I thought I was career-driven, but I can’t bear to leave my baby

The dilemma I have a nine-month-old daughter and have begun to return to work. Before I gave birth I was sure this wouldn’t be a difficult decision; I’ve never been maternal and my career has always been priority, so a pay decrease and inevitably getting overlooked for projects and progression wasn’t on the cards. However, watching her grow has been the most rewarding and enjoyable period of my life and I feel guilty. She loves nursery, but the thought of her interacting with her care workers more than me makes me very upset. I feel as if I’d be throwing these early years away. My partner would happily drop some of his hours, but his work won’t allow it, whereas I am offered much more flexibility. It seems like a privilege to even have this option, but I feel my whole identity has changed and everything I thought was important is being challenged. Every mum I’ve spoken to says I’m more likely to regret the time I didn’t spend with her, and I think they’re right. It feels as if I’m taking a gamble whichever decision I make.

Mariella replies Welcome to parenthood and an ongoing quandary you’re stuck with until your baby sets off into the world with barely a glance at their self-sacrificing parents! That’s not meant to inform your decision-making, but it might be something to take into account.

Who knows anything “for sure”? As residents of a world in constant flux, it’s sweetly optimistic of us to seek permanent emotional states of any variety. Happiness, as I frequently remind myself and my correspondents, remains one of the most transitory states.

You’ve been through one of the most profound experiences in any woman’s life; you are awash with hormones that lower your stress levels, fog your brain and make it possible to devote yourself selflessly to the new life you’ve produced. Looking after a new baby and bringing them safely to toddlerhood is no picnic and it’s no surprise that, like many parents (but mothers in particular), you’re reluctant to abandon your project at this early stage. Parenting for 24 hours a day is not the easy option, or the only way to ensure your child gets what they need, no matter what pressures you feel. It’s definitely an investment, should you choose to make it, where at times the rewards will feel extremely hard won. There is no perfect solution and whatever choice you make there will be challenges to your state of mind.

What you choose as your path now is not how your life must be

Raising a child is an evolving scenario so there will be endless occasions to ponder the decision as the years speed by. What you choose as your path now is not how the rest of your life must look; you can return to the workplace whenever you like, albeit with a degree of sacrifice. The world is yet to be shaped into a supportive structure for women who choose motherhood.

It’s of enormous frustration that pregnancy and the aftermath come with such onerous professional penalties. The average woman in the UK is £76,000 poorer than the average man when it comes to retirement, as an advertisement for Scottish Widows boldly called out on International Women’s Day. And that’s just one of the many financial disincentives faced by women who take time out to raise children.

Paternity leave offers a great contribution to shared parental responsibilities, but the figures for take-up suggest it won’t be changing society any time soon. Across the globe few women even have the option of balancing biological imperatives with independent life, something my role as Save the Children’s Gender Ambassador provides a constant reminder of. For many women, not working is an impossibility for financial reasons, or work itself is prohibited because of their society. Here, a lucky minority of us are free to balance our emotional impulses with fiscal imperatives, our career plans with our children’s wellbeing and hopefully come out with a compromise that keeps everybody reasonably sanguine.

It sounds like you’re good at your job and are valued by your employer, which is a wonderful situation to be in. It should give you the confidence to make the best decision for you, rather than the one you feel compelled into making. This is possibly the hardest choice of your life and it’s one that the majority of our sex have to confront at some point. Telling you what you should do is simply not an option. It’s an entirely subjective choice.

Choosing to be a full-time parent for a period won’t come without an impact on your career unless you are incredibly lucky, and periods of frustration and a sense of absence from the cut and thrust of the outside world will no doubt afflict you if you’re permanently at home.

Our ability to choose doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Your child will survive without you there to monitor her every move, but you may feel you are missing out. This is a choice about your welfare, not your toddler’s and that makes it even more important. A happy, fulfilled parent generally makes for a happy, fulfilled child and there are myriad ways to be a good mother. You sound like you’re doing everything right, even the agonising!