Before motherhood, I loved my job. I willingly put in long hours and massive amounts of effort and commitment to do a good job. I travelled regularly, took work home and derived a lot of satisfaction, pride and also a sense of identity from my paid work. As the arrival of my son approached, I couldn’t imagine not returning to work. I joked that I would probably be bored at home and would want to be back before my year of maternity leave was over.
I was so wrong.
There’s just no way to know how you’re going to feel once you are a mother. This transition is much greater, deeper and more significant that any of us can anticipate. We all experience it differently but one thing is for sure, we are no longer the same. The transition to becoming a mother and moving through motherhood is called Matrescence, and it involves the complete transformation and identity shift of a woman – nothing is left unchanged.
Matrescence involves a shifting of priorities and values. It takes us to a higher level of awareness and a different perspective on life. Suddenly, what was happening in the office didn’t interest me in the slightest and after 12 months of maternity leave, I extended it to 18 months which was when I decided to start my own business to give me the flexibility of staying at home. So my return to work was not a return to the same workplace, but rather embarking on a completely different way of working.
Whether you are returning to the job you previously held, starting a new job or completely changing your career, returning to paid work can bring up so many worries, challenges and emotions. Even if you love your job, returning to it can be difficult. Because you are not the same. Your life is not the same. The world does not perceive you in the same way (there are many stories and expectations of mothers in modern society).
If you are struggling to find your way in this area, please know that you are not alone and it isn’t because there is anything wrong with you. You’re finding it hard because it is hard and I’m bringing you this 2 part blog series, to share some strategies and encouragement to help you support yourself and your family through the transition.
Joining me for this topic, is Diana Cregan from The Back to Work Roadmap for Mothers. Diana specialises in helping mothers get back to work after staying home to raise their children. Together, we have answered questions from the More to Mum community to help you feel more empowered, calm and confident about your transition back to work.
1. What can I do to make my transition back to work easier on myself and my family?
Diana: From a practical perspective, it’s about spending the time to anticipate where the challenges and hurdles will be. Some of them are intuitive but many are not and so it’s conversations with friends and colleagues who have made the transition back and asking them, how did you prepare? What did you not foresee? What would you have done differently? And so on.
Once you have an extensive list of all the possible things, you can then start to plan for them. It’s when something unexpected and unplanned for happens that we may become ‘derailed’ but if we have done plenty of thinking and preparation, when something does happen, we already have a plan we can put into action. Of course, you can’t plan for everything but there are many things which can be planned for. For example, it is inevitable your child will get sick. What will be the process if that happens? Who will be contacted? What arrangements will you make with your partner about whose turn it is to collect? Whose parents can be rung? It’s important you and your partner have come to an understanding and agreement about how this will work.
Another really big one is working out, starting now… well in advance of returning to work, how you can delegate more house work, meal preparation, shopping and so on. And not just to your partner. Start to think about how you can very slowly (but very surely!) increase the capacity of your children to become increasingly capable and independent beings. Yes, there will definitely be a lowering of standards early on, but with repetition skills get better and better. There are lots of terrific online (free) tools and templates you can use to create chore charts, reward charts, whatever you need (and it may take a few different approaches to find the right one) but persist because the beneficiaries are not just you but also the children and your partner (if there is one)!
Louise: Check in with your expectations and the stories you’re telling yourself about returning to work. Look for any that aren’t supportive and rewrite them to be more realistic and empowering. For example, are you expecting yourself to simply add paid work to your load, and continue to keep on top of everything else? This is very unlikely and adjustments will be necessary. Are you expecting that your children will adjust quickly? Expect that they may need time to adjust to being in care and separated from you. Lower your expectations where necessary and remember that you don’t need to be perfect or do everything.
Consider a period where you let some lower priority things go, so that you can focus on maintaining your wellbeing and supporting your children through the transition as everyone adjusts. This may mean easy dinners, cleaning a little less often, or making sure you have quiet weekends for a while so you can all reconnect and recharge. Go to bed earlier so that you are not so sleep deprived, because everything is harder when you’re exhausted. Be prepared to give yourself plenty of grace, kindness and compassion.
Lastly, identity what’s most important to you through this transition. These priorities can include things like making sure your children feel safe and connected, finding supportive routines for your family, taking care of your anxiety, being present at home after work or maintaining your healthy eating habits. Let your priorities guide where you allocate the most time and attention and bring you back to what matters most when you feel overwhelmed.
2. How do I deal with the guilt about leaving my children in someone else’s care and missing out on things in their lives?
Diana: This is a very personal question but for me, it was about understanding that my children needed more than just me. Social engagement and play with other children in different environments is something kids thrive on and it’s incredibly important for their own development. Further to that, again for me, I knew I was at my most energised and happiest when I was going to work and fulfilling that side of my life. Before I had children I was multifaceted with a professional identity as well as personal one. Whilst having children is an extraordinary journey, I missed my professional identity, so re-connecting with that gave me back the opportunity to explore fulfilment beyond the home.
Louise: Modern society tells mothers that they should be the primary carer for their children 24/7 and yet it also tells us we should be financially contributing to the household. These two expectations are at odds with one another and this creates a situation where mothers are judged for staying at home with their kids and they are also judged for returning to paid work and putting their children in care. We’re also told that we should always put our children’s needs before our own, which is tricky if you are going back to work because you love it and want it for yourself. We can’t win when comparing ourselves to the unattainable, socially constructed perfect mum and this creates a lot of guilt. So rather than compare yourself with this myth, focus on your own values and priorities.
Guilt is a normal human emotion and it tells us when we need to check alignment in our lives. Is returning to work in alignment with your own values and priorities? Do you believe it is important for you to have a career? Do you believe there are benefits for your children?
Remember, it is also ok to feel sad about missing out on things. It makes sense, so don’t push this away. There are always pros and cons to every situation in life and it is normal to feel contradictory feelings at the same time. You can love being at work AND miss your children. You can wish that you were able to stay home with them AND decide that returning to work is best for your family. Let the feelings be there. Journalling or talking to a trusted person can help you process these feelings.
Finding the right care for your children can help enormously. Services like Toddle or The Nanny Balance (in Australia) can help you find the care that feels right for your children, as well as asking for recommendations and of course, visiting in person to meet the carers and get a feel for the environment. Trust your intuition – you know what’s right for your child. Research shows that children benefit from multiple attachments, so when other people care for your children it allows them to develop these relationships.
3. I’m worried I’m going to miss out on seeing my friends and extended family. How do I make time for these relationships?
Diana: Having clarity about why you want to go back and why it is important to you is essential. And so is understanding what going back to work looks like. Perhaps it’s not full time, perhaps it’s part time of casual. Only you know what you would like to do.
If time with friends and extended family is important, then making sure this time is dedicated and scheduled will be helpful. Having a regular time for friends in your calendar (i.e. every Thursday afternoon or coffee after gym session on Saturday mornings) as well as regular family catch ups (monthly / quarterly – whatever works for you) is also important. Rather than trying to feel like you are working towards work life balance, think of it as work life integration. It will never be a perfect 50/50 balance.
For many women also, an aspect of their social life is partially met by being at work. Reconnecting and having conversations with other adults in the workplace provides stimulation you won’t get from your friends or family. Neither better nor worse, just different, and potentially very rewarding.
Louise: Your availability will look different, but if seeing friends and extended family is aligned to your values and priorities then it’s about getting creative and doing things differently to stay in alignment. Maybe you can call your best friend for a chat every Wednesday evening on the commute home, invite your sister to join your family for dinner once a fortnight, arrange for your mum to pick your children up from childcare and spend the evening with you all or invite your friend to join you for your usual Saturday morning walk. Even sending your loved one a message on your way to work to remind them you are thinking of them and ask them how they are is a great way to maintain connections when things are hectic. Remember some periods will be busier than others, so be prepared to flex as needed, and keep checking in with what’s most important right now. If needed, have an honest conversation with your loved ones and explain that you might be in contact a little less as you manage your transition back to work. Your people will understand.
That’s it for Part 1 of this two part series on returning to paid work. Read Part 2 here.