Returning to work after a period of extended leave can be daunting, especially when you’ve spent the last few months mastering bottom-wiping skills and a repertoire of nursery rhymes. Your professional confidence may feel low and small seeds of self-doubt can grow awfully quickly into real anxiety.
One way to prepare yourself is to turn to those who’ve done it all before—those working mamas who juggle babies, toddlers, careers, house and a seemingly endless list of other amazing things. It’s different for everyone, and realising this is an essential first step for survival.
Here are six perspectives on a recent return to work experience.
Jasmine, GP: mother to nine-month-old son
I returned to work four months after my first child was born. My time at home with him sped by as I was still in touch with work by email and had one day a month for consulting and performing procedures. There were a few tears on my first drive back to work, but I felt content as my little one was at home with his dad. I consider us very lucky as my husband’s employer provides paid paternity leave.
Expressing at work was a challenge to begin with and fitting it into a busy day wasn’t easy. Once I established a routine it became second nature (and my colleagues got used to the bottles of breastmilk in the fridge.)
My advice to those about to embark into the world of the working mummy? Embrace it. Your child will hopefully grow up to respect the choice you made to be a career woman.
Ivana, HR analyst: mother to three-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter
I returned to work after both children when they were each around eight months old. They were both still breastfeeding, napping two to three times a day, and waking three to four times per night. My employer supported me with a part-time work agreement, including flexible start/finish times. I took extended unpaid lunch breaks with my first child to walk to the nearby childcare to breastfeed at lunch, and with my second my employer allowed paid breastfeeding breaks.
My advice for anyone about to embark on the return is that kids are very adaptable. Just make the best return to work decision that you can, and have confidence your child will be okay. Also, accept that there will be a lot of carer’s leave taken in the first months of childcare and flag that with your employer.
Rose, retail manager: mother to four-year-old son and three-month-old son
Before my child’s birth, I was very much involved and committed to working in our small family business. I thought it would be hard to pull back from work and that the business would never be the same. What a folly! I soon realised that caring for my child brought me a higher sense of purpose.
I returned part-time when my eldest was six months old and am still on maternity leave with my second child.
To return to work, you need to have a discussion with your spouse or partner about the real demands and let it be a shared burden. Discuss finances, lifestyle and what you want life to look like. Ask yourself how you can best use your time, energy and abilities both at home and on the job.
Seshna, account manager: mother to two-year-old son
My return to work was fantastic. My manager was excellent and I was able to start three days and then move to four days when ready. This gave my son time to adjust.
I think the most challenging thing is really the thought of, “How am I going to do it all?” But in reality, once I went back to work my husband helped out a lot more with the housework. Another challenge is staying disciplined with my one day at home. It’s difficult not to respond to emails and get into the work mode but I try my best.
My biggest tip is to manage your own expectations of what you can achieve in a 24-hour period. It’s important to stick to your priority list at work and then the basics at home at night otherwise you will burn out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
Karin, operations manager: mother to four-year-old and 12-month-old sons
I returned to work four days a week when my youngest was almost six months old. It was exciting to be back into the swing of things after a long break, but it hasn’t been without challenges. Wrangling a four-year-old, ten-month-old and myself to have breakfast, get dressed and be ready to leave by 7:20AM is a tough task!
Daycare germs and constant sickness cause the most stress for us. It’s hard to leave work to care for a sick child and the work guilt sets in, so my husband and I share the task of unscheduled pickups. It’s important for us to keep making intentional time to spend with our children so they aren’t missing out on time with us.
AJ, sales manager: mother to 11 month old daughter
I returned to work full-time when bubs was five-and-a-half months old and after two weeks, changed to a nine-day fortnight for four months.
The return was harder than most things I’ve ever done in my life. Emotionally and mentally, it was a huge challenge and not what I expected. My priorities had completely changed. Work became something to pay the bills—all I really cared about was getting home to my little girl. It’s taken many months to feel like I’m back to contributing the mental capacity required.
I find it challenging being away from my daughter. She’s my world and I know her needs better than anyone else. I also miss meeting up with my mothers’ group as I value the support, friendship and social aspect it offers.
To anyone else preparing to go back to work, give yourself a good few months to build up to full-time. Be kind to yourself. Learning to juggle everything takes time, so communication with your colleagues and manager is important. And ask for help if you need it.
Written by Elissa Newall
Elissa has recently returned to work leading a marketing team at one of Australia’s largest universities. She has two beautiful daughters aged five years and 10 months.