Ready to return after Maternity leave? Or dreading the thought?
When I was asked to write a blog on my experience of returning to work post-maternity leave my immediate response was “Of course, no problem!”
As soon as I started to type the words however, a feeling of anxiety swept over me.
‘How honest should I be?’ I asked myself.
‘What if I’m too honest and people view me as being less capable, less focussed, less professional or less open to work?’
The anxiety intensified.
Pausing to reflect on all the conversations I’d had with people in exactly the same situation, I realised that my experience and the feelings that go with it are not isolated to me. I know that a lot of women have the same fears and anxiety, but don’t share what they are feeling which means that they don’t get the support they need.
So here I am, an open book…
From the day I started contemplating returning to work, I realised that my feelings were steeped in deep imposter syndrome. I felt confused and uncertain about so many different aspects which seemed so clear to me before I fell pregnant, such as:
- My value (what I have to offer and what I am worth)
- My capability (both as a parent and in a work capacity)
- My ability to make decisions (about going back to work, about childcare, and about the type of work I do)
- My ability to share my opinion (to know what my opinion is, and to trust it)
- My knowledge (what do I know, what have I missed, what don’t I know)
- My ability to balance and juggle everything (how do I commit to a job when I also now have a baby?)
In short, I sat there wondering can I still do this? And can I do it well?
Suffice to say my confidence was definitely diminished.
Beyond these concerns, there were other smaller worries like:
- Am I awake enough to take this all in?
- Will I fall asleep in a meeting or suffer from total brain fog?
- Will people still take me seriously if I am searching for the right word and it doesn’t come straight away?
- Am I going to be called out for baby brain and not being sharp enough?
And with all these further concerns whirling around in my mind I started fearing that this would impact other people’s opinion of me for the longer-term.
Now don’t get me wrong I knew friends, family and colleagues who had spoken about the impact of maternity leave on their confidence and their careers, but I still didn’t expect to feel like this.
Clearing the Fog
I have always been confident about my work, my capabilities and knowing that I am good at what I do. Thinking back to before maternity leave, I felt certain that this confidence would not change. Also, as I’m self-employed I only took four months off for maternity leave before I returned part-time, so I didn’t think that in what seemed a fleeting moment, my confidence would be impacted so much.
Needless to say, and as described above, the reality of returning to work post maternity leave was very different to what I expected. The fog was thick, and I struggled to see a way through.
It was hard, I felt like a fraud for quite a while. My brain just didn’t seem to want to operate in work mode anymore. Things like writing reports; I knew all of the information but couldn’t quite get my brain in gear to string the right words together in a coherent sentence. The result was I procrastinated a lot in the beginning. If I thought I couldn’t do something as well as before, I literally didn’t do it until the deadline was looming, putting off feeling like a failure.
However, as I started to get the work done and the fog began to clear, I discovered that although it might take a bit longer, I actually still knew what I was talking about, and I could deliver. And now after a year, I’ll openly admit that some of those feelings and concerns are still there, especially that worry of finding the balance of work and personal life and whether I am actually doing justice to either, but they are just not so strong or as impactful. And, they are not causing me to doubt myself or hold myself back from being the best version of me!
In reflecting back on my journey and on the journey of others who I’ve coached as they’ve prepared to return to work post maternity leave, there are a critical few things that help reduce fear and boost confidence:
1 – Positive Reinforcement – taking time to think about what you know you are good at reconnects you with the knowledge and talent that has been buried under nappies and the deep desire just to get a full night sleep. Remembering past positive feedback, reflecting on achievements and successes and why they were successful, and talking to peers, colleagues and family about what they believe are your strengths are all great ways to remind yourself of who you are and what you’re capable of. For me, and others I’ve supported, this simple act of reflection was a really good booster of confidence. It is amazing how much we forget when on maternity leave and how much we might have not heard previously about what our strengths really are.
As an added recommendation, if you are reading this before you go on maternity leave then I would suggest that you take some time before you stop working to write down everything you like about your job role, what you view your strengths as, and what you have achieved in your career so far. Also ask some people you are close to across your work and personal life to write you some feedback on your strengths and successes and the positive impact you have had on them. Put your own reflections and the feedback from others in a sealed envelope. Don’t read it until you are making your arrangements to return to work. It will help you to be more confident in your return.
2 – Just Do it – like others, I learned first-hand that procrastinating actually heightens fears of not being capable whilst simultaneously added pressure. So, try to make sure you don’t put things off. Create a plan and set deadlines, even if those deadlines are only for you. As for my own experience, I never ceased to be amazed that the tasks I was putting off were never actually as daunting or as time consuming as I originally thought. So, my advice is, be like Nike and ‘Just Do It’!
3 – Ask Questions – initially I thought I’d better not ask any questions, that’s a sure way for people to know that I don’t understand something or that I am not confident about what I am doing. When talking to a coaching client who was preparing to return to work, I realised that one of the reasons she was so successful prior to being pregnant was because she did ask questions. She consulted with people and got all the information she needed, never feeling ashamed that the act of asking revealed that she didn’t know everything herself. Through the simple act of asking questions, we also open ourselves up for support and we remind ourselves that we can still rely on the expertise and support from others.
4 – Build Support Network – some workplaces have the return from maternity leave support nailed, others do not. As someone who was self-employed and without the level of company support that others might receive, I realised that as much as I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling with my confidence and that I had all these uncertainties, there were a lot of parents out there who had done this before me. So, I took time once a week to speak to someone in my network who had been on maternity leave and returned to work. Their stories, insights and advice were invaluable, I felt less alone and more confident that I could continue to build my career. Whether through the support of peers, a coach or others, building your network helps us learn that we don’t have to do this alone and that we can ask for help both across your personal or working life.
5 – Remember it’s ok to make mistakes – I made a mistake in the first couple of months of going back to work. It impacted a client, and I immediately thought the worst. I believed ‘this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have baby brain.’ I assumed that the client would not want to work with me again. But I owned my mistake, I was honest this was not an error I had made in the past and that it would not happen again. I realised that the error was due to a miscommunication, and it could have happened to anyone. The client was understanding and accepting of the situation, in fact they renewed a contract for my ongoing support stating that they had finally ‘found someone who knew what they were doing’. Even before having a baby, we all make mistakes. That’s how we learn. Owning them and using them to help us improve is a critical part of life and so if when you return to work things aren’t always perfect, own it and then use what you learn to continue being the best version of yourself.
6 – Be honest when you are not having a good day – a coaching client I worked with stated that she felt worried about saying when she was not functioning at her best. Through exploring what was behind this she quickly realised that it was important to keep clients and peers aware of situations that impacted her ability to deliver. This wasn’t about making excuses; it was about being human and being honest about the fact the reason she was yawning was because she only had two hours sleep and not because of the topic or the presenter. So, whether it is due to sleep deprivation or an emergency trip to the doctor, it is best to be honest with those around you so they can understand why on a particular day you are not 100%. What you’ll discover is that people are more empathetic than you would imagine, because the vast majority of others around you have been there!
One last thing
A fact that is so easily forgotten as you plan to return to work and start juggling even more things than before is that for the period of time you have been on maternity leave you have been doing the most important job of your life. It’s a job that you have received no training for. There are no set processes or manuals on how to raise your baby, and in fact when you get into a routine and find something that works, your little bundle of joy then immediately changes what they want. That’s right, this is a job you are literally making up as you go along, and YOU are doing it. You have learned how to adapt, react and respond with the minimal input from the little person you are supporting. So, take some time to reflect on all you have achieved as a parent during your maternity leave and how you’re still sane enough to read this post!
This article has been written by one of The Purposeful Leader’s team members, Lisa Brennan. Lisa, The Parent Career Coach™, is an experienced HR consultant and certified coach, she is also a parent.
Having provided many parents with advice on parental leave and supported coaching clients with balancing being a parent with their dream career, Lisa decided to set up The Parent Career Coach™, with the aim of providing more targeted advisory services and coaching packages to parents as they prepare for their baby arriving, are returning to work after parental leave and beyond.
Lisa also offers consultancy to organisations on all aspects of supporting parents in the workplace, from parental leave and pay policies, to returners support, programmes and coaching packages.
If you or someone you know could benefit from support on their return from maternity leave contact Lisa at email@example.com