, trained and qualified as a nurse specialist during the time she was a SAHM looking after three children, abandoned her career after an unsuccessful first attempt to return to work after having her youngest child. Some two years later, she was unable to see a path back into her chosen career and subsequently found work as a delivery driver for a major supermarket. Kate had lost sight of her chosen professional identity to such a degree that she could not even consider applying for another nursing job. As a consequence, she was left feeling bereft and with little sense of direction or purpose:

‘I feel very lost. I don’t know what to do with my life. I feel like I’m just bumbling through life. I’m just getting through to the next bit... getting the boys through to the next bit. There’s no real me anymore, just that care person.’

This is in marked contrast to the experience of women returning to work following maternity leave. For those returners, the period of adjustment is experienced with some security of knowing what lies ahead.

While it is widely accepted that the transition to motherhood, like all transitions, involves loss, this research offers an insight into some of the factors that influence the breadth and depth of that loss. It does so by paying close regard to two factors: one, whether the transition to SAHM was planned or intended, and two, the importance of actively acknowledging the sense of loss.

I believe the most profound loss that women experience is that of their professional identity, which in turn brings with it several related losses. These include the loss of financial independence, direction and purpose, confidence, career, professional relationships, visibility and validation. When a woman’s transition to SAHM is unplanned, they experienced amplified feelings of loss as described here by Anna:

‘To be honest, it was about the transition between me and how I was before becoming a mother. I felt, “How can I let go of everything that was me?” My career defined me and made me feel proud about who I was. So to think that I wasn’t going to have that... I literally started to think, “Oh my God... what am I going to talk about if I don’t have this job and this career and these problems at work and all these things to talk about?”’

Having lost so much in the transition to being a SAHM, it is perhaps of little surprise that women sought to recreate some of what they had lost in their new role within the home. They achieved this by, for example, asserting power and control in relation to childcare and managing the household. Their work became the successful raising of their children, and naturally, they expressed anxiety at the prospect of some of that good work being undone when they returned to paid employment. This was a particular concern for women whose children had special needs. Where women have had an extended period of time as a SAHM, they are faced with the prospect of re-experiencing the painful process of identity disintegration as they contemplate their return to work. It is understandable that women seek to avoid a repetition of such painful losses by constructing a means of holding on to their ‘at home’ roles and responsibilities while returning to paid employment. In so doing, they retain their SAHM identities while regaining their professional selves. It is also understandable that the process of letting go and transition to paid employment provokes considerable anxiety. By recognising and working with this anxiety, coaches and therapists can help women avoid making decisions that arise from it, which may cause problems further down the line.

Several findings from my study suggest that the period of time spent as a SAHM can be seen as the ‘liminal’ stage of the transition to working motherhood. Developing Bridge’s transition model, which identifies three stages – ‘letting go’, ‘neutral phase’ and ‘new beginning’11 – I believe it is essential to support women during this extended period of ‘not knowing’, to help them to navigate their way through this ‘neutral phase’ and explore possibilities for their future selves. This supports Ibarra’s work in the field of career transition and identity.12 Ibarra describes two types of career transition: ‘plan and implement’ when the destination is known, and ‘test and learn’ when the destination is unknown; and concludes that when a career transition falls into the ‘plan and implement category’, individuals experience a relatively easy transition. It seems to me that, of the participants in my study, two had a planned and intended career break and can be described in these terms as falling into the ‘plan and implement’ category. I would argue that women transitioning back to work following maternity leave also fall into this category. This has implications for counselling and coaching interventions, whose focus is likely to be on strategies for implementation of the known goal or ‘destination’.

However, the majority of participants fell into the ‘test and learn’ category: their future was unknown. It is clear that, of the participants in my study, those women who had no future plans had a sense of urgency and a desire to go out into the world and, as Ibarra describes, ‘test and learn’,12 in order to find out what they were capable of. This can be illustrated by Rose, where she tells me:

‘I don’t feel I know what I can do. I’ve never got to the point where I feel like I can't’ do that. I’d like to know what I can do... I’d like to know my limits…’

In my view, coaches and therapists can usefully support women in generating a ‘vision’ or ‘new beginning’ during this liminal phase (SAHM period) by helping them to co-construct their new working motherhood identity. To best support women through their transition to paid employment, coaches and therapists working with SAHM clients should seek to explore the experience of transition to and living as a SAHM in order to create an awareness of how those experiences influence current expectations of a future return. The work is likely to entail exploring losses, relationship challenges, future aspirations, confidence and self-esteem and feelings of guilt and shame. It should also focus on identifying resources, enabling women to ask for help, exploring the timing of any return to work, considering the impact of the return on others and any associated feelings arising as a result of it, and on identifying and meeting the returner’s own needs. 

The role and impact of partner relationship

Conspicuous by their absence, none of the participants described their partner as a source of support. In fact, partner conflict represented a key challenge for women as they transitioned to paid employment, and in two cases this resulted in relationship breakdown. Gendered role expectations contributed to their relationship conflict, in particular the prevalence of an attitude whereby women’s careers are considered secondary to those of their husbands, especially after the arrival of children, where the woman’s priority becomes her role as mother and homemaker.

Women were keen to minimise disruption to their children’s and partner’s lives as they transitioned back to work. The majority of women in this study found that retaining their SAHM role and responsibilities while attempting to return to paid employment placed a significant strain on themselves and on their relationships. Ultimately, as women sought to achieve a return to work that minimised disruption to their partner’s and children’s lives, such constraints limited their return options. The consequences of these constraints on the participants’ return to work included limiting their search to jobs closer to home, reduced hours, and entering work at lower levels of responsibility, which consequently paid lower salaries.

This study highlights how the nature of women’s experience of their transition from being a SAHM to a paid employee is inextricably connected to their partner relationships. Unmet expectations of themselves and others, when combined with the losses that remain unacknowledged by themselves, their partners and society, lead to difficult feelings which women often hide from their partners, generating negative consequences for both parties.

Working with couples could be a useful way to support women (and their partners) during their transition to paid employment, specifically in relation to the following:

  • Providing a safe holding space in which women and their partners can articulate and acknowledge the losses they have experienced as a consequence of the transitions already experienced and the potential losses that the transition to paid employment present to them individually, as a couple and as a family unit.
  • Assisting couples in exploring their expectations of themselves and one another in their roles as partner, parent, professional, and extended family carer (eg, grandparent). Where expectations are unrealistic, the coach/therapist can support the couple in working on alternative, realistic expectations.
  • Assisting couples in exploring how they may have internalised historical and contemporary socially constructed messages around intensive mothering and the roles and responsibilities of a SAHM and a partner. This will help the couple to see ways in which their roles and responsibilities can be adjusted to balance the needs of all the family members and enable an egalitarian co-parenting dynamic to emerge. This will in turn increase women’s sense of being supported by their partner and is therefore likely to strengthen the couple’s relationship.

Supporting women as they transition to their ‘new beginning’

Participants’ experience of stepping back into work fell into three categories:

  1. Planned, and returned as planned.
  2. Unplanned and turbulent, trial-and-error return attempts, resulting in significant adjustment and plans for a more modest return.
  3. A ‘dip the toe in’ approach, setting the bar low with a view to ramping up later.

While the degree of turbulence women experienced during their return to work was significantly greater in group two than in group three, all of the women in the latter two groups returned to jobs of lower pay and status than those in group one. Where women had a planned and intended career break, they returned to paid employment at a level commensurate with their skills and experience.

Participants often spoke of how ‘if I knew then what I know now’ they might have made different choices. In cases where women have failed to return, or experienced unsatisfactory return attempts, it would be beneficial to explore what knowledge from their experiences they can draw on to shape their vision and strategy.

In contemplating their return to paid employment, the participants sought to resolve several critical questions, largely doing so alone or with the support of their friends. I believe that it would be of immense benefit if women could access professional support from coaches, therapists, couples counsellors, careers counsellors or mentors, instead of working through these problems on their own. Typically, the participants struggled to address questions such as:

  • When is the right time to return to work for me and for my family?
  • How capable am I?
  • What kind of job can I expect to get?
  • How will I juggle home and work life?
  • What are my career options?
  • What training do I need?
  • What training is available?

Findings indicate that for many women, the decision to work reduced hours or at a lower level is made in the face of what feel like insurmountable barriers to an alternative return choice. Coaches and therapists can help women, together with their partners, in exploring what those barriers are. They are in a position to identify and challenge potentially false assumptions and beliefs and offer alternative perspectives.

Furthermore, this study found that participants typically place the needs of their partners and children before their own. Coaches and therapists can help women to think about how they might prepare themselves, both physically and mentally, for their return to work, putting in place self-care strategies that will support them not only at the point of return, but, importantly, over the longer term. Women need to be encouraged to consider their needs to be at least equal to those of their partners and children in order to sustain self-care strategies.

Returning once more to the parallels of this study and those relating to working mothers’ experiences of the pandemic, one striking finding from the BritainThinks/Mumsnet study was that over 60% of working mothers believe the pandemic has had a negative effect on gender equality.7

I suggest that an important contribution that coaches and therapists can make is to help women and their partners explore how external constraints and culture influence their sense of identity. I agree with Blair-Loy’s argument that, in the absence of such exploration, there is a likelihood that women will ‘...practise habitual agency and thereby more or less unreflectively reproduce social structures’.13 I have undertaken this research enquiry with a keen awareness of the important role that employers have in addressing their own bias and culture and the ways in which that acts to limit women’s career opportunities. Perhaps, in some small way, coaches and therapists working with women and their partners through their transition from being a SAHM to paid employee, can help them accelerate the painfully slow cultural shift away from gender-defined family and work cultures towards a new egalitarian cultural model that supports and enables women and men to combine work and family. However, coaches and therapists are not immune from the influence of culture and social systems and it is therefore important for us to reflect on our own assumptions and perceptions of SAHMs and working mothers in order to surface and challenge any stereotypes we may hold. 


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