Returning to work after maternity leave

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It’s the moment of truth. The bliss (or boredom) of maternity leave is over and it’s time to return to work.  Balancing a new baby and the all too familiar responsibilities of work can be difficult and you'll find that 24 hours in a day may not seem enough.  The biggest adjustment that new mothers face is the challenge of time management.  Going from being a full time mum to a full time working mum means you will need to find a way to combine the needs of both roles, often with little sleep and little time to relax and do things for yourself!  It's not ideal after a long eight hour work day, but for working mothers, your job unfortunately doesn't end at 5:30pm.  Once you get home, your duties as a mum take over.  It can be a very difficult, stressful and exhausting transition and may require a change in the way you would usually think and do things.

Having already (hopefully successfully) dealt with the change of having a new child, you will need to be ready for plenty of other changes on the horizon. Things like less time for yourself and your partner, lack of sleep and an overall increase in exhaustion, possible emotional distress both from missing your child and from the guilt of having to leave them at day-care or with someone else. You won't be able to stay back in the office or take work home with you anymore because your job as a mum starts once you pick up your child from day-care.  A short window of time is available for meals, bathing, bedtime and the preparations needed to start it all again the next day. 

However, it's not all bad news.  New mums who return to work will find some satisfaction in being around adults again, having the opportunity to socialise with colleagues and to be a part of work events and projects. 

The key to getting your career back on track after maternity leave is convincing your co-workers that you are still focused on the job. Unfortunately, sometimes this means being careful not to talk too much about your new baby or about how happy or exhausted you are.

What you can do to be on top of things:

1. Gradually return: If possible, you can negotiate a gradual return to work either by working part time or working less hours a day.  Speak to your employer about available options and when in doubt, refer to the Right to request flexible hours policy introduced in Australia in 2010. This policy has been designed specifically for new mums wanting to return to work.

2. Make Lists: If you weren’t a list-maker before you had a baby, you’ll probably become one.  Think realistically about how long it will take you and your child to get ready in the morning. How long do you need to shower and dress? Do you have to get yourself together before your child wakes? Or can he amuse himself in a playpen?


Brainstorm with your partner. Make sure you both have time to get everything done and be on time to work. Be explicit about who will dress, feed and amuse your child. You may prefer to divide up tasks, or take turns each day.

Write down the exact time you need to be up, dressed, fed, and out the door. Work backwards from when you’re due at work, leaving plenty of room for traffic or a lingering goodbye with your child. Set your alarm accordingly, and get out of bed when it rings!

3. Consolidate Work and Home Calendars: Even the greatest day-care centre/nanny will be unavailable sometimes. That’s why it’s important to have a single calendar with key work obligations as well as family appointments. While you’re scrambling to get a sick kid to the doctors, you will know which meetings you need to cancel or find a colleague to cover.

4. Prioritise Ruthlessly: Tackle the most important things early in your work day. That will leave fewer loose ends when you get called to pick up a sick kid at school.


Working mum, Laura Yang is a big advocate of prioritising. “Working mums are brutally efficient -- we have to be. I can honestly say I worked harder and more efficiently then ever before and after I returned from maternity leave after having my first daughter. I also found that I didn’t get involved in office politics at all, I had enough on my plate so I really really enjoyed my work”.

And brace yourself: the first few months of daycare are usually punctuated by colds, fevers and ear infections. The only silver lining is that minor illnesses strengthen your child’s immune system.

5. Manage Expectations: Every role/company/boss is different so ascertain an appropriate approach to ensure colleagues understand that you won't be in a position to stay back or take work home anymore.  Discuss this with your direct Manager in detail so you both are on the same page and ‘softly’ educate your colleagues. Remember that your working agreement is nobody’s business but your own.  Should a fellow employee be applying pressure or passing remarks that make you feel uncomfortable, talk to your manager.  If you’re up for it, confidently reply that you get your work done in the working day.. and smile. It will be difficult at first but once a habit is set, you'll find colleagues will work with you within the working day and stop making unreasonable demands.


6. Get a good night's sleep: Your first week back will be a draining and exhausting experience  no matter how prepared you are so go to bed as soon as possible each evening.  Organise back up plans that may involve speaking to family members or a trusted friend who can help you pick up your child in day care if they suddenly become ill and you can't pick them up right away.


7. Prepare and organise everything the night before: This includes lunch, milk bottles, clothes, shoes, nappies etc. for your child and what you'll be wearing the next day. This will prevent instances of having to return home because you've forgotten something which can make you late for work. 

8. Food glorious food! Stock up on travel-sized breakfast foods like muesli, yoghurt and cereals which are easy and quick to consume during any rushed morning you may have. Always allow extra time in the morning for unexpected events such as dirty nappies or a tantrum.

9. Reward yourself: After all this planning and transition, you deserve a treat. Plan a reward that will help you get through the first week back at work. Maybe it’s a manicure/hair appointment or coffee with your best friend. Or even spending a Saturday morning in bed with your baby to reconnect after being apart all week. You deserve it, and it will help refresh you for the second week back at work. Don’t forget your partner either, keep communication going as this will help to keep you both connected and maintain a healthy, happy relationship. 


Going back to work after maternity leave is hard and for many women, there is a significant feeling of guilt towards their child because they have to leave them at day care. 

“Probably one of the biggest surprises for me was that my child loved day-care. I was never expecting that.. I guess I always looked at it as a negative thing whereas it turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Her confidence, social skills and positive experiences grew from nearly day one.” Laura Yang recalls of her daughter's  early experiences.

It's crucial to remember that you shouldn't expect yourself to be superwoman and you need to allow yourself bad days - it happens!

Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you are guilty.

That’s the most important bit of information that any working mother needs to absorb.


If you know that going back to work after having children is the right decision for you and your family, you can rest assured that you’ve made the right choice. But even mums who are confident in their decision to return to work after having a child still struggle with working mum’s guilt. You can’t be all things to all people. Once you’re able to grasp your limitations, you’re better able to manage your expectations.

Good luck!