Many of us think that returning to work after maternity leave is like coming back to work after a long holiday. Yes, we may have forgotten our logins, our brains may be a bit foggy, and we may be spending too much time showing off pretty pictures to anyone who cares to see them. But overall, we’re ready to hit the ground running, right?
Wrong. Mothers going back to work (and everyone else around them), often don’t realise how challenging the adjustment will be. If they do, they usually lack the support they need to make it less dauting and overwhelming. With a little preparation and a good dose of kindness, it’s possible to make this transition a lot smoother and to feel more in control.
Reset your expectations
Coming back to work will likely be intense at first, and the longer you’ve been away, the harder it may feel. Be prepared for the process of settling in to take a few months: not only because you’ve been out of touch and out of practice for a little while, but also because you’re coming back a different person altogether. This identity shift a woman goes through as she steps into motherhood is called matrescence. It’s a process that literally turns a woman’s world upside down: from the way she views herself, to the way she relates to others (partner, friends and family) and also the way she approaches work. Combine this with a new set of logistical challenges to manage – no wonder women find it hard!
Although it’s wise to expect that going back to work may be challenging, don’t assume that you will hate it/love it/be bad at it. Don’t put the bar too high and keep an open mind. You may be rushed sometimes, miss personal or professional deadlines, leave in a messy house for a while. Trust that you will find your groove, in time.
Be kind to yourself
You will likely feel out of your depth: “I don’t belong here.”; “I don’t think I can keep up.”
Imposter syndrome may come to haunt you: “Someone is going to find me out.”; “What am I doing?”. You will likely feel guilty, often: “I should be spending more time with my child”; “I should be spending more time at work”. You will likely cry…a lot. And you will likely feel this inner split within you of wanting to be with your child but also craving to use your brain in a different way and to contribute “out there” in the world.
It doesn’t mean that because these feelings are normal, they’re less disturbing. But it’s important to remind yourself that the “standard” stress of work is now compounded with the lack of sleep, all the feelings above and more! You were just learning how to be a mother and now you’re also learning how to be a mother AND an employee/boss/business owner. It’s a huge undertaking, the learning curve is massive, and you deserve to give yourself some slack. Try to put less pressure on yourself trying to find the perfect balance straight away. You’re doing great, no matter how messy it may feel at first.
Beware of other people’s expectations
It’s not easy to give ourselves permission to feel different about our work, or about our life in general, after we become a mother, when everyone else around expects us to be the same.
Remember that the working world has unfortunately not caught up with the realities of motherhood (or fatherhood) yet. It’s bound to be more challenging to settle back in a work environment that doesn’t support working parents: where everyone rolls their eyes when you leave early to pick up your child or makes nasty comments about how less engaged or committed you seem to be.
“We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”Amy Westervelt
When it comes to returning to work, there’s not one better way: going back part time versus full time for example. It really depends on you and your unique situation. What’s important is to carefully consider all your options and discuss them with your partner and your workplace before you make a decision. It may also be helpful to speak with parents or other mums who have gone through this before.
Consider your options
A good place to start is with your “big picture”: what does fulfilment look like for you now? Involve your partner in this brainstorming. If your goal is to buy your family home for example you may need to go back to work full time for a few years to make it happen. Use this “why” can act as a driving force to help you navigate the challenging times.
If one of your options is to go back to work part time, discuss with your employer beforehand how your responsibilities and objectives will be adjusted to make this possible. It can put more pressure on you if you end up working evenings and weekends to make up for it while being paid less…and it’s a dangerous cocktail for your self-esteem!
It may also take a while for you to feel ready to go back to work and that’s ok. If you can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with finding another way to fulfill your need for connection and contribution. Don’t feel pressured to go back to work just because that’s what you think you “should” do, or because that’s what others expect of you.
Aim for fairness
No doubt you heard about the invisible work, the mental load, the second shift. Most of the time, it’s a given that mothers will be the ones getting the calls from daycare or school to pick up their sick child, the ones who finds and book the babysitter, or makes the doctors’ appointments.
There is not one right way to divide these tasks after you’ve gone back to work (or even before!) but remember that the ultimate goal is for you to feel good about the type of partnership you create in your family. If it always falls to you to manage everything related to the workings of your household and you have not signed up for that, resentment will quickly set in and will not only affect your relationship but also your mental and physical wellbeing.
As Eve Rodsky powerfully declares in her book Fair Play, “all time is created equal.” It’s not because you’re not paid for what you do at home that it doesn’t count. Don’t let resentment grow out of perceived unfairness. Have a conversation with your partner about what a fair partnership could look like for your family when you go back to work.
Ease yourself back into it
If you can, start your daycare/nanny/carers’ arrangement a few weeks before you go back to work. It’s great if you can do a few practice runs too: get ready in the morning as if you were going to work, drop off your child, drive to work and then turn around and go back home. If you’re breastfeeding and plan on pumping, try that too. The aim is for you to get a feel for what it could be like, before you actually start. And if it’s available to you, try to start by working only one or two days in the first couple of weeks when you return.
Easing yourself back also means having someone to talk to about how you feel. This is essential to make sure you can release some of the pressure you may be under in those first few months. It could be a trusted friend, your partner, a support group, a coach or a therapist. Finding support is the greatest gift you can give to yourself during this huge transition.
Use these tips to guide you and don’t be tempted to measure your worth as a mother by how quickly you can feel like yourself again at work. You won’t get a “juggle it all” medal for that! Maternity leave is one thing, but maternity return deserves as much preparation and attention. It is a process that takes time, patience and support.
I offer supportive and gentle spaces for mothers to share their experience, their joys and their challenges as they navigate the transition back to work. You can find out more here. If you’d like to have one-on-one support, you can book an introductory coaching session here.
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova for Unsplash