Nearing the end of maternity leave after having my first child, I was experiencing “Return to Work Syndrome”. I was worried my employer wouldn’t support my new circumstances, uncertain I could hit the ground running, and concerned about missing precious time with my baby. In truth, I was also excited.
It turned out I wasn’t alone. 74% of mothers work and only 1 in 5 feel confident returning after maternity leave. There is no denying that there is plenty of work to be done by employers to support working parents, but here are some things I found helped with my transition back to work.
1. Find your Mary Poppins
Find childcare you trust.
Knowing your child is happy, safe and well looked after in a place you trust is the cornerstone of a smooth return to the workplace. The last thing you want is to worry about your child – this will distract you and compromise your ability to give work your full attention.
It can be a long, daunting task finding childcare – trust me, I know – but investing the time early on to find the right fit will pay dividends later.
2. Create your vision
Write down your ideal work experience.
Keep it in the present tense, as if it’s already happening. If your vision doesn’t feel completely right, you are not finished.
It may not all come true – think of it as a starting point to continually adjust as you go along – but it’s a good compass for what you want and how you want things to go.
3. Clear the cobwebs
Don’t let negative stories in your head become your narrative.
Look out for limiting beliefs you may be telling yourself. Things like, “My boss won’t support my family commitments”, or “My job won’t allow me the quality time with my child that I’d like”.
Being aware these stories exist is the most important step in doing something about them. It can be hard to control these thoughts, but remind yourself that they are stories, not necessarily the reality. You can decide whether you want to focus on them, put them to one side or re-tell yourself a version that makes you feel at ease.
Don’t waste precious family time feeling anxious about something that hasn’t happened.
4. Sweat the small stuff
Amplify the small positives throughout the day, and I mean small!
Changing a nappy without a meltdown (from parent or child) is a small victory. Many little things have to go well for the day to run smoothly – as any working parent knows, getting to a 9am meeting on time depends on a long sequence of tiny events going right.
Take a moment to acknowledge and be grateful for these small victories. Noticing them as they occur will make you feel happier and more in control of your day. It may also increase self-esteem and confidence, and allow you to experience a sense of achievement from seemingly mundane activities.
5. Prioritise not compromise
Clarify and align with your priorities.
Knowing what’s important to you and what type of person you want to be – both at home and at work – will help you manage the time available in your day.
Once you have identified these priorities you can set boundaries – be open and honest with yourself and your employer. For example, be clear about when you check emails and when you don’t – are dinner and story time with your child off limits for work?
In their book How Will You Measure Your Life? Christensen, Allworth and Dillon describe how even the small decisions we make throughout the day can have a large impact. Being clear on your priorities and boundaries will help you manage the details to stay aligned with the person you aspire to be.
6. Redefine quality time
Any moment you are psychologically present is quality time.
Not just reserved for certain occasions, quality time can be any moment with your little one. Whether you are feeding them, brushing teeth or bathing, these are all precious opportunities to connect.
Adam Fraser describes the technique of transitioning from work to home as the “Third Space”. It’s about taking the time to power down from your day and deciding how you’d like to show up at home. Using your commute to reflect, rest and reset will help you be present with your family.
This is just one of many techniques that can help you achieve a clear balance between work life and home life, enabling you to get the best of both worlds.
7. Welcome the new you
Don’t lose yourself looking for the person you used to be.
Accept yourself, exactly where you are. Instead of clinging to the old you, take this opportunity to redefine yourself as an updated, enhanced version.
It may take some time to find your professional rhythm again and you may not necessarily hit the ground running. That’s perfectly ok! Cut yourself some slack – be kind if it takes time to get back into the swing.
If it helps, find a mentor or coach who could help you navigate this very important life transition. If you can find someone who has been there too, they might provide crucial advice and a sounding board for your concerns and vulnerabilities – making you feel understood and validated.
Remember to take care of yourself and lose the guilt. Stewart D. Friedman’s research found that when mothers spent time on relaxation and self-care it was associated with positive outcomes for children. Your wellbeing is important!
A mentor once shared a valuable tip – return to work on a Thursday. Making that first week back shorter allows you to go through your inbox, figure out what’s changed and get up to speed with new initiatives and priorities that occurred during your absence – you will have a much better footing when Monday comes around.
When it comes to parenting, the truth is everyone feels quite clueless some of the time. I’m constantly learning and trying to figure things out. Being a working parent is a juggling act.
Believe in yourself and your ability to be powerful in both these aspects of your life. If you had a career before there’s no reason why you can’t again – if anything, becoming a parent strengthens skills in prioritisation, makes you a better team player and more efficient. It enhances your ability to succeed in all areas of life – now that’s something worth feeling proud about!