Going back to work after parental leave
Feelings of uncertainty, separation anxiety and guilt are all very normal for someone who’s returning to work after parental leave. As if being a new mum or dad isn’t challenging enough, going back to your old job is likely to create additional pressure.
There are some steps you can take to help you and your baby prepare for, and manage, the change – both to take care of the practical details, and to support your emotional and mental health.
Adjust yourselves gradually. If it’s possible, a couple of weeks before you return start leaving your little one with whoever will look after them while you’re at work for a couple of hours at a time. Then increase this to a half day, then a full day. This will help your baby become accustomed to being in another environment with other people, and ease you both into being apart.
Rehearse your morning routine. Establish what your new schedule will look like. Test out when you need to wake up in order to get everyone washed, dressed, fed and out of the house on time, factoring in possible emergencies such as last-minute nappy changes! You can then make adjustments where you’re cutting things too close. Rehearsing will also give you the chance to experience some of the emotions you might feel when it happens for real.
Set expectations with your employer. It’s a good idea to discuss upfront what your needs will be, and what’s going to be possible from their perspective. You might want to explore whether you can do a phased return, or adjust your hours and duties, for example. If you’re breastfeeding, you need to know where you can pump and store milk. If you or the baby have any special needs, such as health issues following the birth, your employer will need to be aware of these and what the impact might be.
Stay in touch with your colleagues, too. Maintaining a good relationship will make it easier to reconnect, communicate, and iron out any tricky moments when you’re back. Be as open as you can about what’s been agreed with your boss, and why.
Once you’re back, give yourself a break. Even if you feel under pressure to ‘make up time’, have a cup of tea, eat your lunch, and chat to colleagues. You need to sustain yourself and rest if you’re going to have the energy to do everything you need to do without getting burnt out. Take time for yourself outside work too. Do something you enjoy away from your family that helps you recharge and connect with yourself. Don’t forget to fill your own cup!
Don’t ignore your feelings. Tired, frustrated, guilty, unsettled, distracted, anxious… Everyone has a different experience of working parenthood, and the important thing is not to push away the feelings you have, or tell yourself that you shouldn’t be having them. Acknowledge them without judgment, for example: “I’m feeling very insecure right now.”
Reach out to others when you’re struggling – including other parents at work, as well as your friends. You’ll probably face some challenging times, for example when the baby is teething, or if there’s some sleep regression. It’s important to know you’re not alone, and to ask people how they managed in the same situation.
Aim to be totally present. It’s easy to feel like you’re juggling madly, and never doing anything properly. Whether you’re at work or with your child, give all the focus you can to that moment. At work, listen and respond to your colleagues, and when you’re at home turn off your work phone. Try to do one task at a time. This will help you achieve a healthy work/life balance and to set boundaries.
Be kind to yourself. Think about the way you talk to yourself. If this is self-critical or harsh, take a moment to notice. Is this how you would speak to a friend in your position? Or would you be supportive and reassuring? Review your own expectations, too. For example, is it realistic to have a tidy house 24/7? Adjust what you demand from yourself according to your priorities, and what’s achievable right now. This will change as your family grows, so take it week by week, rather than trying to plan months ahead.
Don’t assume what others are thinking. You might presume you’ll be treated differently when you return – perhaps that colleagues will feel resentful that you’re getting ‘special treatment’, or that if you go for a promotion you’ll be discounted. Be aware that this is your own internal narrative, and you can’t read others’ minds! Challenge your thoughts – is there any evidence that they are true? If you’re worried about something, talk about it with the person concerned.