Edmonton HR manager Carol* was about to return to full-time work after a 10-month maternity leave.
“It’s my third child and third maternity leave, all with the same bank, so I should have the routine down pat by now,” she said. “But I don’t. I’m just as nervous as I was the first time.”
For my book, The MomShift: Finding The Opportunity In Maternity, I interviewed more than 500 women who all achieved greater career success after starting their families. How they successfully transitioned back to work after maternity leave was a large part of each of these conversations.
Whether you are a first-time or third-time mother, here are the tips I heard most frequently for making the comeback successful both at home and at work.
Expect to feel emotional. “After both my maternity leaves, I fell into a cycle of guilt,” said Jenny*, mother of two girls under six and owner of a Vancouver real estate agency. “I felt bad for leaving my girls at daycare but I also felt guilty that a part of me just couldn’t wait to be back with adults again.”All the women I spoke with mentioned the conflicting and often overwhelming emotions associated with their return to work, regardless of how long they had been on leave. “Whether it’s guilt, sadness, excitement or nervousness, expect to feel emotional and remember that lack of sleep and hormones make it all seem so much worse. Everything will settle down,” Jenny added.
Ease back in if you can.When Kristin* returned to her employment law practice after a year-long maternity leave, she was lucky to have the option of coming back gradually. “I had stayed in touch with the office and my primary clients during my maternity leave, but I was still really anxious about just jumping back fully,” she recalled. Instead, she worked her way back, starting with two then three days in the office: “By the time I was back to a full schedule, I felt ready to take it on.” If a part-time or flexible schedule is not an option, consider a less-formal way of re-engaging before your return date. “Our office culture is not conducive to flexible options.” said Beth*, an engineering consultant in Waterloo and the mother of twins. “Instead, the two weeks before my return date, I booked lunches with colleagues, key clients, my manager and direct reports. This let me gradually catch up on what was happening and practise getting the twins out the door, and let me remember what my old work-self was like – without a sudden shock!”
Invest in good childcare. Basic daycare in Canada ranges from $600 to as much as $2,000 a month per child, making childcare a huge financial hit for families that are often already stretched. Yet the women I interviewed who had older children and were past needing childcare consistently recommended buying the best childcare possible and considering it a career investment. “In the early years, my paycheque was almost on par with my childcare costs,” said Janice*, who today is a tenured professor and the mother of two sons in their 20s. “But my childcare choice gave me the peace of mind I needed to fully focus on my work when I was away from my boys.”
Arrange for back-up childcare. Start planning your back-up childcare options immediately, because you never know how soon you might need them. “Two months after my return to work, an unexpected snowfall closed our daycare, but both my husband and I still had client meetings to attend,” said Tracy*, a tax manager who is now the mother of two. “We were frantic. Luckily, a friend on maternity leave agreed to watch my daughter.” That evening, Tracy and her husband made a list of whom to contact in a childcare emergency and in what order. “We haven’t needed it since, but it’s reassuring to know that we have several back-up plans in place now,” she concluded.
Rebuild your relationships. Having children changes how you work. Many of the women I interviewed said they became more efficient and focused in the office. The idea of leaving your desk to chat with colleagues is that last thing that many new working mothers want to do, but it is an essential part of re-establishing your reputation and presence in the office. “I came back to work so focused on making the most of my time so I could get home to my daughter that I almost stopped speaking to my team unless it was work-related,” said Kate*, a PR account director and mother of two. “I thought I was being efficient. But instead, in my annual review I found out that I seen as less of a team player and not approachable. I advise all my working-mom friends to regularly take a walk around the office, join in for a lunch out or after-work drink – no matter how hard it can seem at the time.”
Get some help. During the transition period while your family is getting used to a new schedule, enlist some extra help. Ask family to deliver some meals or have a cleaning lady come weekly. Even a temporary investment in support can make a big difference in making your day-to-day working life easier and more enjoyable.
Go easy on yourself. When I asked my interviewees to reflect on their return to work, and what they would do differently, the most common response was that they would go easier on themselves. “I’ve learned that it is possible to enjoy work and enjoy your children. But only if you accept that some things will slide. Just go easy on yourself about it,” said Carol. “So I’m hoping my third return will be the best one yet!”
* Last names omitted for privacy.