Surviving your Return to Work After Maternity Leave

Amanda Alexander

Amanda Alexander

Surviving your Return to Work After Maternity Leave
Anyone who has been ill for a week or so knows that the return back to work can be unsettling to say the least. The feelings of the first day back at school for the new school year come flooding back – “What has changed? Will I be teased? What will people say”?

It is hardly surprising then that returning to work after maternity leave is for many women, traumatic. When I carried out a survey in October 2007 of working mothers, respondents, a huge 69% out of the 257 respondents said they felt anxious about their return to work.

Why is this? Well, not only do you have to face the fear of the unknown, there is the emotional upheaval of leaving your baby, the adjustment to your new role as mother, the organisation required to even get out of the house and the worry (“will he be ok without me?”), the guilt (“am I a dreadful mother for leaving her?”). You also have to deal with the process of ramping up to work mode. The inventory of stress factors could go on, and I am amazed that this major period of readjustment is not amongst the “top causes of stress” along with divorce and moving house.

So, here are a handful of tips for a smoother and less angst-ridden return to work:

Kick the Guilt Habit
Guilt is often associated with returning to work after maternity leave, and it can be a major “stress factor” for mums. You may have guilt about going back to work, or you may not. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume you have experienced some guilt, as it is my experience that an “extra strength” version of guilt is delivered soon after the placenta. And then we get used to guilt as a feeling so we automatically load ourselves with it – it becomes a habit. Guilt is generally evident when there’s a gap between expectations and reality. So for example, if you have an expectation that you pick up your child from nursery at 5.15pm, yet you don’t finish work until 5.30pm (the reality) then you will make yourself feel guilty. Try listing down all the things you feel guilty about and then look at your expectations versus reality. This will help you to put guilt in its place as a nasty side effect of motherhood that you can train yourself to keep in check!

Nothing is forever. However bad you feel on your first day back at work, it will not feel as bad in a month or a year. It’s a truism that change happens in life, but the sooner we learn to accept that nothing is forever, both the bad and the good, the calmer and more resilient we become. Change is part of life, and this change from being with your baby 24/7 to being away from him for perhaps more than half those 24 hours will pass too. It’s not forever. If you hate your job, try giving yourself a time limit. Tell yourself that you’ll do the job for, say another 3 months, and then re-assess. Put that date in your diary so that it’s real, and treat it as a “probationary” period.

Often, women returning to work feel ambiguous about it. Sometimes I get clients coming to me who say “I’ve got no choice about working”, and I always challenge this. You live in the Western World, where we have freedom and rights as women and so many resources that we generally don’t notice. You always have the will to choose. To help you understand more about the power of choice (and make you feel better!) ponder on the following 3 questions: ” What choice am I making right now about work/life? ” What are the payoffs (benefits) that I/my family gain from this choice? ” What do I need to think about if I want to choose differently from my current path? Once we realise that we always have a choice, we immediately reduce that feeling of being a “victim” to our circumstances. Understanding your ability to choose, no matter what your situation, is very effective in helping you to feel in control of any situation.

It’s OK to be Average
This isn’t the time in your life to be setting yourself huge goals like running a marathon or starting an MBA, nor is this the time to sweat the small stuff like dusting the furniture more than once a fortnight. Use the time instead to read a trashy novel, meditate, crash in front of the TV.. Whatever does it for you! You’ve just returned to work – that’s enough of an achievement. So settle for “OK” for now and cut yourself some slack!

Putting it into Practice – Tricia’s Story
One of my maternity coaching clients, Tricia Parkinson (not her real name!) exemplifies the reasons why many women turn to professional coaching to guide them through this period of transition.

Tricia wrote:
“I started coaching sessions with Amanda because I was deeply unhappy with having to return to work after maternity leave and faced career upheaval and possible redundancy with a company restructure. I felt torn about leaving my child, uncertain about the future, and I totally lacked self-confidence in the workplace after being at home for a year. I felt it was important to explore my options before making any irreversible decisions.”

Tricia and I spoke on the phone three times a month for a period of 3 months, and in between she emailed me sharing her progress, her challenges and her breakthroughs. Together, Tricia and I got to the heart of what she really wanted, what was preventing her from getting it and the options (sometimes obvious and sometimes less so!) to achieve her redefined vision for her career, her family and her life. I set Tricia exercises to help her to get clear about who she really was, her redefined priorities and values, and to “play with” new and more positive ways of being.

Tricia said of her maternity and return to work coaching:
“Coaching has given me a quiet space to review my life and work out what makes me feel happy and secure, and a renewed confidence in my skills and abilities. I feel happy again and with the decisions I’ve made.(…) I got a much better understanding of myself as a result of my work with Amanda.”

When we face periods of transition, the temptation is to throw everything up into the air and bring in even more change. Sometimes massive action is what is needed, but more often than not, you don’t have to make dramatic changes to experience dramatic results! Baby steps (pardon the baby related pun!) are the order of the day for new mums feeling unsettled and anxious about returning to work.

Tricia told me:
“I probably had a misconception at the start of the sessions that I needed to make dramatic changes to my life, but I came to realise that (for me, personally) I simply needed to acknowledge what I loved about my life and make it work better for me and my situation. I haven’t made any big life changes as a result, but I know that the choices I have made since coaching have been well-informed ones and all positive. And I feel that I’m doing the best I possibly can in my home life and at work, and that I don’t have to be perfect.”

You don’t necessarily need a coach to help you to do this. If you do, you know who to call (:!), but if you don’t, then start by getting yourself a notebook, giving yourself a quiet space to reflect, remember that you DO have a choice and that nothing lasts forever.

Finally, remember that right now, you’re on a journey of new motherhood so extraordinary, so awesome, that you don’t need to do anything else to prove yourself to yourself or to anyone else. Just allow yourself to live each precious moment.

©Amanda Alexander of Coaching Mums, 1st October 2009 All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or copied without the express permission of the author.

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