By Nadia Padayachy
I have to admit, this is not my first rodeo. Actually, my first time returning to work after maternity leave was difficult for me. I returned to work a year after the COVID-19 pandemic started. My colleagues had a year’s head start on me to adapt to remote working. I had also decided to work part-time, four hours a day every day. This allowed me to look after my child until 6 p.m., switch with my husband and then work until 10 p.m. I changed my hours to work around any important meetings I had.
This lasted three months as COVID-19 cases were still high in our area and I wasn’t ready to send my child to nursery. My days and nights were long, and I didn’t realise how my mental health suffered. This time around, I wanted it to be different. I wanted a healthy work-life balance with a smooth transition, where I could feel confident returning to work.
Common challenges new mums face
I could write a whole book about the challenges we face as parents of tiny new humans. But just as each child is different, so is each parent. And so are the situations we find ourselves in when returning to work after maternity leave. These include Imposter Syndrome, mum guilt, and the mental load at its peak. On top of that, you need to throw in all that is expected of you at work, while proving you still deserve to be there.
Affordable childcare is probably the biggest challenge and not one our employers can necessarily help with outside of childcare vouchers. So returning to work may not be an option for most. But if you are in a fortunate position to be able to set up an arrangement for care while you work, these following tips may help to make the transition go as well as it can.
Practical tips for a smooth transition
1. Be kind to yourself
When you go on holiday, you can sometimes get the holiday blues. When you return to work after maternity leave, the feelings you have are more intense. The nights are still hard, and the morning battles to get out the door are always hit and miss. You’ve been up since 5 a.m. and are exhausted by the time you eventually get back home at 8.30 a.m., only to have your work day begin in the next few minutes.
Where possible, give yourself a little bit of time before starting work to have a hot drink, a shower if you didn’t get a chance in the early hours of the morning and anything you can to switch your mind from parent to the valued employee you are. Chances are your colleagues have no idea what you’ve already been through before 9 a.m. So open up about it, give yourself some grace, and take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
2. Start the settling-in process early for your childcare arrangements
If you are in the position to do so, start settling your child into their childcare setting a few weeks before work. It gives you and your child some time to learn how to be apart from each other. It allows time for those nasty childhood bugs to make the rounds, so your first few weeks back are not wholly spent looking after sick babies or having to take time off because you’re ill.
3. Use those Keep-in-Touch days
Financially, it might give you that little boost you need when you take it. But more importantly, your mind will be at peace knowing what you’re coming back to. It will be clear in your mind and your team/employers’ minds what is expected from both parties when coming back. Everyone’s circumstances are different. But if you are fortunate to have an employer that can help your transition go smoothly and allow flexibility, then every little bit helps. We are fortunate at Allison+Partners to have a great maternity package. They were there to listen to what I needed help with to get back on track to being full-time. Having those chats also allows you to set up your boundaries now that you have new responsibilities in the home. Your work-life balance is essential.
4. Organise a social gathering with colleagues
When speaking with your team before your return, get something in the diary. It could be a lunch, drinks, or activity to do with your team on your first few days back. It really helps everyone to bond without having to talk shop all the time, about priorities, goals, strategies, tactics etc. Schedule a bit of fun to ease everyone into your return and get to know the new you!
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The workplace will have changed in your absence, not to mention the baby brain that lingers. Reach out to familiar colleagues who can point you in the right direction, and be honest – you’re not expected to know where everything is after so many months away. It’s hard enough coming back from a two-week holiday to remember what you do for a living let alone returning to work after maternity leave.
6. Connect with other working parents
I’ve been fortunate enough to have colleagues I am close to whom I could chat about the return to work. But we also have an Employee Advocacy Group called Allison+Family, which has a whole community chat around returning to work after having a baby. It was nice to say hello and hear those words of encouragement and support from those who have gone returned from maternity leave themselves.
7. Think about your goals
You may or may not have had a chance to think about what you want out of your return to work, and where you’d like to see yourself in five years’ time – especially if all you’ve wanted for the past year is just to have uninterrupted sleep. But you can use those first few days back to chat with colleagues and get a feel for what their needs are at the moment and think about how they can help you get to where you want to be. Your priorities have changed since adding a new addition to your family, but your team and colleagues can help you achieve your career goals.
The transition isn’t easy, sometimes you will be thrown into the deep end straight away and sometimes you won’t have the flexibility you need. But a little bit of preparation before returning to work to build relationships with your team can help you learn a bit more about who you’re becoming as a working parent and where you want to be.
If you’re struggling to secure the flexible working you need after talking to HR, and your line manager/senior leadership teams, there are organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed Citizens Advice, Acas, and Maternity Action that can help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them.