I had the opportunity last week to talk to over 20 lovely Mummies and their babies, sharing my thoughts and advice about returning to work after you have had a baby, based on my own experience and what comes up in conversations with clients all the time. Here, I share some of what I talked about.
As I sat down with a cup of tea and started to think about what I was going to say, I began to reflect on what I think defines me - is it the career I’ve had for 20 years, or my two lovely boys. As you would imagine, the answer for me was that its a bit of both - the two became intertwined when the boys came along and always will be now.
Back in my 20s and 30s I had the “big job” that I had dreamed of in London, I worked hard, played hard and got promoted quickly. Then I got married and wanted to start a family. But, as for so many people, it wasn’t plain sailing and it took almost 4 years and a lot of fertility treatment to have George, my first son. When I look back now, it was crazy, I was sneaking off to Chelsea & Westminster in between meetings for really invasive treatment and then rushing back and still doing ridiculous hours.
It was at this point, even before I had George that I realised my career as I viewed and interacted with it was never really going to be the same again. Things would inevitably have to change, however we ended up having a family, and would continue to change all the time as I had one baby, and then two. And as I am finding out, this doesn’t stop as they continue to grow and need different things from me and my husband. To be honest though, it took me a really long time to get my head around that change, what my heart and my head were telling (which felt hugely conflicted) and what my options might be for balancing my career and family life.
If I’m honest, I probably spent the best part of 5 years wrangling with a really strong sense of pressure about managing my career and family life that was in fact totally self-inflicted. Now don’t get me wrong, I was and still am extremely fortunate because I am not the main breadwinner in our family, I have a choice about whether or not to work, and I know for many women, for whatever reason, that is not a choice. But actually, in my experience, whether your return to work is optional or a necessity, a lot of the emotions you experience, choices you need to make and challenges you encounter will be the same.
So, in my own experience, and through my work with clients, there are 3 main areas around balancing motherhood and a return to work that come up again and again: Confidence, Choice and Change.
“Not everyone will understand your journey, that’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of, it’s yours”
Every single mother in the world will at some stage in those early months feel just about every single emotion under the sun - excitement, apprehension, happiness, loss of control. Some will be dying to get back to work and get something of their old life back, others will be totally happy being at home loving their new life. Others still, like me, will be feeling the pull of both and not sure which way to go. It can feel like the “self-talk” going on inside your head is a constant source of conflict, which can become very unhelpful if you are also feeling worried about where life is going to go after the 4th trimester phase. I’ve got a couple of bits of advice for this one:
Share how you are feeling. You aren’t meant to have all the answers. It could be your partner, it could be friend, your Mum. All this conflicting emotion can be a real blocker in feeling confident about how life is changing and sharing what you are experiencing with someone else can make a massive difference! I still have my NCT friend who it transpired was going through exactly the same roller-coaster of indecision that I was, and we still support each other in dealing with work life balance and family life almost 8 years down the line.
Don’t fall into the comparison trap! We live in a world now where we see people’s carefully curated lives on social media. Also, as new Mums, we usually tend to find a new set of friends and acquaintances who are all also new Mums. This can undoubtedly be of enormous support, as in the point above, but it can also shake your confidence. You may have already experienced it with baby-related things but you can equally experience it as people start to talk about their post-4th trimester plans. I know people who have determined the amount of maternity leave they are going to take based on the benchmark of what someone they consider to be a role-model has taken and regretted it as they realise what they and their family needed was totally different.
Everyone experiences motherhood in a different way, and everyone has different views of how they would like to live their life, post-babies. Work out what it is that is right for you and your family, and be proud of it.
“Trust the next chapter because you are the author”
If you don’t need to go back to work and you don’t want to, that really is OK. Similarly, if you want to go back to work soon after having your baby, that is also totally OK. It’s your choice and it’s your story.
So many mums I work with have spent a huge amount of time and energy worrying if it is OK to take a longer break after having a family - how it will affect their career and how they plan if actually what they want to do is something totally different. The reality is, from a career perspective, we all experience ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs, its totally natural. Your career, just like your life, is a series of chapters. Seriously, take it from me, as someone who has made a career chapter, and could probably write a whole book, over agonising about this, if you really don’t need to go back to work or it doesn’t add up financially, and if every fibre in your being is telling you not to do it - don’t.
Actually, the brilliant thing about this chapter in your life is all the new possibilities it creates further down the track. The world of work is changing, the traditional view of a career is changing from the expectation of the traditional corporate or public sector track where moving up and earning more money were the ultimate goals, to one where a series of mini-careers, with well-spent breaks in between is perfectly ok. Little by little, flexible working, career breaks, gap years, enterpreneurship and mumpreneurs are becoming the norm.
And of course, who can ignore the current events pushing for female equality in the workplace. There are so many companies now out there to help women get back to work, in a way that works for them, even if they’ve been doing their job at home for 5 or 10 years.
The key thing here for me is, you need to be happy doing what you are doing. Give yourself the permission to do what is right for you and your family - don’t fall into the comparison trap - and if you are struggling to make the decision find someone who can help you work through the options.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new” Socrates
In the work that I do with my clients, I always say it will take about 6 months to get fully settled back in at work. Even if you are going back to exactly the same job in exactly the same office at exactly the same desk, a lot will be different and you will probably experience some kind of change curve that looks something like this.
Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to transition. Having a baby is a huge change in itself, and then returning back to work is another big change - it can feel like you are constantly having to readjust. Be aware of that and make sure you have the support you need from those around you to be successful.