The Return to Work after Maternity Leave: 8 Tips to Make it Easier & Make You Excel
Speaking from personal experience and that of those around me, it’s safe to say that many career-focused or career-inclined women often have a lingering doubt about how having kids would affect their career; and it is not an insensitive concern to be treated lightly. Having children does take a huge toll on you - physically and mentally. Ridiculously enough, many organizations have failed to create an atmosphere where mothers feel like they can thrive.
Women are often seen to be less competent once matters relating to a child come up. As a simple example: if a man requests to work remotely because he is having improvements done in his home, he is not judged in any negative way but if a woman requests to work from home due to a child care emergency, she could be slightly perceived, albeit unconsciously as not being very organized.
There are lots of improvements that organizations have to do to be truly inclusive, and ensure that women and mothers feel more included and valued. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish for another day. Today, let us focus on how best woman can return to work strong after maternity leave.
Consider whether you need to return to that organization at all
Many women tend to switch jobs just after having a baby and there are many reasons for that. She may realize that her previous organization is not conducive for her new responsibilities as a mother. Similarly, maternity leave may have provided ample time to research and apply to new organizations or she may simply decide that being a mum takes priority and she would love a career break! It’s not surprising how many new mothers become ‘mumpreneurs’ and find their passion during maternity break - especially in some developed countries where most mums take a minimum of 9 months and many times up to a year. It’s also the reason why in such countries, a maternity role contract cover provides a high level chance for one to get into an organization.
So first, as a new mum - you can only return strong if you truly wish to return to work or to your previous organization. If you don’t, there’s a high chance that you would be uncommitted and constantly look forward to the end of each day. So make an informed decision on whether you would love to return to work, take a career break or take that passion to the next level. And don’t forget to whole heartedly own that decision too!
2. Sort Childcare!
This is one thing that could often pose a concern to both new parents and their employers. Employers want to be confident that your new responsibilities in the home front as a parent would not greatly distract you from your day job. And they have every reason to expect a certain level of commitment to your job. But it can be tricky for the new mother, especially leaving the child for the first time and particularly in countries where they have to return to work in 3-4 months. So being confident of whatever childcare arrangements you prefer is an absolute must.
Organizations that provide onsite crèche are such a welcome relief and often give a sense of peace. Next would probably be having trusted family who can look over the child in the first few months of your return to keep your mind at peace. But if your option is limited to putting your child in a nursery, child care or with nannies, then it is very necessary that such arrangements are not left until the last minute. Rather, there should be a settling in period before you return to work where you can get reasonably comfortable with these arrangements. Research and visit a number of nurseries / crèche ahead of time, train nannies and get them involved in the kid’s routine, install cameras if necessary. You really do not want to be in the middle of a work meeting or conference call and having heart palpitations about the welfare of your new child.
3. Meet up with mentors / females with kids
Having people around who seem to understand the importance of going back to work after a baby is always helpful. When I worked in Nigeria, over half of the partners were women with kids and so the fact that they had managed to do both side by side seemed attainable to me. But then I moved to the UK, and the reverse was the case - most women waited till close to partner level to get married or start having kids. On another occasion, a male partner with no kids noted that he sees no reason why one shouldn’t return to work 3 months after having a baby - especially when still in a mid-level role. Compare that to a friend who at a job interview when asked something along the lines of “the most difficult thing she ever had to do” laughed and jokingly said “shall I tell you about childbearing?”. She knew it was going to be received well, because both her interviewers had kids! A friend who was interviewing for new roles after a maternity break was rather pleased when her interviewer cut short the meeting and had to leave to pick her kids from school; the one thing she knew was that at the very least she most definitely would not be looked down at me for taking a break in her career to have a baby.
4. Don’t be afraid to integrate work & life
Many people erroneously believe that returning back to work strong means a clean distinction between your new life as a mummy and your job, But one of the most important things I have learnt is the ability to bring your whole self to work! Just as you are. You cannot totally separate your new mum role. So this would crop up from time to time, it’s just about how you manage it. Don’t be afraid to talk about your child’s activities or responsibilities - within limits of course.
5. Take advantage of your entitlements
Speaking about integrating work and life, you should be taking advantage of any work benefits or perks that would make your new life easier. Even if it’s not available, feel free to ask! So, still breastfeeding upon return to work? Your employers ought to make it conducive for you to pump at work if you choose. If it is not available, ask. If there’s a subsidized or free office crèche, take advantage of it. Entitled to work 4 times a week or reduced hours per day? No need trying to be a super-woman or think your colleagues would tag you unserious - use your benefits!
6. Be visible
This is particularly relevant if you are returning to the same organization. Remember you’ve been away for a while, ranging from 3 months to over a year and as they say, out of sight is out of mind. Returning to work puts on you the responsibility to “be visible”. A boss once said to me “you don’t just have to do the work; you have to be seen doing the work.” I know sometimes it sounds silly and unnecessary to copy your line manager in every email or send out an email outside of work hours so it seems you’re on top of tasks. But you could be strategic about it so it doesn’t come off as eye service. More importantly, speak up at meetings, share your opinions, volunteer for tasks and show that you’re happy to be back at work.
7. Invest in Your Appearance
No matter how much of a put together mama you planned to be - most likely the reality was a bit different and it’s been a few months of baggy clothes, oversized t-shirts with a fair amount of baby spit ups. And now it’s time to go back to work? But do you even remember how to work those clothes?! Worse off, your pre-baby clothes probably do not fit anymore! A little tight on the hips and some mummy pouch pushing through. You’re probably tempted to rock them nonetheless as an “incentive” to lose weight. Intentions notwithstanding, I’d kind of advice the contrary. As much as you can, your appearance is key for return to work. It often gives a whole new level of confidence so do get new clothes if you must. And just so these clothes are still wearable when you do snap back completely, you could invest in a few shift dresses and loose clothes or items easy amendable. Don’t forget the shoes and all the other accessories. And of course, black clothes always work to hide the pouch and folds!
8. Deal with your mindset!
After all is said and done, this is probably the most important bit of going back to work after a baby. You have to deal with your mindset and from two angles.
First is the mummy guilt and I know a lot of women go through this. They often feel like they’re not acting in the best interest of their child. But truth is, so long as you’ve sorted childcare and put relevant checks in place, your child will likely be fine! You’re also a person on your own that deserves to do your own thing. So fret not.
The second mindset to approach is your work mindset. You may think because you had a baby, you can’t give your best or your organization is likely to sideline you or that they’re doing you a favour by keeping your job while you were away. Let’s ditch that last one first - a number of people take gap years (to find themselves), travel breaks, sabbaticals and are welcomed back to work with open arms - many firms even believe that they’re stronger candidates as a result of these experiences. In the same way, being a mother actually makes you such a better worker. It’s a shame we may not be able to expressly put the skills gained as a result of being a mum on our CVs. – talk about time management, organization, empathy, can-do attitude etc. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is an absolutely brilliant book and there’s a chapter where she says being pregnant or having a baby is not the time to hit the brakes; sometimes it’s the best time to press on the accelerator!
I know it can be a bit daunting for first time tums especially, but hopefully these tips help and you smash it!
How much maternity leave did you take? Did you return to work or not – what was your experience?