Halcyon days of staring at baby, cake, Netflix and midday naps are how I expected my maternity leave to pass. And while I did spend an inordinate amount of my statutory mat pay on carrot cake and halloumi wraps, it was much, much harder work than actually being at work. No one at work expects me to wake up every hour of the night and rock back and forth on command. People let me go to the toilet alone. I had a whole hour in the middle of the day where there were zero expectations of me and where I could just go and eat food with two hands and cutlery and wearing a dress that I didn’t need to think about boob access in.
They did however, expect me not to have changed.
Returning to paid work after having a baby is a bit like going back to school after the school holidays but with a bucket of anxiety and horribly high expectations thrown in.
Most will have kept in touch with their teams while away, either by Email or by using the set out Keeping in Touch days. These are designed to ease mothers back into work and are paid as a normal working day, even if you just go in for a meeting, which is important to remember!
Personally, I started worrying about my return to work around three months before I was due to return. My concerns centred around the fact I lived so far from my work so had a four hour round trip on a train service which had been called “the worst in the country”. I had to be prepared to not see very much of my daughter at all.
I could not take my role part time. I was editor of a daily publication which also carried a monthly magazine and put on events. Unless there was an option to job share it would not have been fair on my team to leave them without a manager for two days a week. I instead applied for flexible working, arguing that if I worked remotely two days a week I could communicate better with staff in China and the US. It worked, I was granted flexible working full time hours which eased my burden somewhat.
But what I found supremely difficult was that becoming a mother had changed me. My changed circumstances meant that I struggled to determine my role on my return.
Whereas before I had been known to work extremely long hours in order to push out publication of specific reports, I could not bring myself to do this on my return. This was both because I no longer lived 20 minutes from the office and because I knew that every extra half hour meant time not spent with my daughter. Even with the flexible working I was not seeing her nearly enough.
My team had changed while I had been away. The new members had been regaled with stories about my no nonsense attitude. I was the boss who threatened to kick someone down the stairs (obviously a joke) for turning in below-par copy. I was the boss who took the entire team to the pub for the afternoon on slow news days, the boss who encouraged my team to network at events until the early hours, who filed copy on the sidelines of industry parties at 4am, who encouraged team members to face fears like being in front of the camera or speaking in public by throwing them in at the deep end.
I just wasn’t the same person. I was more empathetic, I just wanted to get the job done in the hours allotted to me. I worked more efficiently without the bluster and ego.
These experiences are personal to me, obviously. But I think that had I made the most of the keeping in touch days it would have been less of a headfuck when I returned.
I also found continuing breastfeeding while working very hard. My work were not supportive at all and it meant sneaking off to pump and dump in the work disabled toilets – also used as the pooing toilet by several non-disabled male members of staff – which was horrible. It put me off expressing. I would go whole work days not feeding then rush home and feed all night. So I think if you are going to continue to breastfeed that pressing for adequate facilities is really important.
I didn’t last long in my role. After three months I switched to working solely on the monthly publication as a freelancer, from home and just two days a week. For me, it was the best decision I ever made, but it was a real leap of faith and had I not retained the magazine work we would have struggled financially.
I would counsel anyone returning to work to be aware of their rights. Be aware of what you can ask for, and what your options are. Be secure in your choice of childcare, make use of your keeping in touch days and, if relevant, make definitive decisions on breastfeeding. Be prepared.