This week’s problem
I commute three hours a day for three days a week, and have three children under the age of seven.
I have considered a career break to focus on my family, but I fear I will lose my financial independence and the confidence to excel at work. What should I do? Woman, late 30s
Raising a family can feel like a constant juggling act, managing childcare, coping with illness and attending school events. Mothers especially can feel under pressure to stay at home, because it is perceived to be best for their children’s development.
It may be that by working for three days a week you have found a workable balance.
However, if you are concerned that your children may be at a disadvantage by you working, research by Kathleen McGinn of Harvard Business School has found that in fact that children positively benefit from having a working mother.
“For both mothers and for fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable,” she says.
As your letter implies, financial independence and self-confidence are important. It is arguably essential for every parent to keep their options open in order to cope with unforeseen difficulties in the future, at work or at home.
Separation or divorce, for example, can leave a woman worse off if she does not have her own career. Parents can develop insurance by having a role outside the home, often based on a professional qualification or experience.
Work brings other benefits, such as professional status, enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence, a wider and richer network of contacts, intellectual challenge and, of course, financial security.
In any event, your children will grow up, the juggling will lessen, and you will have the opportunity to focus on your career. When this happens, it will undoubtedly be easier if you have remained active in the workplace.
Work and home are not separate. By managing a family and a busy job, you are developing important transferable skills: time management, prioritising, planning, coping with emergencies, and the ability to motivate and keep calm. Not to mention the ability to conjure up a fancy-dress costume at two hours’ notice.
Look on commuting as bonus uninterrupted time. Depending how you commute, you could catch up on work, so you do not have to do it at home; organise events, stay in touch with friends, or learn a language.
It may not feel like it when you are nursing a sick child at 3am with the prospect of an important client meeting at 9am, but the richness of combined work and home life makes for greater choices in the future.
FT readers respond
I’m in my late 30s, with no kids, but I decided to take a career break a couple of years ago because I wanted to spend time with my ailing grandmother and assess my own business opportunities. It was difficult at the start. I was anxious, wasn’t sure how I would explain the gap to potential employers, and it’s not something people like me do. However, almost three years later I think it’s most definitely the best thing I’ve done. Make sure you keep yourself relevant in the meantime, though. Aryana
Rather think you should have answered this question before having the kids. Now, if something has to give, it cannot be them. So that leaves either your other half picking up the slack, a different job, or packing in work for a while. I suspect many single mothers would love to face these options. Daftladdie
Jonathan Black is director of the careers service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life.
Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Add your answers to readers’ problems at ft.com/work-careers
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published