This is part 2 of a two-part series on navigating your return to work. You can read part 1 here.
Welcome back to this blog series on navigating your return to work! Returning to paid work (even if it’s a job you love) can be a challenging and emotional experience. This is 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).
When you return to work you are bringing your evolving and transforming self back to a world that has likely not changed as much as you have, and figuring out a new way to operate in it. This can take some time, experimentation and adjusting. This two-part blog series contains 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 return to work.
Let’s dive back in!
4. I don’t feel as mentally sharp anymore and I’ve had a long break from the workplace. How do I overcome my self-doubt and feel more confident?
Diana: The self doubts are real but the disappearing mental capacity is not! I believe your brain has just been re-prioritising what is important so when you go back to work, you’ll be able to re-prioritise that too. It’s been far more important to remember the clinic hours of the local paediatrician than the functions keys for an excel spreadsheet!
There are actually some very straight forward exercises you can do help you remember all the things you know and remind you of how much experience you have had. You can download a worksheet to help you with this here.
The confidence comes from remembering what you were capable of as well doing it. Doing some simulated exercises around specific skill sets is a fun way to recall these things. Not to mention googling the activity – there is a YouTube video for everything!
Most importantly, you need to know with absolute confidence, that it is extremely costly for an employer to train an individual who has had had little to no work experience. So if you are going back to work with skills already learned (maybe you need some technical upgrading) from years of being in the workforce, even if it is simply understanding how your industry works, this is extremely valuable for an employer. There is massive benefit to employing someone who ‘has done it before’ than someone with no work experience at all.
Louise: While many mums feel that their brains are “foggier” than before motherhood, our brains actually get an upgrade in pregnancy! Extra connections and neurons are installed in the emotional centres of your brain, increasing your emotional intelligence and helping you protect, intuitively respond to and bond with your baby. Your brain also becomes learning ready, meaning you are equipped to be a better learning in all areas of your life (from “The Post Natal Depletion Cure“, Dr. Oscar Serrallach). So, you could consider yourself as being mentally sharp in a different way, rather than less mentally sharp.
The feeling of fogginess can also come from managing a massive mental load. Let’s think about just one task – packing lunchboxes for your children. This isn’t just one task for your mind to manage. It involves knowing what and how much each child will eat, considering their nutritional needs, considering allergy guidelines from the school, potentially looking for recipes, creating a shopping list, planning time to go shopping, doing the shopping, planning time to make the lunches, remembering to wash the lunchboxes beforehand, packing it in a cooler bag with an ice pack and making sure it ends up in your child’s bag. We are placing a lot of demands on our brains!
Look for strategies to reduce the mental load to free up your mental resources for work. For example, create systems and routines to make things easier, write things down instead of trying to remember them, make full use of your calendar and reminders on your phone and delegate whole tasks (including all the bits and pieces that go with them) so you can let them go completely.
Our brains respond and change based on the demands we put on them, so once you return to work, you’ll find that you will be able to put your upgraded brain to good use as it learns and recalls the things that matter there.
5. How can I ensure I’m taken seriously in my workplace, even though my priorities have changed and I may be working less hours?
Diana: What I am hearing here is a hope for respect and validation. Unfortunately, this is something you cannot guarantee, before or after having children. You cannot control how those around you react or behave. This is going to depend entirely on the nature of the people around you and their ability to communicate with you. Given that this is something you have absolutely no control over, it is far more important that you establish very early on, what YOUR criteria of success looks like. If your manager has communicated this then you will have their definition but it is also important that you have your own version (and hopefully the two are in alignment!). Disappointment is almost always unmet expectations so have very clear expectations of yourself, communicate these with your manager and regularly check in.
Louise: If you want to be taken seriously, you have to start with yourself. Whatever you believe about yourself will become your reality. So, spend a little time reflecting and / or journalling on what you believe to be true about yourself in the workplace and in your job. Also consider what you believe about the change in your priorities. Do you believe your contribution is going to be less? Do you believe that you should now stand aside and let others do the important work? Do you believe that you now have enhanced powers of productivity, efficiency, flexibility and relationship building? If you are confident about your contribution, others will be too. The good news is that if your beliefs are not supportive or empowering, you’re not stuck with them! What would you like to believe instead? What beliefs would help you show up to work each day ready to shine?
Remember you don’t have to be perfect to be making a valuable contribution.
6. How do I advocate for my needs, such as leaving early, changing my hours or needing time to pump?
Diana: Before starting interviewing or having conversations with anyone about going back to work, do as much research and have as many conversations as you can about what you think you might need in terms of flexibility. Talk to friends or colleagues who have gone back to work. Learn from others’ experiences. Then by the time conversations and interviews with potential employers come up you will be fairly aware of what you might need. Establishing boundaries (communicated expectations) well before you start is critical. There is the right time and place to have those conversations but be as well prepared as you can be before any serious conversations take place.
Louise: Just as it can be hard to speak up and ask for what you need in your personal life, advocating for yourself in the workplace might feel really scary. Maybe you worry you won’t be supported by your manager or organisation, or you don’t want to come across demanding or unprofessional. Perhaps you feel the pressure to keep your private and professional life separate. Something I have always shared with leaders I have trained or coached is that you are YOU at home and at work. A whole person with a full life. Sure, you might focus on particular things in each setting, but pretending to be someone else, or trying to keep these two parts of your world completely separate is going to be very draining.
Your needs are valid and allowed. Your employer may be the one paying your salary but you are also providing them value in the form of your contribution. This is a two-way relationship where you work together to get the best outcome. You’re always allowed to ask for what you need. It’s up to your employer to choose their response. Even if you get a “no” it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have asked. If you don’t ask, they may not realise what you need, so don’t wait for someone else to raise it.
When you are considering what you need, think about how it might also be beneficial for the organisation. If there’s a win for everyone or it’s going to help you be a more effective employee overall, then this is worth mentioning.
7. How can I make sure I still have time to manage everything at home and find some time for myself as well?
Diana: Time for yourself is absolutely essential and will help with ensuring a smoother return to work and goes a long way to a sustainable way of life. (Avoid burn out!) What looking after yourself looks like will vary from woman to woman but just like most other aspects of your life, plan it! Put it in the calendar every week (or day if you can) and something special with girlfriends monthly or quarterly depending on what you need. Time for your partner (without the children) is also super important. Remember you fell in love with this person before children and sometimes, it takes a committed and concerted effort to get back to that. Your kids will also benefit from your happy, healthy relationship in more ways than you can imagine.
Louise: Come back to what’s most important to you as you return to work. Are dust free window sills on that list? Is a perfectly tidy playroom? Allow the less important things to slide a little while you and your family adjust to your new routine. Or, as we mentioned in part 1 of this series, outsource, or bring in some help.
If you’ve been used to putting your me-time on the bottom of the to-do list, now is a great time to try a new strategy. You might be able to push through a tough week when you have an important deadline, but this is not a healthy long term strategy. The more pressure in your life, the more you need to look after yourself. In order to be effective at work and great parents and partners at home we need to be well-resourced. This means you are able to recharge and renew yourself enough to do what you need to do. Without any time to yourself to do the things that refresh you, you will eventually burnout, with nothing left in the tank.
Imagine you had a battery. We tend to recharge only to 50% before we keep on going. Over the longer term, this still isn’t supportive enough for our health and wellbeing, not to mention our relationships and work quality. Instead, look for ways that you can recharge yourself to 100% as often as possible. How you do this will be different for everyone but asking yourself “how do I feel right now?” and then “what do I need?” is a good start. Investing in yourself IS investing in your family and your job.