A letter to myself about my insights into work after parental leave

The transition back to work after parental leave will never be easy. While we can’t stress enough how important it is to plan and prepare practically and emotionally, there’ll be things you won’t see coming… guaranteed!

Whether you’re planning, expecting, or in the throes of new parenthood, this raw reflection of a new parent’s return to work after parental leave will help you to feel less alone in your experience.

Dear me

I would like to share with you the things I learned about returning to work that I wish I had known as that day grew near…

You can’t think of everything

No matter how prepared you are – both practically and emotionally – you can never truly be prepared for that moment when you leave the most precious thing in your life to return to work. There’s a sense of enormity, uncertainty, anxiety. Even when, on some level, you’re looking forward to interacting with adult humans on a regular basis, there is something so final about handing your baby over to a grandparent, nursery, or another caregiver. 

As a new parent, I felt like I had learned as much as possible about what it would be like when my baby was born. I felt prepared as I shopped for all the things I thought he’d need. When he came, it was abundantly clear that I had not thought of everything. Every day, I learned something new; I discovered I needed things I didn’t have and didn’t need things I had so carefully procured. I hadn’t realized I wouldn’t be able to wash my hair for days on end, or that I would have to survive on corn chips and grapes while he slept in my arms between feeds. Returning to work was kind of like that. I tried to be ready, but my preparations fell somewhat short.

Others might be learning, too

As soon as I discovered I was pregnant, I made myself familiar with my employer’s parental leave policies. My manager hadn’t had anyone take parental leave, so we learned together and came to an agreement that would suit the business and my family. 

When the time finally came to return to work, my baby was 11 months old and I had been a single mother for seven months. Though my ex-partner was very helpful, it was a bumpy ride as I navigated new parenthood through the lens of a single parent. I’d never imagined myself in that situation, and now I was facing the daunting reality of being a working single parent!

Check in regularly

As I focused on my personal situation while on leave, I basically pretended work didn’t exist. I wish I hadn’t done that. I didn’t insist on using my keeping in touch days. I probably could have used them to get up to speed on the team’s goals and what I’d be expected to do when I went back. I had a discussion with my manager, of course, to arrange my new work schedule. But I wish I’d known just how hard it would be on that first day… for the first week… for the first few months. I really had no idea what it would be like.

Clarify expectations

One of the most challenging aspects of returning to work was the pressure I put on myself to hit the ground running. When brain fog caused me to make silly mistakes, I was worried about being judged. My confidence had just taken a hit. I was constantly frustrated that I couldn’t remember things I’d known inside out only a year before. 

If I had a do-over, I would keep in touch so I didn’t feel like a fish out of water in a place I had, not long before, fit perfectly into.

And I would ask for detailed expectations from my workplace so that I could prepare myself mentally or voice my concerns. As it was, I ended up frequently working after my baby had gone to sleep to catch up; or dreading arriving at the office or logging in from home, because I’d lost so much confidence in my ability and worried that my skills weren’t evolving.

Emotional rollercoaster

I wish I’d known just how hard it would be to leave my baby. Who could have known that the single tear that fell from my eye would be more painful than those hysterical sobs I had imagined? 

I wish I’d known how guilty I’d feel when I realized after several hours that I hadn’t checked on him via text; that I’d allowed myself to get lost in my work and forgotten for a moment that I had a child waiting for me. 

The truth is, it isn’t easy. No matter how prepared a parent you are, no matter whether you want to return to work or not, no matter whether you hit the ground running or flounder around for months on end. Being a single parent or a partnered parent has nothing to do with it because it’s such an individual, intimate response to a complete shift in your environment. One moment I was a new parent on leave; the next, I was in another universe. Most of all, that is what I wish I’d known.

Written by the Circle In team.

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