I’m starting a full-time (4.5 days a week) job in a week’s time. This is a HUGE transition for me after 12 years of self-employment and 8 years of freelance mumming. Am I stressed? Well, yes I’d be lying if I wasn’t feeling somewhat anxious, the past week has been punctuated with sleepless nights. But, I am also really excited about the new phase to come, and looking forward to being part of a team, the commute (?! I’m sure I’ll retract that in a few months’ time), wearing jewellery and “work clothes” rather than working at home always in my Pilates wear and a big cosy jumper. Freddie is starting school, and the timing feels right to be going back into a more formal working arrangement.
It’s a daunting time going back into the workplace, however long your hiatus has been, but particularly if your children are small and you’re leaving your heart beating in a childcare setting while you’re setting off on your daily commute. To make a confident return to work, we need a toolkit of resources to make sure we’re as calm, sane, confident and happy as can be.
Mum guilt becomes a regular gremlin on your shoulder when you think about leaving your little one, with the minutiae of emotional labour you retain in your head it can seem impossible to imagine tipping any of that knowledge about your baby’s likes, dislikes, milestones, out of your exclusive responsibility and into someone else’s. Topped usually with the apprehension, imposter syndrome and worry about whether you can still do your job on hardly any sleep and having not thought about anything other than nappies, sleep and feeding for the past few months. Then there’s the added worry of how on earth you’ll complete the daily krypton factor of getting to work on time.
Then of course there’s the emotional explosion, guilt, worry, sadness, and the logistics of choosing childcare that you (and your baby) are happy with, all contributing to a whirlwind of feelings, it’s no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed and frazzled with the return to work.
BTW: I am well aware that dads are never faced with any of these potential hurdles. It’s not something that is ever asked of a politician or celebrity dad: “How do you juggle fatherhood with work?!” But, we can just do what we can to open up this conversation to BOTH working parents, and help women find the balance that they need and deserve.
Resources I am finding super helpful are:
The Supermum Myth – there is a whole chapter dedicated to WORK: Supermum meets Super Career. Work that works. How to find that elusive balance or at least have an idea of what balance might look like for you. If you’re struggling, I recommend dipping into that chapter for tools and techniques.
There’s an online course run by Guilty Mothers’ Club: Rock Your Return. I first saw this as a workshop presented at Pregnant Then Screwed Live in May 2018, where I was speaking on the maternal mental health panel. Since then, the course has launched online, offering you really effective and powerful tools for preparing mentally and practically for your return to work.
These books: The Mother of All Jobs, by Christine Armstrong, Step Up: Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes a Day by Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine, and The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd are all fantastic resources for beginning to gather together your confidence and energy for the transition ahead.
Every situation, and every mum, is different, and there’s certainly no perfect ‘return to work’ method, there are practical tips and techniques that can have you, your partner and your little one ready for the adventure that awaits. Here are my 5 top tips:
1) Be prepared
Was that the Brownie mantra? Or the Scouts. Well, it works here – in fact, motherhood is basically an elongated (non-gender specific) scout camp, full of fun, games, not much sleep and too many marshmallows. Don’t put off planning for your work return because you think it’ll burst your cosy baby bubble and freak you out. By visualising and planning well in advance you’ll actually save yourself so much worry and stress by proactively spotting stress flashpoints and having a think about how you can circumvent them. Don’t waste maternity leave fretting without action, that’s like holding an umbrella on a sunny day, in case it rains. You need to try and savour the snuggles, baby yoga, walking around the park endlessly trying to get your baby to sleep, meeting up with other parents for coffee and chats while you can, before your baby turns into a rampaging toddler and complete conversations are halted for a good few years… and basically all the positive things that maternity leave offers (I was freelance for both of my children and went back to work soon after having baby so this extended no-working time sounds like a DREAM to me, try to make the most of it).
Use your KIT (Keeping in touch) days to remain connected on some level to your work space so that it doesn’t feel too much like jumping into cold water considering returning. Think carefully about your return date. Can you flex or compress your hours? Maybe stagger your start back rather than going in full time from day one, taking holiday days once or twice a week for a few weeks. These kind of details make it a bit easier for both you and your baby and you won’t be left feeling completely physically drained by the end of your first month back with the change of pace and demands on your time, brain and energies. Investigate what your rights are and ASK for the things that you want in terms of flexible working, don’t assume and don’t stay silent about something that’s important to you. Yes, your employer might say no as they are legally allowed to, but articulating what you need and would like to see from your life is really important and sets the tone for how you will mentally and emotionally feel as you enter this new phase of motherhood.
2) Practise the morning routine
If you can, do a dry run of your commute including childcare drop off, at least once before the first day back at work. Work out how long it’ll take you to get you and your small human ready and out the door with all your clothes on and teeth brushed, and hopefully not too much yogurt in your hair.
It might be obvious, but planning your outfit and making sure you have everything you need obviously available is key for a sanity saving morning routine. Get everything ready the night before to avoid a stressful start to the day, plan yours and your baby’s outfit, pack lunches, your baby’s bag and your bag and have everything by the door ready to go!
3) Plan for when things go wrong – Gather your support network: it takes a village!
Inevitably, things go up the spritz once in a while with children. This is your new normal. Expect for your best laid plans to aft gang aglay, as Robbie Burns wrote. Think about ‘what ifs’ and plan accordingly – what will happen if your little one is too sick to go to childcare? What if your childcare option is closed due to illness or other reasons? Visualise all of the scenarios – children get sick, that’s what they do, they are precious and wonderful harbingers of snot and germs…and even more so in the first year of a childcare setting. So have a vague plan in place ready for every eventuality and it’ll make your return to work less discombobulating and chaotic.
If your baby has been used to having you around full-time since birth, it’s going to be a culture shock for both of you – so if you haven’t already, now’s the time to book a babysitter, even just for an afternoon. It’s beneficial for both of you that your baby has some time adjusting to time without you so that the eventual childcare ‘drop-off’ isn’t a horrendously tearful start to the day, every day. This WILL happen, inevitably, some days. Be prepared with some calming techniques for when this happens, so that you don’t wear it like a heavy coat all day. I recommend looking at the mothers’ wellbeing app the Nourish App and particularly for meditations from my lovely friend Nikki Wilson Ten of Zen, as she knows what you’re going through and has beautiful tools to help you through. Ask friends or family to babysit for an hour here or there in the few weeks before your start date. This’ll give you both time to adjust.
4) Be kind to yourself: Rest. Reject your inner critic
Returning to work can be both physically and emotionally draining – so it’s essential you are kind to yourself. Optimise your nutrition, make sure you get early nights and a proper bedtime routine for you without screens and stress in the hour before bed (even if your sleep is broken by your small sleep vampire, the quality of your sleep will be better if you set serenity in place before bed). Make your lunchtime a proper break, don’t be guilt-induced into working every single hour, which is something that is very common particularly if you’re a ‘part timer’ and the fastest route to burnout. Go for a stroll ideally in some green space, listen to music or a podcast. Breathe. Enjoy the time where you’re without a small squishy person attached to you like a limpet for a bit: unfurl your spine and look up, feel the lightness and freedom, even if just for a moment.
The return to work will probably knock you for six in the first few weeks, so good sleep habits will make you feel so much more ready to face each day. Try to get to bed around 9pm at least once a week, and give yourself a phone curfew of downing screens 2 hours before you want to sleep. Yes, 2 hours. Avoid planning busy weekends or any evening nights out on your first few weeks back at work. Enjoy lazy family pyjama days and chilled weekends together regrouping with your baby. Look at the bigger picture: your family life will be a long and probably hectic one filled with playdates and weekend appointments, so this is a very small window of life where you can savour the stillness and just ‘be’ with nowhere to be.
5) Ditch the guilt
It might be a financial choice that’s out of your hands, or it may be that you long to be back behind the reins at your job. Whatever your reasons for returning to work, mum guilt is the most unhelpful emotion we can feel. Always look at your WHY, and the positives of your situation, what you are gaining and what your baby is gaining from this time, this space, this opportunity. And try to look at it with curiosity, allow yourself to constantly check in with your family peace: is this working? If not, how can we rearrange the pieces of the puzzle to work a bit better?
Let’s stop seeing motherhood as existing in a skills void. You’re not “on a break” from developing employable skills if you’re focusing solely, or mainly, on the job of raising the future. You are developing:
Empathy and compassion
Skills of negotiation and mediation
Ability to prioritise and multi-task
Ability to see your instinct and understand what really matters.
All of this while being poked in the eye or undergoing a whining attack as you wouldn’t buy the latest Octonauts magazine.
This is no small feat mama, let’s not hide our incredible lights under bushels any more. How are you today? Has this list helped? I’d love to hear from you.