Remember the days when after a long hot summer you got ready to go back to school. The new pencil case. The scented eraser, shiny scuff-proof shoes and pristine ankle socks. Feeling full of hope for the year ahead. But then there was the small feeling deep down in your tummy. The end of the summer. The year stretching ahead. Who would you get to sit next to? What if no-one wanted to play with you? Going back to school was a bittersweet time.
Which is a bit like going back to work after maternity leave. For some it’s a sad time. The official letter confirming your return to work can be enough to prompt a flood of tears. How will you leave your baby? How will you manage everything? For others it’s something to look forward to. And for many of us it’s a bit of both. Getting ready to go back to work may not be quite as simple as buying a new pencil case, but there are some practical things that we can do to help manage that transition.
I learnt the hard way. I thought I was a pro. I’d done this before after all. I’m a self-employed training consultant and this was my second maternity leave within two years. Having taken time out I needed to build my business back up. This is why I found myself agreeing to go to overseas – for eight weeks in a row. I was delivering a series of 3-day Leadership programmes in places like Moscow and Istanbul. I’d leave on a Sunday afternoon and be back around midnight on a Wednesday. On Thursdays and Fridays I’d be on full-on-mammy-mode whilst catching up with everything in the house and come Sunday I’d be doing it all over again. Before children whilst I wouldn’t work at this rate all of the time, it would have been do-able. But I wasn’t the same person. I had a 2 year old and a 5 month old baby. I completely underestimated what it would do to me physically, mentally and emotionally.
By the end of it I was miserable. I was exhausted, run down and feeling guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time with my two little boys, and when I was at home I was often tired and grumpy. During that time I remember I was struck by how difficult and challenging the groups were and how much harder everything felt.
It wasn’t until I stopped and took a break over Christmas that I looked back and realised what a fool I’d been. We’ve probably all heard the line ‘its not you – its me’ through our dating years. But with hindsight I realised that this time it really was me. I’d taken on far too much, too soon. I’d expected too much of myself.
My case may have been a little bit extreme –most mums returning to work will be going back to the same office and same colleagues. However that doesn’t make it any less daunting. Many of the mums I work with describe how they’re worried about the smallest of things like will they remember how to log-on to their computer; to the bigger things like how they’re going to juggle everything, and how they’ll cope with being away from their babies.
So here’s what I’ve learnt along the way – from my own experience and from talking to other mums.
- Arrange a lunch or coffee with your boss and colleagues a week or two before you’re back. It’s a good chance to catch up plus you won’t feel completely like the new girl on day one. It’s also a good chance to leave your little one with whoever will be caring for them and to see how that goes.
- Buy some new clothes that make you feel good. Whatever your budget – investing in a few new pieces that fit your post-pregnancy body will help with your confidence (a new pencil case and scented eraser are optional!)
- Get a grip on your guilt. Being a working mum doesn’t make you a bad mum. As long as your child feels loved, safe and is looked after they will be just fine. Focus on the things that you can control. Take time to pick the best childcare option for you – it’s important you feel happy with the choice you’ve made. When you are at home with your children try to spend quality time with them – the housework or emails will wait until later – they won’t.
- Find out if your workplace has a ‘return to work mentor’. If there is nothing formal set up ask someone that you know and trust to be your informal mentor. They’ll be able to give you some advice during your first few weeks back.
- Have a staggered return to work. Who says you have to start on a Monday? Starting mid-week may feel less daunting. Alternatively you could find out if you can use your Parental Leave to do shorter working days or weeks.
- Set realistic goals with your boss. Find out what they want you to deliver in the next few months and discuss how feasible this is going to be. If you’re doing reduced hours your targets and goals should reflect your new hours. Watch out for the “4-days-pay-but-5-days-target” trap.
- Set your boundaries and start as you mean to go on. If you need to leave the office at 4.30pm to do the pick-up, leave on time. From Day 1.
Finally be kind to yourself. It may take a bit of time to settle back in, but things will get easier.