The decision on whether return to work after having a baby is a tough one for most new mothers, made harder by the spiralling cost of childcare.
So what should you consider when devising a plan to bring home the bacon while juggling your new addition?
Talk it out
Raise the issue of returning to work with your employer sooner rather than later. "It is good to keep an open dialogue with your employee and talk about plans before, during and after your maternity leave," advises Esther Smith, a partner in the employment team at law firm, Thomas Eggar.
"Nothing need be set in stone and there is no commitment to stick to plans discussed in advance as women often feel different after having the baby, but it is helpful to be honest and open so you and your boss both know where you stand."
Weigh up childcare options
The cost of childcare is a key factor in the back-to-work decision so it is crucial to explore all options to find out what works best for your family. "Start by establishing a budget and a plan of what your working week will look like," suggests Sigrid Daniel, UK director of online care destination, Care.com. "Then consider everything: nursery, nanny, granny, childminder, au pair or a combination."
Take advantage of all available free childcare available to stretch your budget. "This includes up to 15 hours free pre-school education from either two or three years old, depending on where you live; childcare vouchers from either partners' workplace; help from willing grandparents and shared pick-ups and drop offs. And don't forget the commute – this adds time and money so organise childcare that is either at home, near home or near your place of work."
Request flexible hours
If you don't want to return to working the same hours as before your leave, talk to your employer about flexible working options. "This can be done in the form of an informal chat about what you would like to happen, or by submitting a more formal 'flexible working request'," explains Smith.
"The latter is a popular option as it provides a useful framework for both employer and employee to work from. The options include to change the number of hours you work; change the pattern of hours you work, or change your working location – or a combination."
If your request is rejected, you have the opportunity to appeal. You may also have a case for indirect discrimination if your employer cannot give objective justification for refusing your request.
Reality of flexible working
The practicalities of flexible working can come as a surprise to some new mums when, for example, they find that juggling nap times with client meetings is more tricky than predicted. "It is a good idea to agree a trial period with your boss to see if the arrangement works for you both," explains Smith. "This gives the opportunity for you to prove yourself if your employer is in doubt, or reassess and discuss alternatives if is the original plan is not feasible."
The impact that new mums returning to work can have on colleagues is often overlooked, but should be certainly considered to avoid damaging morale. "Reducing your hours to part-time for example, may not warrant recruiting extra staff so your colleagues could be left to pick up the excess workload," explains Smith. Talk to your manager and relavent colleagues if you think this might be a contentious issue.
Consider going freelance
If flexible working is not an option or it proves unsuccessful, working from home on a freelance basis or as a contractor is viable solution and increasingly popular thanks to advances in technology. "This form of work is a fantastic way to bridge the gap between full-time childcare and full-time employment," explains Matthew Huddleston, chief financial officer of freelance umbrella company, FPS Group. "Contractors are increasingly in demand, as there is a need for short-term, skilled and readily available labour to fill immediate business needs up."
Freelancing and contracting has big benefits, namely the flexibility to be your own boss and work hours that suit your lifestyle, yet there is considerable work involved in getting set up. You need to factor in the time required to secure new clients, maintain existing ones and undertake tasks like promotion and bookkeeping. Logistical factors are key too, like do you have space for a home office? Is it practical to work while your baby sleeps? And can you deal with a potentially sporadic income?