(Let me preface this by saying this isn’t a blog about whether or not you should return to work. There’s countless pieces of advice out there already, and to be honest, it’s a decision only you can make. What I will say is that if you decide to return to work, don’t feel guilty about doing that. And if you decide to stay at home, don’t feel guilty about that either. But make sure you support other women in whatever choice they make; there’s enough judgement out there already so let’s all be nice to each other, yeah?!).
So, you’ve decided it’s time to go back. Whether it’s after 3 months, 6 months, a year or several years, whether you’re itching to return or not sure how on earth you’re going to cope, it will always feel like a big deal.
I’ve ‘returned to work’ twice now. Both times I’ve felt so many emotions that I’m amazed I’ve managed to maintain some semblance of being a normal human being. It’s astonishing what we go through in that first year of motherhood, and, having spent so much one-on-one time with our little ones, that we suddenly and abruptly have to give that up and go back to work. Acting like this is ALL NORMAL is definitely one of the bigger things we have to deal with.
The first time I went back, it was in at the deep end. I somehow managed to combine my first week at work with moving house. I was only working four days, and we were meant to move on the Friday, my day off. Of course, it being my FIRST WEEK BACK, it soon transpired I needed to attend a v important meeting on the Friday morning (welcome to the world of ‘part time’ work mummy!). So, I worked my first morning off, ran home, moved house, and drank copious amounts of wine that evening to cope. I would not recommend this as the best way to restart your career post mat-leave…
The logistics of moving house while returning to work meant childcare was also a little tricky to say the least. Luckily my mum was able to help, and I swear having her on board for those first few weeks made it all feel a lot less stressful. I hadn’t left my baby’s side during mat leave so the thought of leaving her at all was pretty shocking. Gradually breaking myself in by leaving her with mum before she went off into the big wide world of nursery definitely eased the pain.
The first few months were, without a doubt, brutal. My brain had slowed down while on mat leave, not in a bad way, but my job is pretty fast paced and I’d enjoyed the opportunity to take life a bit slower. I’d got used to a gentle rhythm, being outside a lot and walking everywhere (I lived in central London at the time and had one of those babies that screams every time they’re taken on a bus so, it was easier for all concerned, and especially my sanity, just to walk).
I hadn’t really appreciated how different it would feel to be back in an office. I’d worked for years before going on mat leave and assumed I’d pick it back up easily. But it turns out that time off changes you in many varied and fundamental ways. Before having kids, I was happy to work late every night if needed. It didn’t bother me that I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk. Drinks after work were normal, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a hangover at work at least once a week (hump day drinks are a killer…).
On returning to work it was a different story. I was torn between wanting to prove I was still me, still as ambitious and dedicated to my job, and desperate to get home to my daughter. I’m not going to lie, there were several times where I ended up sobbing in the toilets. A lot of late night conversations with my husband about whether we should sell the house, move somewhere more affordable and I’d give up work (thank you, husband, for indulging me in these particular fantasies. I needed to know it was an option to eventually work out it wasn’t the option that was right for me – and us). It was hard. It felt brutal at times. I’d worked long and hard to forge out my career, and now it no longer felt like it belonged to me. I felt very lost.
But it did get better. I started to fall in love with my job all over again (i appreciate this is only valid if you like your job to start with…). I found some sensible tips for coping, like putting my out of office on to say I didn’t work Fridays. (I know, ridiculous right?! I wasn’t being paid to work Fridays, but was too scared to say I didn’t in case people didn’t think I was as committed). My daughter settled at nursery, and seemed to love it, sometimes more than being at home which was unflattering, but definitely something I should be grateful for as it made everything much easier!
I’ve just gone back to work a second time and found it much easier. This time I started slowly – 2 months of doing a day and a half a week has broken me in gently and it’s felt like a much smoother transition all round. But I also know how to handle it. For what it’s worth, if you’re worried about going back, here’s what got me through:
- Buy new clothes. For the past couple of years you’ve lived in maternity clothes and then mum uniform (aka stuff you don’t mind getting baby sick on). Buy something deeply impractical that you’ll never dare hold your baby in for more than a few minutes.
- Buy a new work bag. For the last however-many months a change bag has been the only bag in your life. Treat yourself to something lovely.
- Get a kindle. Read a book on your commute (unless you drive, in which case this is a terrible idea, please ignore me!!). Remember how much you liked reading before you had a baby?! Well, now you can read again. Even if you are jammed up against someone’s armpit while you’re doing it.
- Get a coffee. Sit down. Drink your coffee. All of it. While it’s hot. This is why we go to work.
- Go to the toilet by yourself. Enjoy.
- Do not feel guilty about finding time for yourself. When I first went back I spent every waking moment I wasn’t at work with my baby because I felt so guilty about leaving her. This is madness. Everyone needs some time out. Take it.
- Refuse to ever, ever enter into any debate about who has it harder, stay-at-home parents or working ones. Someone will say something that will make you feel like the worst person in the world and you’ll end up crying and planning your resignation letter all night. Or you’ll say something that will really hurt someone who’s chosen not to go to work. All parents are doing the best they can. Only you can know what choice is right for you and your family. Good luck!