An understanding of the psychological challenges faced by new parents

The career gap and beyond: A unique set of challenges require a unique coaching approach

An understanding of the psychological challenges faced by new parents.

My recent research into the psychological impact of an extended career-gap on mothers considering work re-entry highlights the value of Parental Transition Coaching (PTC) before, during and after a family-related leave such as maternity leave or adoption leave.

Interview data from mothers, currently on a career gap and considering work options, was examined and the challenges faced by these women were found to be highly specific to this transitional season. A deeper understanding of such psychological impact is imperative if mothers are to be effectively supported in returning to employment and balancing a successful work and family life.

Parental Transition and Professional Identity

Identity issues was an overarching theme within the research data, with participants communicating their marked sense of identity-loss when they took time out of paid work. This supported findings by other researchers such as Williams et al. (2016) and Cahusac & Kanji (2015).

One mother, considering her working days pre-children, remarked,

I did have a very definite sense of who I was… oh I’m a confident career girl that’s my identity, that’s who I am. I think that all gets thrown out the window when you have kids I suppose that’s the thing when you have the extended career-break, its like that identity goes on extended hiatus as well.”

Many mothers defined themselves by their capability and confidence at work and their identity as a ‘career-professional’. They then struggled psychologically when they found themselves at home with family and unable to enact this ‘role-identity’. The socio-psychological ‘Identity Theory’ suggests that we order our various roles in a hierarchy and define ourselves by that which is the most salient and prominent (Styker and Burke 2000), but this is evidently not straightforward during the transition to working motherhood.

Balancing a deeply emotional, core identity of motherhood with a strong desire to maintain a career-identity and develop professional capabilities, recognition and aspirations can cause a number of emotional and practical complexities.

Why Returning to Work may be Difficult Following a Period of Leave

Reduced self-confidence during the career-gap was communicated in all participant accounts and was a prominent theme in the research. Some questioned their skillset or drive having taken time out of the work-place and described re-entry as ‘daunting’ and ‘intimidating’. Self-worth doubts during the career-gap was another key theme in participant narratives.

Many perceived a negative societal view and stereotype of mothers at home full-time and felt a consequent need to justify their actions and decisions. Other specific parental concerns were identified, such as work-family balance, child-care provision, guilt, imposter syndrome and the expectation of self and others.

The Value of Parental Transition Coaching

These insights demonstrate the importance of employers and their HR departments developing a strong understanding of the psychological challenges faced by parents returning to work so that they can better attract and support this particular talent pool. The research also points to the immense value of specialized parental transition coaching in supporting clients before and during their career-breaks, as they return to work and in the longer-term journey as a working parent.

A coaching approach which recognises and focuses upon the unique challenges and experiences faced by this demographic is crucial. Such an approach helps brings confidence and clarity to parents as they consider options, make decisions and navigate the work-family balance in a way that ensures well-being, purpose and success.

Contact Helen Letchfield P&P for more information on parental transition coaching and find out how it can be beneficial for employers and employees.

By Andi Simmons. Exec Coach (EMCC) and Psychologist (MSc Psych, MBPsS)


Kanji, S. and Cahusac, E. (2015) ‘Who am I? Mothers’ shifting identities, loss and sensemaking after workplace exit.’ Human relations (New York), 68(9) pp. 1415-1436

Stryker, S. and Burke, P. J. (2000) ‘The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory.’ Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(4) pp. 284-297

Williams, J. C., Berdahl, J. L. and Vandello, J. A. (2016) ‘Beyond Work-Life “Integration”.’ Annual Review of Psychology, 67(1) pp. 515-539

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