This article presents five case studies from a recent longitudinal and qualitative study involving first-time heterosexual parents in Sydney. It examines issues around the ways in which women make choices about their engagement in paid work after becoming mothers for the first time, including the role played by their partners in their decisions. It is concluded that among this largely middle-class group, paid work was seen to be very important to the women's notions of selfhood. Although the women held up the 'stay-at-home' mother as the ideal of the 'good mother,' they also acknowledged that such an ideal was difficult to achieve in practice. Most of the women felt unable to remain out of the paid workforce during their children's early years because of the importance that they attached to achieving self-fulfilment and self-actualisation through such work. For most of them, the role of 'mother' seemed a 'distorted' or 'constrained' self compared to the 'real me' that was achieved via engagement in paid work.