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When is the right time to leave the kids and go back to work?

I've always stayed at home to look after my children, who are now aged three and four and both at school for part of the day.

Now I've been offered my old job back. My partner says I should go for it because he can look after them one day a week and the rest of the time there are after-school clubs and childminders they can go to.

I know some mums who go straight back to work a week after the baby's born -- but my children still seem to need me. What shall I do?

Yours sincerely, Jennie

Virginia says . . .

Aren't you lucky to have a choice? At least, I imagine you do, because nowhere do you say that it's essential for you to go back to work. And quite honestly, if need isn't snapping its hungry jaws, then I can't see any reason for you to go back.

Indeed, the only time you mention "need" is in the context of your children, who appear still to need you. And why not?

Having been brought up myself by a mother who worked -- at a dazzling career -- I can only say that it would have meant an awful lot if she'd been at the school gates when I came out, even as little as once a week.

Sometimes children need a parent to be around at home, particularly when they are at school. School doesn't usually have a nurturing culture. Kindly, perhaps, but at school you're expected to be good-tempered, polite, hard-working and punctual -- all things you can leave behind when you get home and can slob around like a normal person. With your mum or dad.

A childminder or an after-school club just isn't the same. A child still has to behave, be on form, square up to his peers and hold his own.

My own feeling is that, when they grow up, it's for children to leave home. I don't think that home should ever leave them. And by 'home' I mean a parent rather than a flat or a house. Indeed, I was surprised how important it was for someone to be around at home when my son was a teenager, even if that person was only someone to kick against in order to propel himself more successfully into the outside world.

I'm sure you, your friends and, indeed, your partner will think I'm old-fashioned. But I can only advise you like this because I was one of the very first children in my world whose mother had a high-powered job. Indeed she was endlessly interviewed by newspapers asking how she could manage to be a mother, wife and career woman. The answer was, of course, that she couldn't.

Is there any way you could go back to your job very part-time? Could you ask to work only part of the day at the office and the rest at home?

I never understand parents who have children and who then, five minutes later, go back to work. Surely, one of the points of having children is to indulge in the enormous pleasure of caring for them. A child is not just for Christmas. If I were you I'd stay at home for as long as you can. Only too soon they'll be waving goodbye for good.

Readers say . . .

Accept the new you

So your children "still seem to need you". You make this sound like a surprising, and not particularly pleasant, discovery.

They'll still need you at 10, possibly more at 15, and even at 30 and beyond. It sounds as though 'parent' was a job description whose implications you and your partner hadn't quite grasped.

It takes time to stop being you-as-a-worker and become you-as-a-parent. This doesn't mean you have to be there all the time, but it is a role you'll be negotiating with flexibility, commitment and imagination for the rest of your lives.

As for your partner, what would he gain from your return? Less worry about being the sole earner; some return of the you as the child-free woman he fell for; more time with the children on his own.

As for super-mums who go back to work full-time after a week -- they've proved they've got a womb, but nothing else about their abilities to parent, and often feel conflicted about it, particularly if, financially, they've had no choice.

You haven't said if you have enjoyed your time with your children so far. My own solution involved part-time work and working from home. Perhaps this would work for you? You may be offered "your old job" -- but you're no longer "the old you", and never will be again.

C Butterworth, Malahide

Seize your chance

Jennie, your children will always need you and there will never come a time when, in your mind, they will be ready to be without you. You are incredibly fortunate to be offered your job back and you should grab it.

Will you feel separation pangs initially? Of course. But this will be best for your family as a whole and you in particular. Go for it.

Melanie, by email

You'll all benefit

You are very lucky that you have the opportunity and support to return to work. Your children are at an age when they will soon realise that this can mean them having more time with their father and fun with other children and minders. They will come to look forward to these additional activities and appreciate you even more. You, meanwhile, will be able to contribute additional income, which, I am sure, will benefit all concerned, emotionally and financially.

A Ashford, Dublin 13

Break them in gently

This has got to be your decision and no one else's, so don't be swayed by what other mums are doing, or even what your partner thinks.

Do you miss your job? Does the thought of returning to work excite you? Does it make you feel guilty? Or both? Is your partner encouraging you because you need the money, or can he see that you need another outlet?

If you do want your job back but feel as if you would be letting your children down, perhaps you can gradually increase their independence. Arrange for a relative or friend to fetch them from school a couple of times a week. Let your children try the after-school clubs and gauge their reaction. Perhaps you can settle them into a new routine before you say 'yes' to your old employer.

I think if you gradually (and I think this is key) introduce change into your children's life, your return to work shouldn't be too traumatising for them, or for you. You sound like a very caring mother. Good luck.

S Hampson, by email