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'I was a nervous wreck.' What it's really like going back to work after maternity leave.

I remember going back to work after my first maternity leave like it was yesterday.

I was restless the day before. I had to dig into the darkest corner of my closet to find my work clothes. My dress pants and shirts were wrinkled and musty. I looked at their sizes and I knew I wouldn’t fit. I threw them back in my closet and grabbed a flowing dress that gave me ample room around my waist.

I barely slept that night. The morning was a blur of shakily applying mascara, packing my lunch, and pouring hot coffee into my stained thermos while constantly checking to see my daughter was safely rolling on the floor.

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Video via Mamamia.

As I hugged and kissed her goodbye before dropping her off at my parents' house, I could feel a mix of bittersweet emotions.

I was excited to go back to my job, but I also loved the time with my daughter. 

On the drive to work, it felt oddly familiar. I hadn’t driven this route in almost a year. Every light and turn brought me back to my life before giving birth. I felt reassured. 

But when I parked my car, I turned off the engine and sat like a nervous wreck. Anxious thoughts and worries were starting to consume me as I looked at the clock. I was 20 minutes early, and my anxious thoughts were festering.

Am I going to remember how to write an email? Contribute to meetings and speak eloquently as I did before my leave? What are some corporate-y words again?

Circle back, pivot, synergise, close the loop, piggyback, deep-dive, take it offline...

How much do I share with my coworkers about her? I want to gush about her to everyone but will that make them think I’m more focused on my home life than my work?

Back to the office.

I entered my old office, and it was decorated with balloons and a big welcome back poster.

I followed the instructions to reinstate my log-in. I checked my schedule, and I had a one-on-one meeting with my manager. I spent most of my day setting up and catching up on everything that had changed since I left. From people, programs, processes to physical locations, so much had changed. I started to feel overwhelmed but my manager eased my anxiety.

During my meeting with my manager, she spent the first half asking me how I’m doing and gushing over the pictures of my daughter. In the other half, she provided a high-level overview of what’s new but reassured me that she doesn’t expect me to have all this memorised, that it will take time for me to get my feet wet.

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My manager has teenagers and loves talking about her kids. She helped to set the tone in prioritising family, empathising with me in the challenges of being a working mum. I’m incredibly grateful that she was supportive during my transition back.

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Uninterrupted lunches, peeing alone, and adult conversations.

As the weeks went on, I noticed how much more freedom I had whenever I went to work. My mind could focus on my thoughts without worrying whether my offspring was going to fall off the couch and hit her head.

I could eat my lunch in peace without a tiny human clawing at me or wanting a bite of my sandwich.

I could go to the bathroom whenever I wanted without the risk of a little intruder watching me pee.

But the most pleasantly surprising part of being at work was having uninterrupted adult conversations that challenged my thinking and forced me to practice active listening.

Working mum guilt is real.

The first few months were quite refreshing and adjusting back into my role felt like riding a bike. But the novelty wore off as soon as work became more demanding and I started thinking about work at home. 

To make matters worse, my daughter decided to like daddy more than me; he worked from home and had a full day with her every week.

From story time, bath time to playtime, she chose him over me. 

I was jealous, and I blamed myself. My job was preventing me from spending enough quality time with my daughter. Those couple of hours after work weren't enough. 

The guilt bubbled to the surface, and I felt insecure about my relationship with my daughter.

Now, five years later, I can say that the adjustment to the working mum life was gradual but the guilt no longer debilitates me. It still comes in waves but I’m able to manage it by telling myself these affirmations.

  • I choose to work because it allows me to live a values-driven life.
  • Work-life balance does not exist. I can love my career and motherhood, sometimes one more than the other.
  • My children are healthy and secure because I am good enough.
  • Taking care of myself and fulfilling my needs first allows me to take care of and fulfill the needs of others.

Lastly, I don’t always have to try my best at everything. I can say no to late meetings and last-minute requests from the boss. I can miss a recital or performance. I can decline volunteer work at the school and parent-teacher interviews. 

By taking myself off the pedestal, I’m creating a healthy and compassionate example for my children to grow into perfectly imperfect adults.

Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP is an author, wife and mum of two. She writes stories to empower individuals to talk about their feelings despite growing up in a culture that hid them. You can find more from Katharine on her Website or Podcast, or you can follow her on InstagramFacebookTwitter or YouTube.

Feature Image: Getty.