Maternity leave is a peculiar experience, where moments of complete bliss can jostle with existential angst and deep lows. When it’s time to go back to work you might be desperate for more intellectual stimulation or just getting into your parenting stride—or both.
At this juncture, one of the biggest difficulties is having to navigate the re-entry alone. Many people won’t have been out of the workforce since they first joined years earlier. Despite social media and parents’ groups, despite intellectually knowing millions of women have faced the same experience, a new mother (and it’s usually a mother) tends to experience her time away from work, and her re-entry into it—as unique, specific, and often isolating.
“I feel like I’m standing there juggling three balls very well, but someone’s about to throw six at me and I’m supposed to catch those as well,” says Emily Pool, a former RBS banker with children aged eight and six who retrained herself as a financial advisor in preparation for her reentry into the workforce. Pool was speaking recently at a workshop in St. Albans, UK, for mothers returning to work. The event was an example of the growing push to help returning moms with practical tools and by raising awareness about the challenges they may face.
I wrote about my own experience on day one back in the office, but ideally the prep starts earlier. What practical tips do experts give when it comes to the run-up to reintegration?
Ask yourself why you’re going back
Jessica Chivers founded the Talent Keeper Specialists in 2012, running reintegration workshops for companies such as BlackRock and PayPal, as well as the occasional kitchen-table brainstorm like the one I attended in St Albans. Chivers says the reasons for going back should feel “really compelling, so that we can go to work and think: Right, I’m focused on this, there is a reason for doing this.” If work is something worth going towards, she explains, it won’t be so hard to think about what you’re leaving behind.
She suggests visualizing what you would like your impact to be six months to a year after your return. Be realistic, taking into account, for example, if you’re working part-time. But be ambitious, Chivers advises. The key is that your work needs to feel necessary and exciting. This vision will make all the hard times and the logistics easier to bear.
It will also help you focus on positives. Some of the women at the St Albans workshop shared that they felt they had a point to prove in going back to work. That feeling, while common, might be less sustaining than, say, a true desire to deliver an exciting project.
Give time to the transition
Lisa Unwin is a former Arthur Andersen and Deloitte consultant who runs She’s Back, an organization dedicated to helping women return to work after a break. Unwin advises taking plenty of time to settle a child into childcare before returning to work. My own experience was that the settling time is for you as well as the baby, allowing time to reset the mind and focus on a new task.
Chivers’ book on making the transition, Mothers Work, also suggests doing some contingency planning—lining up someone who could pick up your child or look after them when they’re ill. Some nurseries, for example, ask that children stay at home if they have a temperature. They may also require the names and photos of anyone picking up a child ahead of time, so it’s worth doing a bit of planning in this regard.
Rebalance running your home
A big piece of advice in Chivers’ book is: See your family as a team. Women still do most of the domestic work in most homes. If you’ve been on leave, it’s possible that you will have taken on more responsibility for—for example—clearing up baby toys, shopping for food, cooking meals, or washing clothes. Going back to work is a time to rebalance this. An honest conversation with your partner and any older children might be necessary. It’s also possible that your team won’t have time for everything that needs to be done. This might be the time to hire a cleaner or reorganize your storage spaces—my own frantic end-of-maternity project. Your extended family and friends are also part of the wider team; now is a good time to ask for their help.
Shape perceptions at work
Keeping in touch with colleagues, reports, and managers is key, Chivers says. A month before returning is a good time to reconnect with a phone call or a meeting. It’s also wise to arrange check-ins for the early days back at work, making clear to everyone from the human resources department to the company chairman that you’re back and keen to contribute.
She suggests an exercise in which you list the people you are most connected with. They can be:
- The people in your life who are instrumental to you having a smooth return, such as your partner, family, and child’s caregiver;
- People relevant to success in your current role, like your manager;
- And people who could be relevant in the future, like the CEO.
Now, pick a person from list two or three and ask yourself how they would describe you in five words. Then write down the five words you’d like them to pick. Knowing how you want to come across will help you in the moments when you feel overwhelmed with challenges like travel logistics or (likely misplaced) guilt.
Think about what will make you happy
You might be tempted to rush to your workplace and immediately open emails. But it’s worth thinking about your approach to your work environment. It was personally important that I had ergonomic equipment set up for a comfortable workspace. Chivers suggests a clothes audit. “Be ruthless with your wardrobe and pack anything that doesn’t induce feelings of fabulousness off to the charity shop,” Chivers writes (two weeks in, I wish I had done this, and bought some easy wardrobe staples like plain vest tops and socks!)
She also advises making the most of your leave by seeing friends, playing with your kids, and having fun. Work will be easier if you can call up recent joy to sustain you.
Maternity leave is not a holiday: It’s a sudden, 24-hour job which has to be undertaken with little sleep and, for first-time parents, little training. Combining that with paid work is daunting. But after your return, if you need a boost—or a data point to drop into conversation with colleagues—take comfort in research that shows that having kids will make your efficiency skyrocket.