1 year ago today, I was getting ready to come back to work after having my second daughter Peanut. 3 months before, I had finished work 3 days before my due date, I had put everything in order for projects to continue smoothly without me and I felt very confident. After all, I had done it before and it had gone smoothly. Boy, I was in for a rough ride !
1 year later, I am in a new job, working hard to rebuild my confidence and my love of business, after having experienced the most difficult setback of my career to date. There were tears, self-doubt, anger and fear, but there were also a lot of learning. I have spent the time to reflect and I wanted to share my experience with you, in the hope that it will help some of you out there. Because there is extensive litterature online about the difficulty of leaving your child, I will focus on the work aspect of my experiences.
- Maternity leave does not end the day you come back to work : it is actually a process, which can take weeks or even months. Young mothers who come back to work are often still exhausted, may be breastfeeding, possibly suffering from low body image, postpartum depression…All of this makes catching up an uphill climb : try working extra hours in the evening when your baby screams during witching hour, or you need to go to bed at 9 because baby is still not sleeping through the night. This is why coming back from mat leave does not compare to, say, starting a new job : it is incredibly difficult to double down in work to bring yourself up to speed when your personal life is so challenging. My advice to mums : do the best you can and don’t feel guilty. Self-love is essential in these moments to protect your self-confidence.
- Pressure to perform returns quicker than capacities to perform : At first, everyone is supportive and patient, asks you about your baby and does not pile too much pressure on you. But after 4 to 8 weeks, your coming back is old news and colleagues expect things to be back to normal. Projects, deadlines start to toughen but very often, young mothers are not yet back to their old selves. Expectations of work and capacity of the mothers don’t align and this can cause feelings of failure and fear in a fragile new mum, who a few weeks later is surely going to be back to her previous level of performance. I have no real advice here for mums but I do have one for employers : please take care of young mamas and protect them a little bit longer. The transition they have gone through is huge and it takes more than a few weeks to adapt.
- Be transparent to your boss : assuming your boss is not a sexist pig, the best thing to do is to be as transparent as possible about your struggles, so as to build his/her understanding if your performance dips. There is no point pretending if you are genuinely not coping, it’s important for him/her to know because if it lasts, he/she will notice it for sure. A better strategy is to communicate as openly as you can and enlist your manager’s help to manage your workload, reputation and colleagues.
- It’s not because it has gone well once that it will go well twice : Each child is different and so is each birth, each breastfeeding experience, each mat leave and each return to work. There is no magic recipe to do a “successful return to work” so remaining pragmatic and self-aware is essential to correct path if needed.
- Colleagues can be your best support or your worst enemy : A sympathetic mother or father may bring you understanding, protection and extra help. An indifferent colleague may be oblivious to your challenge and not adapt. A jealous co-worker may simply take advantage of your weakened position to hurt you and your career. Mums should use their best “sniffing” skills to notice the difference.
- Things will get easier : With time, you will get back to your old self. Sure, you may need to adapt your working hours, your organization, maybe your job, but the ambitious, hungry, sharp you will be back. Greet her when you see her and let her shine through !
Any other advice out there ? I feel that so much more could be done to help new mamas transition back to their career. Normalizing maternity leave is of course a positive step, but we should all lobby that it does not stop there. And if, like me, you are fortunate to be a people manager : take care of the parents ! Protect them, advocate for them, allow them their own pace in their own transition, in short, do for them what you would have needed for yourself when you were in their shoes !