The night before returning to work after Christmas, many of us feel The Fear; lying awake, mind buzzing, right at the time when we really, really need to sleep. But this is a just momentary quiver in comparison to the all-consuming, stomach-churning fear that some of us experience the night before returning to work after maternity leave.
Going back after two weeks off work is daunting. Going back after eight to ten months? Beyond petrifying. Though often tinged with excitement too.
Lying in bed, worrying that the alarm is set, wondering how to get everyone out to school and crèche and work on time. But also anticipating the reunion with not-cold coffee and the thrill of mid-morning conversations that don’t include sentences like “please stop switching on the dishwasher”, “don’t put that down the toilet!” and “Ok I give up, let’s put on some Peppa Pig”.
What causes the anxiety? Worrying about the baby settling in crèche, worrying about older children adjusting to a new mammy-lite routine, worrying about being late on the first day. And perhaps worrying about work itself – anxious that all the important “work stuff” we used to know has been replaced by porridge and Play Doh. Our brains are quite possibly mush.
I remember my first morning going back to work after maternity leave – excited yes, but nervous too. I felt as though I couldn’t quite remember what my job was or how I had been able to do it in the past. What if I never remembered how to do it? What if people asked me questions and I couldn’t answer? What if I couldn’t figure out how to switch on my PC? And most of all, what if they didn’t need me anymore?
My job had been shared by a number of people while I was out, and it was difficult to know exactly where I fitted in when I came back. Self-doubt crept in – if they had covered my work so well, were they wondering what I would do on my return – were they wondering if I should be there at all?
As it happened, of course the people who had covered my work were delighted to hand it back. And I did eventually figure out how to log in to my PC. And by that deliciously hot mid-morning coffee, I felt the fog begin to lift. The switch to open the “work” part of my brain had been clicked not long after the switch on my computer, and it all began to flow. Confidence started to trickle back, and then to flow too. It would be OK.
Armed with this experience, returning after my next leave should have been an entirely different experience, but of course The Fear resurfaced. I was more prepared this time – starting back on a Tuesday rather than a Monday and having a plan in place should the baby become ill during the first few weeks in crèche (see more: Seven tips for going back to work after maternity leave)
But my confidence levels at work still dipped for the first few days – perhaps this is inevitable, at least for some. I found that the following tricks helped me to reduce this fear and self-doubt:
1. Stay in touch with work while you’re on leave
This isn’t for everyone, but it worked for me. If I had cut myself off from work for six or eight months, I would have been immobile with fear as my return date approached. So I did the obligatory trip in to show off the baby, but I also stayed in touch with my boss via email – checking in every now and then to stay hello. And the same for the people who were covering my work – they occasionally had questions for me while I was off, and I was happy to answer. Not being completely disconnected made it much easier to come back; stomach-churning anxiety was greatly reduced.
2. Meet some colleagues for lunch
Think about meeting some work colleagues for lunch a week or two before you go back – this probably only works if you like your work colleagues, otherwise it’s a chore. I found it very helpful – I met two friends to catch up on the formal stuff and the not so formal stuff (by that of course I mean gossip – but that’s genuinely important for feeling reconnected to work too)
3. Stay under the radar
Give yourself time to settle back – leave your out-of-office response switched on for the first day, so that you have a chance to read e-mails and re-acquaint yourself with the world of work, before people start to look for you again. They managed without you for months so another day or two won’t hurt.
4. Don’t fake it till you make it
This is your one chance to ask questions, to admit you don’t have all the information. You’ve been out of the office for months; nobody will be surprised that you are out of touch with what’s going on at work and need an update.
Ask colleagues or your boss for a meeting to tell you what’s been happening on the work front (this time I don’t mean the gossip) – what projects are underway, what are the current big topics or problems, who goes to which meeting. Build your knowledge of the current status, and your confidence will follow. This is not the time to pretend you know what’s going on – ask all the questions you can.
5. Sit in on meetings
Take a passive approach for the first day or two – go along to meetings as an observer – mention that you’re not fully back yet but want to hear what’s going on. Depending on your line of work, this is a good way to build up knowledge and confidence before being asked to actively work on deliverables. And when one half of your brain is still focussing on whether or not you included your baby’s soother in her crèche bag this morning, it’s quite nice to sit in on meetings without being an active participant.
6. Redefine your role (or not)
Meet your boss and ask for some guidance – knowing what’s expected of you will remove uncertainty and build confidence. Should you be aiming to slot back in where you left off, or is this a time to make a change? But only do this if you are open to whatever change your boss suggests! It may suit your new parental responsibilities to stick with your previous role; to stay under the radar for a few months (or until the kids are in college).
And if all else fails, just focus on the deliciously hot coffee and the mid-morning grown-up conversations. The confidence will come.
After all, you’re a parent now – you can simultaneously cook dinner and answer an email while balancing a toddler on your hip after a night of broken sleep. Work will be a walk in the park.
For the quick version – see the vlog!