Taking time away from work to raise a child is (I’ve been told) one of the most fulfilling, exciting and exhausting things a woman could ever do. Returning to that place of work after time away, however, can be extremely daunting.
There’s a lot of talk about balancing career and family – a lot of articles written, interviews given and hilarious Instagram captions shared - but the sad fact remains that much of the conversation surrounding this topic is decidedly negative. That old adage, “having it all” looms large over many women’s heads as they prepare to jump back into their careers, eager to bring their best self to both the office and home. Thanks to people such as Oprah commenting that, sure, it is possible to have it all, “just not all at the same time,” many women return to the workplace with the mindset that there will be more sacrifice than satisfaction involved.
Yet more and more women are returning to work after children – and 61%, according to the NCT, are not just for financial reasons, either. In fact, 48% of women surveyed said “keeping their brains alive” was the primary reason.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t difficulties, though. One in five working mothers have been forced to leave their jobs due to a lack of flexibility and a further 41% of mothers on maternity leave may find it difficult to return to work because the same problem. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – there are so many positives that being a parent can bring to your work (and vice versa) than are often recognised.
WHEN YOU FIRST RETURN TO WORK, IT'S NORMAL TO FEEL A MIXED BAG OF EMOTIONS:
Evie: As a self-employed mum I was never truly able to close the door completely on work, however when I went back, I’d say I felt (and still feel) a strong cocktail of guilt, anxiety, confusion and pride. Guilt that I should be with my daughter, or guilt that in trying to be a mum and run my own business, I am just doing a terrible job of both! Anxiety that she’s OK without me - a constant undertone in my mind that doesn’t seem to ever go away. Confusion in trying to be able to instantly switch my brain from ‘mum’ to ‘CEO’, through the fog and haze of baby brain (which is a very real thing, I’m sorry to say) Pride - I feel very proud to have launched my business in the same month as having my first baby (not recommended, mind you…) and having grown the business from working with 3 to 29 schools over our first year. Pride that I am setting an example to my daughter and pride, also, for having made it work, despite all the odds, thanks to family that I simply couldn’t have done it without.
GETTING CLEAR ON YOUR PRIORITIES IS THE BIGGEST PRIORITY:
Davinia: One of the best ways of working this out for me, is to be clear on what your personal values are and use these as a guide for all aspects of your life. So if it is important to you to be able to do all school pick ups and drops off, then of course that would influence the type of role you are able to do and which companies you choose to work for. Of course if you’re self employed then you have greater flexibility with this, but of course this can come with implications for your earnings depending on which field you’re in. Conversely, if you are motivated by having the financial means to live in a certain area, send your children to certain schools etc then that might mean compromises elsewhere. Recognising that there is an opportunity cost associated with every decision and being willing to pay that cost in exchange for the associated reward is key.
Evie: [I had to prioritise] separation between home and work life – I had to leave the house and find somewhere locally to work so that I was able to get this head space. Staying at home felt like you were either surrounded by housework that needed to be done, or it was just too tempting to join in the fun with my daughter. Capacity is also extremely tight, and time is at a premium. Therefore, I also complete a re-prioritisation activity each week to make sure that available time is only spent on the activities most fundamental to the development and progress of the business.
LETTING GO WILL HELP YOU TO FEEL HAPPIER:
Evie: [I learned to let go of] perfection. Some days, you’ll drop the ball. Some days, you score a hattrick. I’m learning that now, but I still have to remind myself every now and again
Also let go of control. [As a founder] moving away from the safety of full-time employment means that you are already relinquishing a notion of control over your career, and success. You’re no longer working on a defined development programme towards your next promotion, you’re now fighting tooth and nail for your business to first survive, then to be a success. Throw in starting a family into the mix, and any notion of control is pretty much out the window.
Accepting that the unexpected can happen at any time, makes it less surprising when it does. It also helps you stay calm in the moment as you work out your Plan B, which is the only way Plan B will ever work anyway.
Davinia: One way to overcome a perpetual feeling of guilt is to be super clear on what your priorities are for work and home, (to the point of writing them down) and then let go anything that takes your time, attention and resources away from these things. It’s a great way to avoid distractions and means that you will be able to make peace with yourself far more easily.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT YOURSELF
Evie: Let go of perfection and thoughts of how things “should” be (as above!). Say yes to help – whether it’s friends or family, saying yes when someone offers to wash the dishes, pack up boxes, collect deliveries or change nappies is important for your sanity. It can feel pretty lonely sometimes, but there are people who can – and want to – help, and learning to say yes to that was a big lesson for me.
Practically, making a timetable of when you are working and when you aren’t helps. One of my biggest struggles was feeling as though I was present in body but not in mind with my daughter, as my mind would often wander off to work to-do lists. Making a timetable to allocate when I’m “on” and when I’m “off” has been a game changer. Even if “on” means that you’re still working during naps and evenings, at least you have the protected “off” times to make sure you have the balance.
Find opportunities for some adult conversation – If you’re working on your own as a founder, the office gossip is none existent. While the social life of a new mum is hardly anything spectacular, finding opportunities to have one or two baby free evenings with friends over dinner can keep you going for weeks after.
Davinia: I’m a huge believer in taking the time to decompress and invest in yourself in order to be the best you can be at work and at home. For example, I’m really into fitness but after my first daughter was born, I found myself in a bit of a slump which I realised was due to not having the time to workout by myself. So after my second daughter came along I insisted on having that time once a week to unwind my brain. It made a massive difference to my state of mind and meant that I was a better mother to them both.
‘HAVING IT ALL’ IS POSSIBLE - BECAUSE IT'S UP TO YOU WHAT THIS MEANS
Davinia: I think we can easily fall into the trap of focusing on what we don’t have instead of what we have. That’s the problem with this debate in my view – for many of us the opportunity to work and be parents simultaneously is a dream. For others the dream looks entirely different. All options should be celebrated and women shouldn’t allow themselves to be weighed down my society’s expectations where this is concerned. Whatever works for you as an individual, irrespective of how popular a viewpoint it is, should be what you pursue. As women we need to accept that things are not going to be perfect all the time and that it is normal to feel like there is an imbalance were work or life takes priority. As long as these swings are temporary and don’t cause undue harm or stress, then we should take it all in stride.