An executive shares her biggest lessons as she finishes parental leave

Last night I got up at 3AM and set up bank accounts for my two oldest kids. Why? Because in two weeks I return to work and there is a list mile long of ‘things to do’ before I go back.

In fact, most nights now, I lie awake sometime between 1 and 4AM with a flurry of rational and irrational questions running through my mind:

What will happen when I need to travel for work?

What will happen if my husband can’t settle the baby? I know he can, it’s just different from the way I do it. Need to let that go.

How will I manage to express at work? Where? Will I be able to just step out of an executive meeting?

Should I stockpile birthday presents and cards for all the upcoming parties?

Should I install a nanny cam?

Should I put the kids in after school care or get a driver to pick them up? Where would I find someone reliable?

How will I get up to speed with what’s happening in the world? When will I have time to read the newspaper?  

Should I try HelloFresh or one of those meal programs? Maybe I should sign up for a trial?

Breathe, go back to sleep. Wait, just get one thing off the list: you can set up the kids’ bank accounts online. Do that now. Uh huh. We’ve all been there.

I’m an Executive at an ASX listed company. I have two kids at primary school and last year I was blessed to bring a third little person into the world. I’ve had nearly six months off work, and in a couple of weeks I’ll be returning to work full-time. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky. I work in a company that is flexible and hugely supportive of working mums, with management that genuinely cares about diversity and gender equality. But the fact is, it is still hard.

Although I’ve done this twice before, it doesn’t seem to make it any easier. Returning to work is as daunting as it has always been. There is the logical side of my brain, that knows I CAN do this, and most importantly that I WILL do this, but there is also a huge grey cloud of ‘what if?’ that regularly haunts me during the night.

So, rather than focus on the small stuff that comes up in the middle of the night, I’m trying to focus on the big rocks. Here are some learnings and realisations that I’ve had along my journey:

Something always has to give, so what are your priorities?

It is impossible to do everything perfectly. So you need to decide what is most important, the non-negotiables versus the negotiables. I would like to remember all my friends’ birthdays, but for me (sorry friends, I do love you), birthdays are off the list, and therefore, one less thing on the mental load. I could outsource my kids’ birthday cakes, but I don’t want to, so I make them. Sometimes the kids’ breakfast is an egg and bacon roll on the way to school. Dry shampoo is my best friend. Friday nights are a no-go for social events: it’s couch and family only. These are the personal things that I’ve chosen to prioritise, so I accept the sacrifices that come with them. If something has to give, then why not take control and choose what to give up or relax? It helps with my next point:

Forget mama guilt

So many mums spend their lives feeling guilty: ‘My kids haven’t seen me much this week’, ‘I missed the athletics carnival’, ‘I sent her to school even though I knew she was sick.’  Don’t punish yourself, you are doing the best you can. If you know your priorities and can accept that not everything will be perfect, you don’t have to feel forever guilty – so don’t! No one is judging you the way you judge yourself. I felt guilt for years about ‘not spending enough time with my kids’. Did you know there are an estimated 61 million children in China who see their parents once a year because they leave to work in the big cities? In Australia, there are record numbers of children living in abusive homes. If you love your kids and are doing the best you can, there is nothing to feel guilty about. Let. It. Go.

Don’t be a martyr

A martyr is someone who unnecessarily sacrifices herself for others, whilst ignoring her own needs. This can so easily apply to us as working mums. We constantly put the needs of our families, our work or our friends ahead of our own. But there is plenty of research to remind us that being a good parent, friend and employee means looking after ourselves. No doubt we can’t do everything we want for ourselves, but you have to be selfish sometimes. Sometimes you need to say no, or miss out on things if you are tired, or let that call go to voicemail. Once in a while get your nails done while you are at the supermarket, or buy pre-bought biscuits for the next cake stall so you can get out for a walk. Do what you need to do to be happy, because no one else is going to do that for you.

Believe in yourself

You can do it. You will do it.  You are doing it.
It is possible to be a career focused fabulous mum if you want to do it. You will need help, so set up the network and support you need. Importantly, make a conscious effort to accept the help that is offered – you need to let people help you.  But most of all, believe in yourself – that is the first and biggest step. Have the confidence to say ‘I can do this’, and you will.

So, as I lie awake at 3AM tomorrow morning, I’ll just need to remind myself of these points, and hopefully, go back to sleep.

Written by Natalie Feehan, a Executive General Manager at MYOB.

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