Last week I celebrated one year back at work post maternity leave. As this personal milestone has come and gone, it’s made me think about the lessons learned on the bumpy road that this last year has been. But what I have really been thinking about is what I wish I had known – the stuff that no-one tells you about before you re-emerge into the world of work as a new mammy.
I’m a planner, so before heading back to work, I took on board the advice of those who had tred the path before me. I prepped my headspace, the house, my work wardrobe and so on. For the first month, I worked a three-day week instead of five. You name it, anything that I thought might make the transition easier was done. There was even a weekly cleaning schedule that went up on the wall. Bahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha… how I laugh at the one now!
Finally, and most important of all, the baby bear was prepped – as much as you can a nine-month-old — with a two-week settling in period in crèche to help her acclimatise to her new routine (read more about that here).
Preparing for change, it helps. But what about the things you can’t prep for… my approach was ‘suck it and see’. So here goes, one year on, this is my take on the five things no-one tells you about returning to work after maternity leave.
1. You might feel like the ‘new girl’
In the guts of the year or so that you’ve been away, new people have been hired while friends and familiar faces have moved on. You may consider other people ‘new’, but to them, you are the new girl. They don’t know who you are, what you’re like or how you work. Your confidence in your ability may be down. You might feel like you don’t fit in anymore. You may feel that you have to rebuild your reputation. You’re the same person that you were before you left but also utterly different. It’s a bit of a head-mess.
I know at one work event not long before I returned full-time someone asked who I was and I believe the question posed was ‘Who’s that woman?’ Yes, I am a thirty-something woman, so the phrasing of the question was perfect. But ‘that woman’?! And there I was thinking I was just a girl! Yes, I was now in a different bracket…
Anyway, my point is there will be a degree of new-ness to your job and workplace even if it’s something that was very familiar to you. You may no longer be part of ‘the gang’ but grin and bear it and the feeling will ease overtime. Soon enough, you’ll be back being part of the furniture.
2. You will get sick
I don’t know about you, but I received frequent warnings that the baby would get sick once she started crèche. And yes this did happen — a chicken pox diagnosis on my third day back at work, swiftly followed by viral infections and conjunctivitis. It was rotten for her. It was rotten for us. But what no-one told me/us was that we would get sick too. We didn’t catch things from the baby but random sicknesses that hadn’t hit us before. And they weren’t even full on blasts that knocked us out of action. The sickness that hit was more of a general lingering of feeling rotten on and off for three months or so. A 24-hour bug here, a sinus infection there. NOT FUN. Baby sickness, we could just about handle but throw sick parents on top and well, if a barrel of laughs is at one end of the spectrum, then we were falling off the other end. At the time, we just got on with it – no other choice. In fact, I think we may have thought this was our new normal, until phew(!), it wasn’t.
This phase was what I would call character building…
3. In the early days, you will want to quit on multiple occasions…
…but probably won’t. I like my job, so I never really wanted to quit. Deep down, I knew that, so my frequent utterings of ‘That’s it, I’m quitting’ or ‘I’m not going in tomorrow’ were a coping mechanism. And in fairness, these statements normally came out of my mouth at 3.30am when the little lady was up partying, screaming blue murder and generally causing us to question our sanity. So tired, so very very tired… Exhaustion and being rational do not go hand-in-hand. In the cold light of day however, I remembered that turning up to work wasn’t optional. And quitting is fairly rash, so I got up, went in, tried to smile in the right places and do the right things. And I drank coffee… It’s very important that you drink coffee!
4. Life doesn’t work 9-5, but hang on it does
What? How the ‘f’ am I supposed to run my life, be a parent and work? Tough – this is your new reality. Harsh, I know. Life doesn’t work 9-5 but actually it does. I’ve always struggled with this, but pre-parenthood I did a lot of my non-work jobs on the way home. I had the time/energy to make that call to the bank/internet provider/gas company when I got in. I could fit my ‘jobs’ in. Not so much now. Working days are: getting self ready, getting the little person ready, feeding cat, crèche drop-off, getting to and from work, the business of working (and trying to be professional, presentable and productive while there), crèche pick-up, trying to get some quality time with the little person, followed by the bed-time routine, feeding big people, trying to get some quality time with the big people in your life, sorting for the next day etc etc. It’s pretty much all consuming. The other jobs get left behind. Over the last few months my jobs of shame include:
- Taking five months to open a new bank account. This time-frame does not include the thought process of whether to do it or not.
- Cleaning out my wallet — pretty basic — but this is still not done. It is now at a stage where my local shopkeeper is advising me to do it while watching TV. Good advice and I may well take it some day. In the meantime however I might have to shop elsewhere to hide my shame.
- Promising to change gas/electricity providers – still big thoughts on this one.
So the point here is, it’s pretty hard to get all the s@*t done!
5. You might just turn into a superhero
Your superpower might not be the one you dreamt of as a kid, but it may amaze you all the same. What’s mine? Washing clothes. Exciting, I know. I feel like I’m running a laundrette on the side.
I remember in the past hearing about colleagues with young kids getting up and hanging lines of washing, sorting this that and the other all before work. How the hell did they do that? Necessity, that’s how. The pre-parenthood me took the ‘tuck and roll’ approach to getting out of bed and into work. A lot of days I didn’t even throw make up on my face before leaving the house. Now (if I have to) I can GSD (#getshitdone) in the early-ish hours and all with a face of make up. It’s amazing what you can get done when you really have to. They say that necessity is the master of invention, for me it’s the master of productivity. Clearly the jobs in point 4 fall into a lesser category…
A year on, I wouldn’t quite say that I’ve got this, even on the good days, it can be overwhelming. There is a constant feeling that life could spiral out of control at any moment. So many plates need to spin to keep it all going. Bowls of bed-time porridge thrown on the floor when I’ve just cleaned up and it’s already been a long day can make me want to go into a corner to rock and cry. The cat gets shouted at when he’s simply asking to be fed — a not unreasonable request. Dust bunnies roam the house while their cobweb cousins hang out in many corners. But for all the madness that goes on on a daily basis and the challenges that the last year has presented, I would say that I’m a more content version of myself than I was before. Wrecked, but more content.
Maybe those 7am toddler dance parties have something to do with it. There’s nothing like a toddler forcing you to bust some moves at 7am to shake you out of a funk and throw a bit of perspective your way. They say you should dance like no-one’s watching, but really we should all dance like toddlers — they don’t even need music.