Going back to work after maternity leave can be a time of mixed emotions for many women. For some, it can be difficult, and for others, it’s exciting.
While many new mothers may look forward to getting back to their jobs, it can still be a challenging time. Aside from the logistics of organising a date to return and childcare, there may be many other worries: What if I’ve forgotten how to do my job? What if my job has changed? And how will I juggle commuting, childcare, dinner and work?
It may take time to settle back into working life and get used to being away from your baby, but there are tips and advice to make the transition easier.
Explore flexible working
Asking for a phased return to work over the first few months can help you gradually get back into the swing of things at work. It’s worth speaking to your employer to discuss options - you may be able to use your annual leave to work a shorter week for the first month.
If you’re worried about a long commute, your employer may be open to you working from home from time-to-time, or working different hours. All employees are entitled to request changes to their hours of work, days or work or place of work provided they have been with the company for at least 26 weeks.
“Returning to work after maternity leave - balancing a career, childcare and family time - can pull you in several different directions at once,” says Angharad Salazar Llewellyn, founder of The Flex Network which connects freelancers, small business owners and flexible workers.
“One way to help balance family and work life is using flexible working options such as adjusted or compressed hours, working less days per week or regularly working from home if your role allows.”
Negotiating a flexible working pattern can be intimidating, Llewellyn adds, so it’s worth seeking support from others who have navigated similar situations. “Joining a group like The Flex Network means that through a range of events, a weekly newsletter, a Facebook Group and Instagram there's always someone you can connect with to ask for advice or meet for a coffee or wine,” she says.
Plan ahead and don’t make assumptions
Nicola, 40, from London, was working in the charity sector at an equality-focused organisation when she became pregnant. “I naively thought the choice to return from maternity leave on reduced hours would be my own. So it was a shock to the system when I put in a flexible working request to work part time or as a job share and it was turned down,” she says.
“The small charity I worked for claimed they simply couldn't accommodate my request and that my senior role could only be done full time. That was a smack in the face and I walked away.
“Fortunately I eventually found work elsewhere, but searching for the right roles, submitting tailored applications and going through competitive interview processes was a huge challenge as I approached the end of my maternity leave and statutory pay had run out,” Nicola adds.
“My advice would be not to make any assumptions about your return to work and to have those conversations with work about your return as soon as you feel comfortable doing so whilst on maternity leave. That way, if your plans don't work out, you have time to make new ones.”
Nicola says she also found it helpful to be certain about what her bottom line was in terms of her working pattern. “For me, it was maximum four days per week, preferably three,” she says. “This helped me to stay focused when faced with overwhelming prospect of job hunting and the roles that tempted me into applying in the hope that I might discuss flexibility at a later stage.”
Plan regular reviews and ask for help
Making sure you have regular updates with your manager can help you work through any issues or concerns you have at work, particularly if you find yourself struggling to settle back in. It might be worth reviewing your career goals after you’ve been back for a few months, to make sure you are on track and where you want to be.
That being said, it’s important to go easy on yourself - it can be daunting to go back to work after months away, as well as coping with new motherhood. It’s normal to experience a dip in confidence, particularly if there are new projects going on or the workplace has changed. It’s important to ask for help or advice if you need it - it’s natural that you may need updating or filling in.
It may sound obvious, but making sure you are prepared for any eventuality can help alleviate stress. It’s a good idea to have a contingency plan. Who will step in if your baby is sick or you get stuck at work? Knowing where to turn can help you feel calmer.
Planning your day-to-day routine will also help you get in the habit of managing work and caring responsibilities. Think about how long you’ll need to get you and your family ready in the morning, what time you need to leave the house and prepare things the night before.
“When thinking about going back to work, remember to be realistic,” says Hester Grainger, founder of the Mumala Club, a PR and social media collective for women in business. “You might have had a job which had long hours, lots of travel, involved being on call or working shifts – but it might not be that easy now you are a mum.
“If you haven’t then you’ll need to look at different types of childcare. You may think you only want your little one in a nursery whilst you are at work, but the homely environment of a childminder may suit your baby better. Or you may have had your heart set on a childminder, but you need the flexibility and continuity of a nursery setting.”
Don’t forget self-care
It’s absolutely fine to turn down after-work drinks or live off batch-cooked dinners or freezer meals, if that’s what makes life easier for you. When you’re pressed for time, self-care becomes more important.
This might mean reading a good book on your train commute, or joining a gym near your office so you can do some exercise on your lunch break. As difficult as returning to work might seem, it can bring back routine and a sense of normality - and it can boost self-esteem and social inclusion.