As a mummy of three children, I have experienced the mélange of feelings and at times rollercoaster ride of returning to work after maternity leave. There were the obvious feelings of guilt about leaving my precious baby, but also massive worry about whether I could still actually do my job!  In the months after giving birth I struggled with stringing a coherent sentence together, so not surprisingly I questioned how an earth I would make a valuable contribution in work.  Now I’m not sure there is any magic formula to ensure a bump free ride when returning, however with every experience we learn.  When I was ready to return to work after my third child, the complexity of logistics increased but the emotional ride was certainly an easier road to travel.  What follows are 4 things I learned that may help to make the transition smoother.

  1. Prepare and plan ahead

In the first few weeks/months following your return to work, you are going to be tired and feeling a little out of control.  Returning to work is a big transition for you and your child so planning ahead can make the world of difference.  Simple things like choosing the outfit you are going to wear the night before, and having your baby’s daycare bag packed with spare outfits, favourite toys and snacks can make mornings a little less stressful.  It’s also important to leave extra time in the morning to get ready.  I remember many occasions when there was a nappy explosion or projectile vomit just as we were about to walk out the door!  The feeling of stress and panic at the prospect of yet again missing my first morning meeting was just horrible.  Factoring in an extra 30 minutes to account for these and other mishaps can help to reduce stress.

  1. Have a back up plan

When I returned after my first child, I agreed office hours to 5pm to enable me to travel across town and pick up my daughter before daycare closed.  Whilst 90% of the time it worked out, there were inevitably times when I was unavoidably delayed.    I quickly realized the importance of a good back up plan.  To minimize the anxiety of letting down colleagues and your child, create a list of contacts you can call on to pick up baby at short notice and in emergencies.  I was fortunate to be part of a wonderful network of local working parents who were on speed dial to help each other out.    Whether there are travel delays, office delays or baby falling sick, things will go wrong! Planning ahead and having a strong support network of family and friends really can make life easier.

  1. Communicate with your manager

Open and honest communication between you and your manager is important to establish mutual expectations about your return to work.  Starting conversations a few months before your return date can also help to prepare you mentally to re-enter the workforce.  Discuss any organizational and leadership changes that may have occurred, as well as any support you need to make a successful transition.  If you are hoping to return to a flexible working arrangement, take the opportunity to discuss flexible options and how you could make them work.  It’s also worth considering the possibility of a staggered return to work, perhaps returning 2-3 days per week initially if you are planning to return full-time.  A staggered return can help to make your transition smoother by allowing you to build up time away from baby gradually as you get used to your new schedule.

  1. Don’t expect too much

Before my first maternity leave I was working long hours and managing a function and team in leading US Investment Bank.  At 8 months pregnant I was promoted, hugely excited and hungry for success.  I remember thinking I’ll have a baby, take 6 months off and then just pick up my career where I left off.    I agreed a flexible working arrangement with 1 day a week from home, and whilst this arrangement worked well, the workload and the pressure I put on myself to achieve didn’t relax.  Every night I would put my daughter to bed then scramble for my laptop and tap away late into the night.   Not a sustainable situation! My advice when setting return to work goals is to be kind to yourself and be realistic.  You’ve had a massive change in your life, and it’s not sensible or pragmatic to expect to operate at the level you did pre-baby.  You will be sleep deprived, possibly surviving on caffeine and there will be days when you walk around in a complete haze. It’s ok if you don’t get the promotion you are chasing or achieve star employee in your first year back!  Give yourself the time and space to ramp up again.

Returning to work is challenging and requires a big adjustment for you and your family.  However, with careful planning, open communication and the support of a strong network of friends and family, it can also be an exciting opportunity to regain your professional identity and continue on your career journey.