Whether it’s your first time, second, or third, returning to work after maternity leave can be a really challenging time. Not only are you trying to reestablish yourself in the workplace and regain momentum in your career, but you’re also trying to ensure your baby is content and comfortable in their new setup too, whether that’s at daycare, with a grandparent or caretaker, or split between yourself and your partner. 

There is so much I wish I had known when I returned to work after having my babies, from the brutal first daycare drop-off to battling with feeling like a total impostor – it’s an intense time and something I didn’t fully appreciate would knock me for six until I’d moved through it. Now with the wisdom of hindsight, there’s so many things I would have done differently. 

I sat down with Olivia Bath, CEO and Founder of The Women’s Vault, an organisation which helps professional mums return to the workforce after maternity leave, to ask her about this transitional period and what she had to say was completely enlightening. Here, she shares her best tips on how best to manage returning to work after maternity leave.

 

Prepare yourself and your baby before D-Day

The first time I returned to work after welcoming my oldest daughter, I got carried away with my new wardrobe aesthetic. I wanted to walk back into the office confidently and with a bang, and the best place to start was by kitting out a whole new wardrobe to align with my updated postpartum style. 

Or so I thought.

And yes, while that certainly helped bolster my confidence (when you look good, you feel good etc), I didn’t really factor in staying in touch with my manager or easing my baby into daycare with a bit of time up our sleeve (especially because she got hand-foot-mouth on my third day back at work). And for good reason –  I wanted to squeeze every last drop of my time left with my daughter. 

But when I did return to work, I can vividly remember second-guessing myself and my ability. I missed being able to do my job with my eyes shut, and while I would get back to that sweet spot soon enough, there is always a transition period. For me, that period looked like quietly weeping in the bathrooms because I missed my baby so much and felt like a sleep-deprived fraud who was terrible at her job. Spoiler alert, I wasn’t at all! I just needed a cheeky nap and another cup of coffee. 

According to Olivia, this is completely normal. “Understandably, less than one in five new mothers feel confident returning to work, and many barriers exist,” she tells me. 

To help better prepare yourself, she says there are a few important and proactive things you can do to better manage the transition. “Speak to your manager about organising keeping in touch (KiT) days, which you can use to reconnect with your team and stakeholders while also getting comfortable with leaving your baby in someone else’s care,” she advises. 

 

Get the morning routine down pat ahead of time

If possible, try to stagger your baby’s first day of daycare or care and keep it separate from your first day back at work. Trust me, from a mum who didn’t learn her lesson… twice

I stupidly didn’t do this, and as a result, it was such a massive, emotional first day (for me, not them! They were absolute champs) that I felt like I’d been hit by a truck by the end of it. Not to mention rocking up to work with panda eyes from crying after that first, heart-wrenching drop-off. 

From a logistical point of view, try and do a few practice runs of the morning routine (family wakeup, breakfast, getting dressed, driving to daycare, or handing over your bub to the carer – the whole gamut) ahead of time so you’re not figuring it all out on your first day of work.

 

Emotions are just as important as the logistics

It’s so easy to get bogged down on the nuts and bolts of what our return to work will look like that we forget to address the emotional aspect, too. From the drop-offs, pick-ups, packing the daycare bag and dealing with all the last-minute curve balls (hand-foot-mouth, gastro, impetigo, conjunctivitis. Pick a plague, any plague! They’re all coming your way), there are so many moving parts that you might miss dedicating some time and mental prep on the emotions of it all. In the lead up to your return, you’ll probably feel the whole spectrum of emotions from excitement to dread. It’s all completely normal! 

“One of the biggest challenges I see is that mothers often consider the logistics but not the emotional or mental aspects, so I recommend talking to your support network about this – friends, other parents at work, or a career coach,” Olivia points out. 

 

Face imposter syndrome head on and consider engaging a career coach 

Olivia recommends taking active steps in the weeks leading up to your return to boost your confidence and prevent imposter syndrome from wreaking havoc on your headspace. 

“Ask your manager to read any recent strategy or planning documents for your team or department, read some industry-based news or trends, and discuss things with your partner, such as who will collect your child if they are sick during work hours,” she explains. 

“Discuss your career aspirations with your manager after you return and be clear on how work can support you. Some women want to strive for a promotion; others are transitioning back to work one day at a time. A career coach can help you clarify what you want and how to communicate it clearly,” she adds. 

 

Map out exactly what your return to work will look like and set your boundaries right away

Olivia says clear communication from the get-go with both your partner and boss is the key to knowing what your work set-up will look like and future-proofing any unfairness with your spouse down the track. 

As we all know, it shouldn’t just fall on the mum to wade through the mental load of returning to work, so sit down with your partner and forecast the logistics and who does what – who will do the drop-offs and pick-ups? Who will do the sick days? Who will leave work when you get the dreaded middle-of-the-day call from daycare? Who will make dinner? When will you spend time together as a family?

If you want to negotiate a flexible working arrangement, Olivia says to go armed with a plan that benefits everyone. 

“Start by finding out which flexible work options are available at your employer or companies in your industry. For many women, this is the first time they will negotiate a change in their employment contract, which can be daunting. Make sure your request is a win-win situation for your employer and you and that you’ll be compensated fairly and not working on your day off,” she advises.

Olivia advises to be up-front with your manager about what you can and can’t do now you’re a working parent. Take the time to sit down and flesh out all of your boundaries – will you be contactable out of hours? Will you attend meetings after you’ve picked your child up from daycare? If you’re working part-time, will you put an out-of-office reply on your emails? By outlining your boundaries from the start, it will save confusion down the line and put you in control of what you’re willing to commit to. 

Olivia also says many women opt for a phased return to work to slowly acclimate themselves and their bub to the new set-up instead of an overnight baptism of fire. “A phased return is where you gradually build your hours over weeks or months. For example, you could start on two days and build up to four days over 12 weeks,” she says. 

 

Move your body to beat burnout

Self-care is an overused term, but if there’s one time you want to prioritise your physical and mental well-being, it’s now. 

“Returning to work can be fulfilling and rewarding and at the same time, challenging. A common issue in my coaching practice is women burning out within a few months of returning. McKinsey & Company research has found that the high prevalence of burnout in working mothers is partly due to the ‘double shift’ we do each day,” Olivia notes of the enormous workload we’ve completed before we even get to the office because getting a kid or two out the door before 8am is no easy task. 

“One of the most effective and simplest tools you can take with you anywhere is mindfulness, so check out one of the many apps (Smiling Mind, Calm and Headspace are some of the most popular ones) and get into the habit of using it. And exercise, even a 10-minute walk around the block once your child has gone to bed, can be a great tool for managing stress and burnout,” Olivia emphasises. 

I have long been an advocate for using my lunch break at work to exercise. Whether it’s a run or a barre class, using your full and deserved 60 minutes to reinvest back into your well-being is something you will never regret. As a parent, it’s hard to find time during the hectic work week to exercise, but if you make it a non-negotiable part of your day, even if it’s just once or twice a week, it will soon become part of your routine. 

 

Your best-laid plans will go in the bin… many times over

I don’t think anyone can quite anticipate how much the wheels will fall off in those first few months, so go easy on yourself and remember that all of these (unjugglable*) balls were not meant to be juggled alone. 

Say a resounding YES to offers of help, stock up the freezer with ready-made meals (thank God for Dinner Ladies) so there’s one less thing on your to-do list, and don’t beat yourself up about taking your sick days to look after an unwell bub because it will inevitably happen. A good manager will understand that kids get sick and there’s not much you can do about it. 

 

Don’t rush to make a judgement call 

Like any new situation, it will be an adjustment period punctuated with good days and bad days. Don’t rush to take your emotional temperature about your job until you’re at least six months in and can base the overall decision on a more extended amount of time, as opposed to wanting to throw in the towel and quit on your worst day (we’ve all been there!) But remember, one shit day shouldn’t overwrite the bigger picture. 

* Technically not a real word but I’m coining it because it captures the juggle-struggle of being a working parent.

 

By Bella Brennan