'Balance doesn't exist': 12 women on what they wish they knew about going back to work after maternity leave.

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When I was pregnant with my first daughter, maternity leave seemed like a glorious, endless holiday just on the horizon. Fast forward 12 months and it wasn’t just the hardest year of my life, it was rapidly coming to an end. 

In a heartbeat it was time for me to go back to work.

That transition was rough, mostly because I wasn’t prepared. Extremely out of character for me as a consistent researcher and planner. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting cover to cover, brushed up on children's first aid training, attended every parenting class and birth seminar. But somehow the tiny human being in my care had a way of distracting me right through maternity leave, to the point that I just didn’t think about going back to work.

With hindsight (and a second child/return to work under my belt) there’s plenty I’d change to improve the experience, and I know I’m not alone. 

Every day 370 new mums return to work*. So, I asked my favourite parents' group, the internet, a question: what do you wish you'd known about going back to work after parental leave?

I heard from teachers, business owners, hospitality workers, lawyers, nurses, government workers and private sector consultants.

Here’s exactly what they had to say.

You are going to feel guilty at first, and that’s ok.

Sally, mum of two, Teacher

You *will* feel a raging guilt in the lead up to and after the first few drop-offs. I cried in the car park too. Talking to other mums, I now see this guilt is widespread, and I’m trying to acknowledge it and actively let it go. 


I made sure I was really happy with our choice of childcare, and then every time the guilt creeps in, I remind myself that my little ones have a better time at their family daycare than I could muster at home. 

A tip I give first-timers: give yourself some time to settle them into daycare (if that’s the option) by giving yourself a week's buffer between starting daycare and going back to work. Both can be emotional and facing one at a time makes it more bearable.

You are going to spend a lot of money on daycare days you don’t use.

Kaity, mum of two, HR Consultant

I wish I knew that you still have to pay for daycare days you don’t use, because your child is on holidays or sick (my own kids were mostly sick in those first 12 months of them attending, generally because their immune systems are still developing). 

At our centre, that includes casual days if not cancelled 48 hours ahead. It hurts having to pay for care when I have to keep our 4-year-old home with a cold, but these are the rules. It ensures our amazing educators are receiving funds and everyone stays healthy. I dream of the day I can send them to a great public school without these sorts of fees.

Balance is a myth.

Tea, mum of two, Education

I had to come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as "balance". I wish I’d known this earlier and realised it’s more about shifting priorities as they come up.

Your routine is never going back to “normal”.

Helen, mum of two, Marketing

I wish I knew how much things in our routine and lifestyle needed to change when we added a child into the mix of two working parents, and I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy trying to recreate my pre-kids morning routine (gym, wash and blow dry hair, at my desk by 7.30am etc). 


The second time round, my partner and I sat down ahead of returning to work, and mapped out our weekly schedule, redistributing tasks I’d picked up by default of being on maternity leave. Having a solid and realistic plan made it much easier.

No one else will remember your flexible working arrangement, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to it.

Heidi, mum of two, Management Consulting

The first time I returned to work I was at a big company, with a large HR department. I went back part-time, four days a week. Almost immediately, invites in my calendar flooded in for my non-working day. In my new and heightened emotional state it felt personal and inconsiderate. 

But now I can see that they were all honest mistakes, I wasn’t the main character in their life, only in mine. As soon as I reminded people they were happy to accommodate. So my advice: if you are on a flexible return-to-work schedule, it’s on you to remind people of your official days/hours – and keep reminding them of those boundaries. 

Put it in your email signature, your instant messenger status, use an email autoresponder and block out your calendar. Do this from the beginning. Don’t just expect that everyone else is having the conversations you are having with your manager. 

You’ve got this. 

Ellie, mum of two, Retail

Yes, you’ve had time off work, and you are a parent now, but you still have the same skills and the same brain. Even though returning to work can feel so daunting, you’ll find yourself again. 

Getting a (solo!) coffee on your way into work feels liberating. And spending time with colleagues again is a breath of fresh air... not to mention going to the bathroom on your own.


Reset your expectations.

Baja, mum of one, Management Consultant

I wish I knew to readjust my expectations of myself – I went back in with the same expectations pre-kids and that then meant my employer also adopted those expectations. My work can be gruelling, tough and requires a lot of focus time – which I currently don't have the luxury of. Now 6 months after returning to work, I'm still trying to readjust those expectations I set.

It’s okay to change your plans and your mind.

Anna, mum of one, Healthcare

This was a few years ago, but I wish I knew that it was okay to change your plans and to drop the guilt of going back earlier than you first expected. I planned to take a long time off. But then we hit early COVID days so I couldn't go anywhere and I felt I was literally losing my mind. 

The one place I could go was work (essential healthcare) so I started doing the odd weekend shift. She was totally fine at home with Dad but man, the guilt I had – which now I see as totally silly!

You won’t miss out on everything…

Amy, mum of one, Lawyer

I wish I realised that I won’t miss out on everything. I had this irrational fear while I was still on maternity leave that when I started back at work I would feel bad about never seeing my little one. I instead found that we did get to spend a lot of time together, and that our designated days together were even more special. 

Don’t pre-worry about being worried.

…but you might want to miss some things.

Sophie, mum of one, HR manager

I wish I knew to mute notifications from my WhatsApp mothers' group. As one of the first in my mothers' group to go back to work, I found all the messaging to organise mid-week catch ups and fun activities really hard. 


Once I muted the group, mentally it was much easier.

Check your policies.

Sarah, mum of three, Media Executive

I wish I knew that my work had a policy where returning parents can do 75 per cent of the hours for 100 per cent pay for the first four weeks. My manager didn’t know about it either, I only knew about it the second time around. Read your policies and work contracts, people!

Don’t judge yourself on your first day, first week… or even first month. 

Nicolle, mum of one, HR Manager

It took six weeks for me to feel like myself again at work – the first six weeks I felt like there was a little hole in my chest. I felt sad, but it didn’t last.

I also wish I knew that all you want to do is talk about your little one at any chance you get, and that no one else really... cares. Not as much as you will, anyway. Find your work mum friends, they’ll look at your 900 daycare photos with you!

What do you wish you knew about returning to work after maternity leave? Let us know your best tips in the comments below.

Every day 370 new mums return to work. Every day 370 children return to mum.* 

If you're returning to work, sign up to Aptamil Toddler's Return Ready newsletter filled with tools, tips and expert advice to help ensure you and your child are ready with confidence.

*ABS 2017 Pregnancy and employment transitions survey and Australian Fertility Rate 2019.

Feature Image: Mamamia/Getty.

Aptamil Toddler
Preparing to return to work? Aptamil Toddler contains key nutrients to help support your child's immune system, so you can return to work feeling confident. *Contains vitamins B6 & B12 to support normal immune system function. When prepared as directed and consumed as part of a healthy varied diet. General advice only. Aptamil Toddler has the right nutrition and advice to support you in Returning to work with confidence. Go to to Return to work Ready.