Returning to Work After Maternity Leave – Part II

Part II: The First 100 Days

The planning is done and the time has finally arrived. Hopefully, by preparing a little beforehand, your return to the office won’t be so daunting and you’ll be able to make the most of your last days of leave. But how do you tackle the big day itself?

Keep calm.
Of course, for a returning mother, this is a momentous occasion. And because this is a moment you have been thinking about and building up to for some time, and because you might be experiencing mixed emotions, it’s easy to miscalculate the approach. Perhaps you have overestimated (or underestimated) expectations. You may be thinking the office will have changed radically or, conversely, will be exactly the same as when you left. Perhaps you are expecting your return to have a significant impact—that your colleagues will be out waving “Welcome back!” flags, or you may feel you will have a big “Returning Mother” sign on your forehead. It is understandable to have these heightened feelings and anxieties. In all probability, none of these extreme scenarios will play out. It’s much more likely that your workplace will be quite similar to how it was when you left, though not exactly the same, that your close colleagues will be happy to see you, that some people will be interested in your arrival and some people won’t, and that you won’t stand out like a sore thumb. Remind yourself that although this is huge for you, it’s likely business-as-usual for everyone else. Maintaining that perspective will help keep any anxiety in check.

Get in early.
On the first day, give yourself plenty of time for your commute and try to arrive early so that you can relax, get your bearings and prepare yourself mentally and physically before everyone else arrives. In the days that follow, I recommend getting in early if possible. One thing about being a working mother is that you have an urgency and efficiency during the day that’s rarely matched by your peers. If you can’t take advantage of an early start every day (because you are doing childcare drop off, for example), try to allocate or negotiate one or two days every week when you can schedule an early arrival.

Put some thought into your work space.
Make your space comfortable and personalized. Make sure you have everything you need on hand so that you can settle back into your working rhythm. Don’t over-do it on the baby photos (you don’t want that to be the first thing on people’s minds when they come over to see you), but don’t hide them either. Your new surroundings should be a reflection of who you are, not just what you do.

Let everyone know you’re back.
You might be tempted to keep a low profile on your first day back but this is the perfect time to rejuvenate existing relationships and an opportunity to start new ones. Don’t hide behind your office door. Walk the corridors, pop your head in and say “hi.” Arrange coffees, plan lunches. It will go a long way to reconnecting with your colleagues and facilitating your transition back to the office.

Be enthusiastic.
Show your colleagues and supervisors that you mean business and are excited to be back. Be interested in and curious about what’s going on around you and show a willingness to get back in the game. The more involved you are, the more invested and settled you will feel, and the less likely you will be treated with kid gloves or overlooked for decent work if they’re assuming (unfairly) that you’re no longer interested in your career or that you won’t be able to manage now that you have additional obligations outside the office.

Arrange breakfast and/or lunch appointments.
Because your evenings are now more precious, it’s time to rethink your attitude to breakfast and lunch. Many returning mothers are unwilling to give up their evenings to networking because they want or have to get home. That’s fine, but it’s no excuse for neglecting networking altogether. Networking is critical to your career—developing and nurturing those strategic relationships will raise your profile and ensure your name crops up in all the right places. Try to organize a breakfast, lunch or coffee once a week for the first 100 days of your return to ease yourself back in to the world of professional networking.

Build in time for self-care.
Yes, I’m serious. Carve out some time in your calendar in the middle of your working day to pop down to the office gym (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or to take a walk around the block. If you can force yourself to start this practice early in your return, it will become a healthy part of your routine going forward. Of course, you’ll think you don’t have time for this. When you’re back in the swing of things and work gets busy again, you’ll be tempted to skip meals, forget to drink water and be chained to your office chair for hours on end. Or, if things are quiet initially, you’ll assume you don’t need the self-care and will ignore this advice. If you catch yourself doing this, stop. Remind yourself that your health and sanity are a precious asset, and are the key to having the energy and mindset it’s going to take to make this all work. The sooner you make looking after yourself a habit, the better prepared you’ll be for whatever life and work throws your way.

Believe in yourself.
You will probably have the occasional wobble during your first 100 days—moments when you question whether you have made the right decision, times when you desperately miss your baby and points where you doubt whether you can make it all work. Understand that these are completely normal feelings and that they will pass. Try to see your return to work and your new status as a working mother as a career opportunity. Reframe your experience so that you view motherhood and negotiating your new life as a way to forge a multitude of useful leadership skills. Repeat affirmations to help you remain positive and to believe in yourself and your abilities—”I’ve got this” can do wonders for your state of mind and resolve.

Celebrate every day.
Transitioning back to work is exciting and exhausting in equal measures. Be kind to yourself. At the end of every day, celebrate every single win, however small. If you make mistakes or things don’t happen the way you’d like them to, recognize it, learn from it and then move on. Each day is a brand new start and a bright new beginning—make it count. 

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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