Are you a new mum returning to work after maternity leave? Each person will feel differently about returning to work after having a baby. It might not be a choice for some, but instead, having to return due to pressures financially or otherwise. At the same time, others are returning after a period of parental leave, because they feel ready to get back to their role. Irrespective of the reason, it will be a process of adjustment for you and your employer.
How to cope with the transition back to work after maternity leave
Transitioning back to work after parental leave can feel overwhelming. You might never have left your baby for this period before, and you might not feel ready to. Expectations are being placed on you as an employee when your priorities are different now, and your responsibilities have shifted. In addition, your identity is altered by being a new mum, and you will continue to be navigating this. So, for new mums returning to work, it can feel intense to move back into the work environment, to create a new routine where you will also be juggling more than you were previously.
More than 1 in 10 women will experience a perinatal mental health problem during pregnancy or within the early postnatal years. The vast majority of these (approximately 70%) will downplay or attempt to hide their symptoms. Suicide is the leading cause of direct maternal death within the first year postnatally. Therefore, having supportive organisational systems in place will be immensely helpful to ensure this transition is as stress-free as possible for you, and that your employer can continue to get the best from you.
Tips for new mums returning to work
Before going on parental leave
It is worth knowing what your organisation offers to parents. Meeting with your line manager before going on parental leave to discuss your return to work would be helpful. It might be that you have an approximate idea when you will return. Understandably, you won’t have ironed out the details at this point. However, you can have a preliminary discussion with them, the options for flexible working, what mechanisms they have in place to support a return to work following parental leave, whether working from home is an option, and their childcare voucher schemes.
You can check if they are willing to offer a phased return and parental support via your Occupational Health department or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Checking out, if you are still breastfeeding, where this will happen and arrangements for storing breast milk.
Ease back into it
Universally, most people returning to work following parental leave will find it difficult emotionally, practically, or psychologically. Bearing this in mind, are there parents’ networks you can join locally, or one that is linked to your work.
It is worthwhile doing a ‘dry-run’ before you’re due to return. This will be useful in helping you identify the practicalities needed, as well as support you to prepare psychologically. Consider what practical and emotional support you might need from others to navigate this next stage. Some people find their colleagues are inflexible and unhelpful as they are returning. It could be that you send a friendly email to your colleagues about your return and how and when you will work. Also, if there are ways, they can be supportive of you, be clear about what these are. Having the support from your line manager to reiterate this can also make the transition to your role smoother.
For you, pregnancy, birth, or the postnatal period might have exacerbated some previous mental health symptoms that you have not shared with your employer. If you feel these continue to affect you, discuss with your perinatal mental health team or GP about returning to work and how best they can support you with this. It might be worthwhile having someone you trust, either at work or home, where you can regularly share how you feel and the impact of returning to work has.
Be kind to yourself
Whether you’ve been on parental leave for one month or eighteen months, you will be out of kilter with your role. You might feel immense guilt being away from your baby and still be processing aspects of your birth and postnatal experience. In the first weeks or months, expect you will make mistakes (even if you have been doing the same job for many years). You might feel insecure and full of self-doubt, which is natural- having birthed is a life-changing experience and so, expect that you won’t return ‘hitting the ground running.’ Be kind and gentle with yourself.
Having experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth
Many of you might be returning from leave having become a mum, but your baby is not with you because of miscarriage, or they have died at birth. You are still a mum. Knowing how to negotiate to return under these circumstances might feel difficult. For some, being back at work might be welcomed, and for others, it might feel like an impossible mountain to climb. Speak with your employer about how you can take things at your own pace, and whether you want your colleagues to know.
Unfortunately, in the UK, you can’t qualify for maternity leave or pay if you have had a miscarriage. However, you can speak with your employer about offering compassionate leave and negotiate the duration of this. The Miscarriage Association is helpful for employers and employees providing advice about returning to work after a miscarriage. If you experienced a stillbirth, or your baby is born but later dies (even before the 24th week of pregnancy), you are entitled to all of your maternity rights.
Returning to work as a new mum is a process of adjustment, that will take time and patience, garner support from those around you, go easy on yourself, and monitor your feelings of being overwhelmed.
Women continue to provide most childcare to their newborn babies and young children. Many cannot return to work full time after parental leave, with some leaving their positions. Therefore, organizations have a crucial role in supporting birthing women and people transition back into the workplace. In the absence of this, they risk losing a significant proportion of their workforce.
Article by founder Dr. Jan Smith, Founder of Healthy You Ltd.
Dr. Jan Smith is a chartered psychologist with over 15 years experience at the forefront of mental health. Keep up to date with her on instagram @drjansmithinsta