11 months ago I embarked on my biggest adventure to date when I gave birth to my little boy, Oswyn.
Maternity leave is great isn’t it, (let’s be honest)?
All those playdates, coffee catch-ups and baby classes. So the thought of coming back into the working environment after a period of time out of the action is daunting for anyone. When my time came, I felt remarkably calm. That is until the night before my return, when in a restaurant having dinner, I sat watching the funny, happy little boy in front of me and the reality I wasn’t going to spend my days with him hit me.
A truly gut-wrenching feeling, I went home, picked up the latest copy of Gurgle (which coincidently had an article on preparing yourself for returning to work) and devoured it.
But, I’m one of the lucky ones. I was returning to a supportive team of very lovely people who have made the transition something of a dream. I have been eased back in gently, granted a staged return and given the flexibility to get to grips with balancing work and home. (Oswyn and his Christmas jumper even made an appearance at our office Christmas lunch.)
I know the experience I have had isn’t universal. A friend – who is returning to work in the New Year – is anticipating a very different experience following a less than supportive response when she announced she was pregnant. Sadly, legislation may have our corner as working mothers (to a point, but that’s a different discussion), yet the workplace doesn’t always easily follow suit.
So how can we take control of our experience and what can we learn from each other in order to make it a positive one?
Anticipating the worst
Like many things, the thought of returning to work can be the biggest hurdle to climb. A mum I met through a baby class suffered such anxiety at the thought of going back to work, she had to delay her return.
For some of us, dealing with the anticipation is a bit like tearing off a sticking plaster. It’s best just to jump in and get on with it, and for me, that really was the right approach. Once we had gotten through that first day of nursery with a smiling baby at the end of it, my mind eased somewhat and I was able to enjoy the time I spent baby-free and using my brain in a work capacity again.
But, if like my friend, the anxiety is more than the anticipation of dread, then seeking help and support is a must. Whether you turn to your employer’s HR department or GP, talk to someone about how you are feeling. This in itself may relieve the feelings you are experiencing. You could explore the possibility of a staged return, work one or two days a week initially and build up to your regular hours. For more intense feelings of anxiety, your doctor can assess the situation with you and suggest a range of steps, including talking therapy if needed.
Managing all the guilt
“After Alice, I had a long break of almost 18 months so when I did return I was ready to get back into work, but this time was very different. I went back after 12 months, which I know is a long time compared to some mums, but I wasn’t ready at all. I felt like Matthew was too young to go to nursery. I was feeling nostalgic and the guilt was much worse this time.”
Hayley, Mum to Alice aged 3 and Matthew aged 15 months.
Feeling guilty is perhaps one of the things that come up most on parenting forums when discussing this subject. Ordinarily the guilt stems from leaving our babies with a nanny, family member or in a nursery, but actually, the guilt can manifest in other ways too.
“What surprised me a bit was the guilt I felt. Not the guilt about leaving my son, but the guilt about enjoying my time away from him! I spoke to other mums who were really struggling leaving their children when I was practically skipping out of nursery as I dropped him off; eager to bag a newspaper, a good seat and half an hour of quiet time on the Metro to work! I love being a ma-ma, but I also love being the person I was before I had children, and returning to work has allowed me to be that person again.”
Joy, Mam to Sam aged 19 months.
These feelings are all completely valid. If, like Joy, returning to work allows you to express a sense of freedom and individuality, embrace it.
But, when it comes to actual feelings of guilt linked to leaving baby at home, no one has summarised the reality of that guilt, and moving on from it, more succinctly than Louisa Syminton-Mills, founder of Citymothers:
“The only thing I know better second time around is that the guilt, the awful, heart-wrenching guilt of leaving a tiny, dependent baby at home, not to mention his talkative toddler sister, will become less prominent in time. I was tempted to say that the guilt fades but actually, I’m not sure it does fade, more that routine and practice mean I am able to handle it better as time passes.”
Build your circle of confidence
When I set about thinking about this blog, I had been back in the office a few days and had arranged to have lunch with a colleague, Cath, who had returned to work a month earlier after having her second child.
A day or two beforehand, I had the misfortune of dealing with a contact (someone I’d worked with frequently in the past). He has a reputation for being difficult occasionally and this particular day was evidence of that. The experience frustrated me. I froze, was astonished at his attitude and demeanour – almost as if all prior knowledge of how he works and how to deal with him had exited my brain with the upload of ‘how to care for a small child’. I felt almost completely incapable of dealing with the situation, which in reality wasn’t a huge deal, but had grown into a minefield in my brain.
Over lunch, I mentioned the incident to Cath and she explained:
“It’s a circle of confidence shrink. Having a baby gives you total focus on one small thing that doesn’t move very far. Therefore your circle of what is normal and what you are confident and comfortable with decreases as your focus moves from many balls at differing levels to just one.”
Cath, Mum to Isabella aged 4 and Sam aged 18 months.
She had hit the nail on the head. The following week, I had to travel to London for work – just the process of preparing for a day of meetings and the three-hour commute had a huge impact on building my circle of confidence. I could do this, I had been doing this for almost eight years, I had got this!
For me, these three emotions have defined the process of returning to work. Almost three months on I’m preparing to increase my hours and while I’ll miss the extra day with Oswyn, I feel alright about it. He is happy and settled in a nursery and loves the days he spends with his nana. Work is an exciting place to be, I’m enjoying working on some brilliant projects and feel like my opinion – on items over and above eco-friendly nappies and which flashing toy is best – matters. There’s just one final thing that I’d like to add – go shopping and get a haircut. It sounds trivial but will help put you in the right frame of mind for a fresh start and was the best nugget of advice to come out of that Gurgle article.