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Safe Space #13 – How do I manage my return to work after a year on maternity leave?

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Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.

This time, the issue comes from a manager with a very relatable challenge: returning to work after a year on maternity leave.

What is the issue?

Dear Safe Space,

I’m just into my third week of work following a year on maternity leave. I’m the Communications Manager at a small arts charity. Until four years ago I managed a team of 3, and then sadly there was a restructure which means it’s just been me since then, until now. I’ve come back into my post with a new team member. They are incredible and pick things up far faster than most new starters, which is really helpful. And I’m surprised how quickly I’m remembering my management skills, which is a relief. So no real issues there. But I am starting to feel like I’m breaking under the weight of motherhood plus my job.

I’ve spent a year learning a whole new role with my baby, and one that has been way more difficult and important than anything I have ever done. I’m a perfectionist, and motherhood has challenged that over and over and over, on a daily basis. And it still does. It’s like getting up to a brand new job with a brand new set of rules every day.

Mother and baby

Now I’m back at work I have to juggle it all somehow and deliver on my work goals. I’m doing this while being sleep deprived, feeling out of my depth, out of the loop with work goings on and on shaky ground. I used to be really good at my job – and felt confident in my work. Now I’m not so sure. My role has always been extremely varied, and it’s never been a problem of not keeping up. But at the moment I’m second guessing myself all the time, which is costing me time I don’t have. My to-do list is enormous already, and I just worry I’m going to let everyone down. I’m worried I am not going to seem professional to my new team member or inadequate to my colleagues.

Then, to compound all that worry, I miss my baby when I’m working. And I’m worried about nursery. I’m worried about letting the ball drop – in either of my roles. I compare myself to Mum friends who seem to have sailed back to work with grace and ease and don’t understand how they’ve done it… I barely have time to scrape my unwashed mop into a Mum bun every day and I’ll admit it, I’ve worn PJ bottoms to Zoom meetings more than a few times. There is so much noise – so much to think about. I need some simple, practical advice to help me get through this transition. Help!

What our team say: 

Philly

And breathe ☺️. This is a huge change for you. A huge change on top of a whole mountain of huge changes that you’ve experienced over the last couple of years (not even mentioning the pandemic!). I can identify with everything you’ve said, remembering returning to work after I had each of my two children. I’d like to help you unburden the amount of worries you are feeling using a technique which really helped me. It’s called ‘identifying your self-limiting beliefs.’ These are unwanted and unhelpful ‘beliefs’ about ourselves which can impact our ability to achieve the things we want to achieve. For example, you mention worrying about letting everyone down, about letting the ball drop – these are self-limiting beliefs that have not (and may not) have happened and may never happen. But the intensity of these beliefs can be vast and stop you feeling at ease. Start by noticing when you hear yourself say them, or think them. Then, take a few minutes to look at them from a step back, allowing your rational brain to assess them and consider why you might feel like this. If time is tight, even simply calling them out can help. The next step is changing the narrative to one that is more positive. I did this by adopting a saying or mantra. Choose something that works for you and makes you feel good rather than adding to the worry and noise you mention. Something like ‘I don’t need to be perfect’ or ‘My good is good enough’. This sounds simple, but removing some of the internal blocks you have about failing and giving yourself a positive boost might really help you through this transition.

Doing my best spelled out in word tiles

Yvette

Thanks so much for taking the time to write in about this, and being so honest about how tough your return to work has been. I can name at least 10 friends of mine who have been through similar, so you’re not alone. Philly’s given some great advice on the work you can do on your mindset, and I’d like to continue that. You have experienced both of your ‘jobs’ individually and separately. Now you’re having to do them side by side. Your reality now is not the same as when you did them on their own. It’s unrealistic to compare what you used to do with what you do now. Consider that your achievements are not about being perfect in getting everything done – your output, instead focus on the outcomes (for both your jobs). Ask yourself, what achievable things can I do that would have the most impact? And not just at work, at home too. My best friend often tells me that if she can give her daughter 10 minutes of undivided attention and make her giggle each day, she’s won. When you’re in a work situation staring at tasks and projects that appear mountainous, take stock of steps you achieve on your way to completing the big goals. I know this is hard, but adopting a mindset where you focus on being effective rather than just efficient takes practise. You may want to try pinning down what’s really important to you in terms of outcome – both at home and work.

Anna

Hi there manager, I can totally relate to your situation, I felt very similar when I returned to work after my first baby. Something I found helpful was being flexible with some of the work tools/processes I used to use before maternity. For example, my to-do list. I came back from mat leave and my list grew and grew – fast. I began using Google Tasks to write each action down and then prioritise them daily. This meant I could easily move tasks from one day to another on my calendar as I invariably needed to re-prioritise. But it got too much and I couldn’t bear to look at it all on a screen, glaring at me. So I went back to good ol’ pen and paper – using an A5 notepad. It may have been lo-tech but it felt instantly better. Having something easily accessible and visual worked better for me at that point. After a day, I couldn’t fit my list on the A5 pad, so I moved to A4. A simple shift, but one that helped me take control of my time and see that I was actually achieving things. Take a look at your day-to-day processes and see if there are any changes you could make to help you feel in control. Finally, be kind to yourself, you’re only 3 weeks in after a year of doing something totally different. You have learned a lot about being a parent in such a short time. Give yourself a bit longer to settle back in, as you learn how to combine work with being a parent.

Charlie

Thanks for writing in about this important issue, and for sharing your struggles with us. My suggestion would be to share the load – both up and down. Sharing up means talking to your manager openly about your concerns. Help them to understand the worries you have. Set some expectations together about what’s expected from you (goals) and what you are able and unable to commit to now that you essentially have two jobs. Be realistic, and set boundaries as you need to. For example, if you’re unable to take calls at particular times of day make sure to contract that with your manager. Agree initial deadlines for your work goals, and set a regular meeting for the two of you to check in and review how things are going. I understand you’ve been at your organisation in your role for a long time, but you’ve also been doing something else for a whole year – it’s natural for you to need more support from your manager as you settle back in. Sharing down, means making sure you’re delegating what you can to your team (and other colleagues if possible). A simple but effective approach is to identify what you can’t delegate, what you can delegate and what you should delegate. Good luck!

two women talking at work

Laura

I really want to echo what everyone here has said: thanks for sharing. I know it seems like your Mum friends are not going through this with you, but I’ve seen it enough times to know lots of people coming back to work experience this kind of worry and pressure. When time is tight having some tools that help you to quickly assess what is important can really help. Yvette has mentioned a tool to help your planning, and Anna talks about prioritising by impact. I want to help you consider about ways to set boundaries and help you worry a bit less about how you are perceived by your colleagues. It’s also really important to set boundaries and expectations with your colleagues or stakeholders. This will help you with your priorities. In your day to day interactions – both at work and at home. I recommend using the influencing model called LIM. The LIM model was devised by Gavin Kennedy and stands for: Like, Intend and Must. So before your meetings, calls, conversations or emails use this to evaluate the results you want to achieve in those interaction. Start by considering what are the Must haves in this interaction, then the things you’d be happy with and finally the nice to haves. This could be around agreement on work deadlines, budgets or even childcare duties! Making this distinction – rather than heading into an all or nothing discussion – can take the pressure off and help you to be clearer on what’s important and what’s not worth worrying about.

What next?

If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on safespace@managementcentre.co.uk. While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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Philly Graham

About Philly Graham

Philly specialises in personal effectiveness, communications and management development. She is an accredited coach, action learning set facilitator and a CIPD Learning and Development Associate. Philly’s career has spanned...

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...

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Anna Esslemont

About Anna Esslemont

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlotte Scott

Charlotte specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlotte worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and implemented...

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...

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