Part I: Laying the Groundwork
I remember it as if it were yesterday. The first day back in the office after my maternity leave with my first child, emotions running wild. How thrilling to be away from the house and the nappies, to be unshackled from the buggy! But will the baby settle properly at nursery? Will everyone remember me at work? Will I still be good at my job? Will people treat me differently now that I am a working parent?
Returning to work after maternity leave elicits many confusing and conflicting feelings in new mothers. There can be sadness and worry about leaving your baby in the care of others for the first time, relief and excitement about escaping the domestic sphere and re-engaging with the fast-paced, intellectually stimulating world of work and work-place relationships, or anxiety about being able to properly reintegrate into that world now that you are a mother with new family commitments. Most women would admit to experiencing a combination of these emotions and, of course, it’s perfectly natural to feel that way.
Any major life transition can be tricky to negotiate, but with some simple, practical measures you can reduce unnecessary anxiety and mitigate the stresses of returning to work. What it all boils down to is preparation, preparation, preparation. Achieving a good work-family balance depends on planning well in advance. Here’s how you can set yourself up for success before you’re due back in the office:
Stay up to date.
One of the biggest anxieties about returning to work is worrying that you will have lost touch with what’s going on in your organization and in your area of knowledge. Avoid this by devising a plan to regularly connect with your workplace while you are away. This doesn’t need a heavy-handed approach, just ensure you will receive occasional email updates to keep abreast of any developments—new hires, new projects, new clients. Read your organization’s internal publications and subscribe to an online industry magazine. Remember, knowledge is power!
Keep in touch.
Before you go on leave, identify a contact to keep in touch with periodically. If possible, arrange to meet up for coffee and then closer to the end of your leave, organize a lunch with your boss and/or colleagues. These casual get-togethers are a great opportunity to stay connected with the office so that your return will seem less daunting. You can also use these meet ups to demonstrate to your boss and colleagues your continued enthusiasm for your work—ask about how a big presentation turned out or what other developments may have occurred on the team during your leave.
Set the date.
It may sound obvious, but set a specific date for your return to work well in advance. You may feel like deferring the decision, but by making it early on, you can begin to make incremental changes and devise systems that will ease the transition when the time comes. Try to schedule your return date for a Wednesday or Thursday so you have a short first week, rather than a daunting five full days. If this is an option available to you, consider a gradual or phased return, perhaps working shorter or part-time hours for a few weeks to help the transition.
Map out the transition and handover.
If someone has been looking after your work in your absence, arrange in advance for an in-depth handover meeting on your return. Ideally, this cover should stay in place for a period of time while you get your bearings and ensure that you have enough time to be properly apprised of all project developments and have received the information you need to get started. Ask as many questions as necessary. Nobody expects you to be up to full speed and capacity right away, so take the opportunity afforded by the transition period to gather information and reacquaint yourself with staff, systems and processes.
Check and confirm the terms of your return.
Make sure you have communicated with your employer about the terms of your return before you go back to work. Circumstances may change of course, but it is better that both parties are clear about where they stand and what they expect from each other at the beginning of the period.
Rebuild your confidence.
For some, the strength-sapping, sleep-depriving experience of new parenthood—not to mention the often insular, domestic experience of parental leave—can take a toll on your confidence. Prepare yourself in advance by keeping a catalogue of your achievements—praise, awards, positive feedback, big and small wins—so that you can reread them and give yourself a boost during those shaky transition days. If you feel anxious about adapting to new systems or catching up on business knowledge, schedule training and update sessions for your transition period to re-skill or re-familiarize yourself.
Design a new routine.
The halcyon days of rolling out of bed, having a quick shower, and grabbing a coffee and croissant as you dash to the office are long gone. The more prepared you are for your new, more complex routine, the better. Consider your new childcare arrangements—will you need to include a nursery drop-off or nanny handover in your time considerations? Will you need to prepare diaper bags and snacks the night or morning before work? Also consider how your work routines might be different from before having a baby—will you need to be prepared to pump during the work day? Or leave the office by a certain time? Doing a dry-run the week before your return will not only limit the chaos of your first day back, but it may raise questions you hadn’t previously considered. And if you are co-parenting, set aside time in advance of your return to make sure you and your partner are on the same page.
Clearly there’s a lot to think of as you adjust to the new normal. A few other good questions to ask yourself at this time include: Whose help do I need? What can I outsource? What can I let go? You won’t necessarily have definitive answers—and even if you do, you’ll likely want to revisit and revise your answers as time goes on—but they’re important questions to consider as you prepare for your new dual role.
Finally, make peace with the fact that the new normal is a work in progress, and with that in mind, give yourself a break. You’ve got this!
Coming next: Returning to Work After Maternity Leave Part II: The First 100 Days
Caroline Flanagan is a speaker, author, coach and the founder of Babyproof Your Life, whose mission is to increase the number of women who keep working, progress to senior roles and stay there after starting a family. Caroline began her career as an international finance lawyer working at two of the world’s largest global law firms in London.
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