Being a mum is a tough gig, both at home and at work.
Whether you’re returning to work by choice or financial necessity, you are returning to work as a changed person. You headed off on leave as “the pregnant one” and now you are returning to work as a mum.
For the lucky ones, the transition back to work is smooth sailing. Others find that returning to work post-maternity leave is a whole new ball game. Adjusting to a whole new reality is difficult.
Returning to work: the one consistent word…
I’ve spoken with numerous women about their transition back to work, and one word kept coming up: “isolated”. And ” feeling like less part of the team”.
“Pumping [breast milk] at lunchtimes makes me feel socially isolated…. I don’t get that chance to sit and chat, as I’m locked in a small room with only the whirr of my Spectra as company.” Maddi, 27yo mum of 2
Charlotte, a 32-year-old mum of two, returned to work, but soon made the decision to work from home. This left her feeling “very isolated”.
“Professionally, I felt that I was really pigeon holed. I had been at the top of my game and now descended. All because I was a mother.”
“Now it’s a struggle trying to keep the balance….[and] I have no ME time”
Our mums agree, returning to work can be very isolating and sometimes feel like you’re starting a completely new job!
“After being off for a year, everything has changed! I’ve come back to work knowing only three people.” Amy A, 33yo mum of 1
Sometimes returning to work isn’t a choice
Some mums return to work for their sanity, while others need to head back for financial reasons. Regardless of the reason, if we aren’t returning to work feeling totally committed, it really sucks.
Becoming a parent changes who you are
Parenthood moulds and shapes us. You go from being a woman to a mum, and with motherhood comes enormous responsibility. After all, you are in charge of your little person’s life, their health and happiness.
When we become a mum, we evolve into a version of ourselves we never knew existed. Our hearts fill with so much love and our homes fill with so many dirty nappies. Our priorities change, our expectations change, our behaviour changes. Heck, we change.
We discuss poo. We talk cradle-cap. We chat freely about so many oddities we once cringed at. What’s happened to us?
Of course, we want to talk about these things. Because once we become parents, these grotty topics are our reality.
For this reason, there are going to be friendships (fostered pre-motherhood) that will flourish or flop. It might mean being left out of group texts. Maybe you’ll stop getting invited out for post-work drinks. Maybe colleagues will scoff at the photos of your kids on your desk.
Unfortunately, this happens when we are already feeling vulnerable. Not only are we dealing with returning to work, juggling parenthood and a career, but we’re also desperately trying to fit back in with colleagues. All the while trying to regain that sense of belonging that we had previously.
“Returning to work was the hardest thing…. Socially, it was even harder. I’d spent six months hidden away… forgetting my own sense of self.
It was hard to suddenly connect to my colleagues and pick up friendships. I only had my daughter to talk about, really. I was very conscious of being ‘that’ type of mother.” Emma, 28yo mum of 1
Do we expect too much of ourselves?
Returning to work brings with it the expectation that we can “pick up where we left off”.
Justine Alter and Dr Sarah Cotton, psychologists/ directors and co-founders of Transitioning Well explain:
“Being present at either work or home is a challenge with many women feeling that they aren’t doing anything well.
It is not uncommon to come back with enthusiasm, energy and willingness to excel at being a working mother. But the realities of sickness at daycare, ‘fake part time’ where women feel like they are working 5 days for 3 days pay, lack of confidence and the pressures of juggling family and work become too hard.”
Maddi’s 16-month-old doesn’t sleep through the night, so Maddi is also not sleeping through the night. She worries that she is unreliable at work. This pressure has made Maddi feel “really insecure”.
“I’m just exhausted…. I feel like I’m letting the team down.” Maddi, 27yo mum of 2
“I can’t give every facet of my life 100%, and that’s okay.”
“I struggle with my own self judgement – why can’t I be content with being a stay at home mum? [It is] just a manifestation of ‘mum guilt’.” Elissa, 31yo mum of 2
Parenting duties don’t stop when mums return to work, they just change.
Returning to work means that a job now has to fit into this new life we have.
“It became a mental overload…. Anytime my son was ill and I had to leave work, I felt…. like I was an unreliable worker.” Angela, 30yo mum of 2
After the kids played up at the supermarket, Angela broke-down crying. Her three-year-old asked, “Why are you sad, Mummy”?
“I felt like a total failure…. You get to a point when… you’re just broken.
I have learnt to let some things go and start looking after myself too. No one benefits from a tired, cranky mum and wife.” Angela
“I am struggling…. with the tiredness, the guilt, the pressure…. I’m wondering whether I have made the right decision [about returning to work].” Amy A
For Mum-of-two Daniela, returning to work “was just another ball to juggle”.
Luckily, it isn’t this way for everybody!
Justine Alter and Dr Sarah Cotton have coined the term “boss lottery”. “Almost every woman who returns to work will say their experience, be it positive or negative, was largely due to their manager’s support or lack thereof.”
It seems that a bit of support truly can go a long way.
Daniela now loves her job. After a friend referred her to a medical reception job, she has found her transition to be surprisingly positive.
“The people I work with are amazing….They are so understanding if I need to take time off for the kids. We swap shifts to help each other out. We are all mums so we understand each other’s situations.” Daniela, 30yo mum of 2
While it’s hugely important for mums to receive support from their employers and colleagues, returning to work can sometimes be the wake-up call we need to check in on ourselves.
“When I started to prioritise my own self-care… I stopped feeling like I was constantly filling everyone else’s cup…. Filling my own cup first, so to speak, helped immensely.” Jesse