It is day ten of being back at work after parental leave. So far it’s been going well.
1.06PM – phone rings. It’s Mum.
Mum, ‘Just checking in.’
Me, ‘Thanks, I’m all good.’
Mum, ‘Oh, OK. I’m a bit worried about you. I feel like you might be hanging in there by a thread.’
Me, ‘Mum, I’m fine. I’m at work, it’s probably best we have this conversation another time. I’ll call you later.’ I put the phone down, tears welling in my eyes, and I say to myself, ‘Pull it together!’
I don’t think that I’m hanging in there by a thread. I’ve had a good week. It’s been fantastic to be back at work: having adult conversations, seeing the team, hearing about what has been happening in the business – I even found it exciting to read a 400 page PowerPoint presentation!
At home, it’s challenging. There are new routines that we are getting used to, mornings are chaos, at night after work everyone is a bit cranky, and my baby (who has been sleeping through the night since she was seven weeks old) is now waking up every hour screaming just to check that mum is there.
All in all though, I thought things were going pretty well. But now I’m close to tears questioning myself, ‘Am I hanging in there by a thread?’ The answer is, ‘No. I’m not hanging in there by a thread. I’m doing OK.’ Yes, I’m a little emotional. Yes, I miss the baby. Yes, I worry about the kids. No, I haven’t got things as seamless at work and home as I’d like them to be. But overall, I’m doing well – I’m adjusting.
And that is how I have defined it – ‘adjusting’. Returning to work after maternity leave is a huge adjustment. In fact, the process of having a baby is a number of huge adjustments that all happen in a relatively short period of time. You get pregnant. Adjust. Finish up at work. Adjust. Have baby. Adjust. Look after baby. Adjust. Return to work. Adjust.
We know that large changes in life are stressful. The most stressful life changes are frequently listed to include: marriage, death of a loved one, moving house, job loss, divorce, renovating. Where is having a baby on this list?! My friend Google says these ‘stressful life stages’ are ones that ‘are an intrusion on your peaceful existence’. Um, hello, is having a baby not an intrusion on your peaceful existence and life routines?
These stages we go through when having a baby are individually substantial, yet we process and move through them very quickly. It’s great, don’t get me wrong – but let’s not forget that each step requires huge mental and physical adjustment.
So, as I adjust to returning to work here are a few things that I want to share from the journey so far:
Communicate ‘the adjustment’
Frame for yourself how you are going. Don’t let other people define how you are. When people ask (as they often do), ‘How are you coping?’, it immediately sets off a trigger of questions in your mind that query how things are going. It’s not that you ‘aren’t coping’ – it’s just that you are processing huge volumes of change. So my response now to any question that relates to how things are going is, ‘I am adjusting well’.
‘I’m adjusting’ is not an emotionally charged statement. Having this definitive answer ensures that I don’t end up in a head spin of questioning myself every time someone asks how I am.
It’s also important to tell those close to you about the adjustment you are going through. Partners, friends and family are there to support you, and want to support you, but probably don’t know how.
Give yourself time to adjust at work
In discussing my return to work plan with my manager, I proposed that my maternity leave replacement would continue in the role for a few weeks on my return, whilst I found my feet. I knew that it was going to take time to transition, so having a period whereby the operations still sat with someone else, enabled me to ease back into work and made the process far less stressful. I also note that the expectations we have of ourselves usually far exceed the expectations that anyone else has of us. So whilst you want to charge back in and show everyone, ‘I’m back’, do yourself a favour and plan for the ups-and-downs of returning to work. They will happen, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
Make the needed adjustments at home
One night after work I was cooking dinner, unpacking bags, feeding baby, unstacking dishwasher, reading readers, sterilising bottles, etc. My husband was in the kitchen offering, ‘I’ll do that’, as he pulled dishes out of my hand to help put them away (always in the wrong spot), before he tried to flip things I was cooking on the stove. I got really frustrated and begged, ‘Please just get out of the kitchen’. I was angry that he was in the way, and he was frustrated that I wouldn’t let him help.
Since then we have discussed how I want him to help. If you have a partner, talk about who does what – I can assure you it will make things far easier. We agreed that in the morning I would do the baby feed, school bags, lunches and school activities, whilst my husband would be responsible for the dog, unstacking the dishwasher and getting the kids dressed. On Thursday nights he makes dinner, laundry is split to me washing and him ironing, and our weekly supermarket shop is now online. I can tell you there have been FAR less arguments now that we all have clearly defined roles.
The truth is, returning to work is not going to be easy. And even if, like me, you are lucky enough to love your job and want to be at work, there will be trying moments, and that’s OK. Today I cried because I couldn’t find a car space. It’s irrational, but it is OK.
So that night I called Mum and said, ‘Mum, I’m fine. In fact, I’m doing well – it is just a big adjustment’, and then smiled to myself thinking that mums never stop being mums.
Written by Natalie Feehan, an Executive General Manager at MYOB. To read more about Natalie’s return to work journey, visit #executive: My 4 biggest lessons as I finish parental leave.