parent opinion

4 actually useful tips for going back to work, post-baby.

Returning to work (RTW) after parental leave can be an exciting but potentially daunting experience for many people. It’s normal for RTW parents to feel a raft of emotions from excitement to guilt, shame, fear, being overwhelmed, and even gratitude when we come back to work.

After doing it twice myself, I can tell you that managing your mindset and putting in place certain practices can make a real difference to how quickly you can move through the change curve, during what’s easily one of the most transformational times in your life.

The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss whether extended maternity leave good is for parents and employers. Post continues after video. 

Video by MMC

“The hardest but most rewarding thing you’ll ever do” were words commonly heard when I was pushing my bump around. Like all new parents, I found the cliché has proved more than true.

Nothing has shaped me more than when I became a mum. As someone who has always been self-driven, and perhaps hung my self worth on productivity, it really challenged my sense of identity.

Some days brushing my teeth and getting out of my pyjamas was an achievement. Some days I didn’t manage either! I had to learn to keep things in perspective. To prioritise. And to let things go.

Like, let it ALL go. Expectations, assumptions, assertions. Gone.

So when 10 months rolled by and it was time to pick my career back up, I was both thrilled… and terrified.

I was yearning for mental stimulation and human connection, for contributing to something beyond the little world I had created with my family.

And having steaming hot coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

On the flip side, I was very conscious that I had spent the better part of a year barely stringing two sentences together through the “fog” of early motherhood. And I had now finally reached the point where I was really enjoying my time after getting the hang of this whole baby thing.

Was I ready to feel out of my depth again?

How would I manage all the competing demands of my new world?

For many career focused women, there’s a real fear of being left out or less-than, or just failing in every facet of life as we strive to reach our expectations of being kickass in all our roles in life.

We worry about having to choose. Not being there for the children we’ve worked so hard to have… It would have been helpful to know at the time that these thoughts are fairly common for new parents.

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The reality is things HAVE changed, and status quo on return just isn’t an option.

I fumbled my way through the first time and have taken a lot of the lessons and applied it the second time around to a very different outcome. So I’m sharing the tips that I have found most useful in my own life, to help other parents as they navigate the change in theirs.

1. Get clear on expectations – at work and at home.

Before leaving for maternity leave for the first time, I had a very expansive role that often required me to work many late nights and weekends.

During my parental leave I decided that I wanted to look for a part time role that would support my career development, but also allowed me to spend time with my family.

I didn’t appreciate that with that decision I would need to rescale expectations of what I could still achieve in three days.

I wasted a lot of energy worrying that I wasn’t delivering as much as my full time peers. I was also nervous that I wasn’t contributing at home as much as I thought I needed to, making me feel more disappointed and wrung out.

"I’ve been able to make a meal, breastfeed and clean dishes at once, so I can say motherhood has certainly given me some extra life skills." Image: Getty

As you plan your return to work, having conversations up-front with your line manager, team and even sometimes your peers is a critical first step. This is especially true if you’re stepping into a role that previously was full time and probably needs to be re-scoped.

Like any role, it’s important to get clarity on what success looks like and how you will deliver it. Be clear with your line manager on what support you also need from them to help you meet your objectives.

On the home front there is a heap of uncertainty around childcare, how the new routine will work, and how you go with divvying up domestic duties.

Talk through possible situations with carers to understand their approach in looking after your child and how that aligns to your own expectations. Chat with your partner about what life might be like on your return to work and what is important to both of you for a happy home life.

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How will you both contribute to that vision? Consider how you will divide up household duties such as drop offs, pick ups, cleaning, cooking and bedtimes.

2. Think effectiveness, not hours in the office.

I’ve been able to make a meal, breastfeed and clean dishes at once, so I can say motherhood has certainly given me some extra life skills.

When time in the office becomes even more precious there’s no mucking around. A common pitfall for us RTW folk is to continue buying into old cultures of “face time”. I found this particularly hard myself the first time around having always worked long hours BC (Before Children).

I felt very uneasy leaving before my manager on days I was doing pick-ups and wondering if the whole office floor was looking at me thinking I’m not working hard enough!

The reality is, as I had to accept, we can’t compete on hours, so learn to let that go. Ultimately it comes down to what you deliver, not how many hours you tallied in the office.

With many companies now moving to greater working flexibility, I use my time in the office to connect with colleagues and prefer to pick up emails and admin when I can log in after getting the kids to bed.

What I’ve found is that having a strong foundation of relationships actually enables me to whip through roadblocks and get to better outcomes faster.

3. Be clear on your boundaries.

Everyone loves talking about boundaries but in reality it’s one of the hardest skills to master. Setting good boundaries is a learned practice that requires a high degree of self awareness, strong constructive communication, and a whole heap of self compassion.

For many RTW parents, unresolved feelings of guilt as well as fear that you’re not adding enough value at work quickly can eat away at any potential boundaries.

Take the time to understand what you are comfortable with in how and when you want to work. Boundaries don’t necessarily have to be rigid in order to operate. I’ve flexed up on occasion to attend important sessions that would be technically outside my working days.

That might not be an option for you but be mindful that flexibility needs to be a two way street to work effectively.

What happens if you're on maternity leave and you want to go back to work early? What if you NEVER want to go back? Mamamia's Year One podcast tackles the work question. Post continues after podcast. 

And while we’re here, let’s address the GUILT. Recently I was chatting with a group of RTW mums who found this to be one of the biggest challenges. You can plan all the routines you like, but when you see the number of the daycare centre pop up on your phone in the middle of a meeting, it’s hard to resist that sinking feeling.

“Ahh well 38.3 isn’t really that high, surely?”

I struggled with feeling the constant tug of both worlds that left me with a sense that I wasn’t giving enough of myself to either.

There’s no ready-made solution and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a working parent that has this nailed.

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What I have found most helpful is to be present and bring mindfulness to whichever environment I’m in to direct energy to what matters in that moment.

That might mean having to let go of answering the phone when pushing my child on the swing, or placing complete trust in carers when I’m presenting with colleagues.

It’s also about accepting where your life is at the present moment and admitting when you do need to reprioritise.

4. Your mental and physical wellbeing is not an afterthought.

You’re not good to anyone when you’re not in a good space physically or mentally. That includes your colleagues, and your family.

I know I don’t respond to life’s daily challenges nearly as well when my resilience bank is depleted. Be proactive and build into your routine what you need to do to look after both your mental and physical wellbeing.

For me, it was two to three exercise sessions, a hot bath, maybe a meditation, and dinner with a girlfriend each week.

Also, mindset matters. Observe your thoughts as you plan your return and how they might be influencing your feelings.

Thoughts around limited career progression, remaining relevant and fear of not managing the juggle are really common, but might not help your self-confidence. I've found chatting through it with friends or colleagues helps to challenge the assumptions I could be making.

Final words.

Change can be a vulnerable time and there’ll probably be some rocky patches as you and those around you learn to adjust.

Aim to be present, courageous and open in communication and most importantly, be kind to yourself.

Rina is a mum of two and a leader in business transformation. She has a passion for empowering others to understand how change impacts them and how they can take charge of their own experience.

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Tags: features , maternity-leave , motherhood , parenting-2
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